science of us

How to Get Better at Being Jealous

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Months after leaving a job, I found out a former colleague had gotten a promotion. “Good for her,” I said when I heard the news. Truthfully, I was jealous. I always sensed a competitive energy between us, and even after I quit, it felt like the more success my rival achieved, the less there would be for the rest of us. Namely, me.

At nearly every job I’ve had, I’ve designated a secret rival for myself, the quiet target of my envy. I analyze my rival’s behavior, take note of every win, and compare. I am constantly comparing. This ritual of envy is like looking at old photos after a breakup: I know it’s probably unhealthy, but indulging that negativity feels good somehow. Meanwhile, my rival is completely unaware of the competition between us.

Or maybe she’s not. Maybe that competitive energy I sense comes from the fact that my peers are envious, too. Maybe, like me, they are also always comparing. Jealousy is part of the human experience, after all, and it may even be an evolutionary survival mechanism. “All of our emotions evolved to orient us to important things happening around us and to allow us to communicate with others,” says Dr. Lauren Appio, a psychologist in Manhattan. “From a survival standpoint, if we’re not getting enough food or other necessities, envy will motivate us to fight for our fair share.” There’s an important difference between jealousy and envy. Both can be nasty, but with a little self-awareness, you can keep them in check — or better yet, use them to your advantage.

Understand how jealousy works.

We tend to use the terms jealousy and envy synonymously, but there’s a distinct difference between the two, and jealousy leans more toward scarcity. We feel envious when someone has something we want; we feel jealous when we’re afraid of losing what we already have.

“If we believe resources are limited, we are going to cling more tightly to what we have, or panic when we see others getting what we want or need,” Appio says. “We wonder, Is there enough for me? What will I do if I don’t get enough of what I need? What will I do if I lose what I have?

Many psychologists refer to this way of thinking as the “scarcity mindset.” Simply put, it’s a fear that there isn’t enough of something to go around — career accolades, for example. “If we get stuck in this catastrophic thinking, we begin to act as though our future happiness or success entirely depends on getting or holding onto this particular thing or person,” Appio explains. Powered by this tunnel vision, envy can easily turn into jealousy because it narrows our perspective and creates a sense of scarcity. “Maintaining a scarcity mindset can promote jealousy and envy, and jealousy and envy can reinforce a scarcity mindset. It works both ways,” says Appio.

But with benign envy — the kind of envy that hasn’t yet devolved into jealousy — you simply recognize someone else’s fortune and want it for yourself. That’s not necessarily rooted in scarcity, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s benefit in embracing envy because the right kind of envy can make you work harder for something. “If you are curious and compassionate with yourself when you feel envious or jealous, you may learn that there is something important missing in your relationships or career,” Appio says. “You can then use that insight to make changes in your life that help you get or keep what is valuable to you.”

In a 2011 study, researchers indeed found a relationship between envy, motivation, and performance. The researchers wrote, “Across four studies we find that benign envy, but not other emotions associated with upward social comparisons, stimulates better performance following an upward comparison … Benign envy … feels frustrating but it does lead to a motivation to improve.”

The study makes a clear distinction between admiration and envy, too. The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard called admiration “happy self-surrender” — when someone else is so good at something that you can “only look with appreciation at how good the other is,” as the researchers write. Envy, on the other hand, Kierkegaard called “unhappy self-assertion.” You believe you can be just as good at something as another person, but you’re unhappy because you’re not. I admire LeBron James because I will never be as good a basketball player as he is, and I’m okay with that. I am envious of a former colleague, on the other hand, because there’s a better chance I could achieve her success, and it makes me unhappy that I haven’t.

Use envy as a motivator.

Admiration isn’t as motivating as envy because there is no expectation that you will ever reach that level of awesome. With envy, on the other hand, you can envision a better version of yourself, which is a bittersweet realization. Envy is a negative feeling, but it serves a purpose. “It’s kind of like experiencing physical pain,” says Sarah Hill, a professor in the department of psychology at Texas Christian University. “When we touch something hot or we stub our toe, that sort of thing isn’t pleasant, but ultimately it provides a useful, adaptive function.” In the case of physical pain, it prevents our body from injury; in the case of something like envy, that function can help you look for ways to improve yourself or your situation, Hill suggests.

Hill and her colleagues conducted their own research on the cognitive effects of envy. “What we found was, across several studies, each experience of envy actually increases our attention to and our memory for information about our competitors or our close social others,” she says. In one study, for example, subjects performed better on a memory test when it included details about their rival. In other words, envy can help you focus on details about the target of your envy and the subjects you’re envious about. You naturally pay more attention because, if you’re envious of something, chances are that “something” is important to you.

“For example, if you’re a journalist or you’re a writer, if somebody else outperforms you in the domain of writing, that’s going to make you feel kind of bad because it’s your livelihood,” Hill says. “And so envy is useful in a way. You keep tabs on where you are in your career and you’re motivated to do better.”

You have to be careful, though, because envy can also be damaging to motivation. “We also found that envy can be depleting and disruptive. We found that when people are experiencing envy, they have lost the inability to focus on other things,” Hill says.

Again, we become so caught up in the subject of our envy that we get tunnel vision. This tunnel vision can lead to more destructive, jealousy-fueled behavior, like undermining someone’s position or ruminating over your own perceived failures. And that’s not exactly motivating.

Recognize the symptoms of envy.

If you want to use envy as a motivator, you have to recognize it when it strikes. All too often, we react to things without exploring how those things make us feel, and that’s a missed opportunity for growth. For example, let’s say you follow an Instagram star who’s always jetsetting around the world. She posts a new picture and you get a spasm of desire. You can’t stop looking at it. Or maybe you roll your eyes and think, Cool, another selfie in front of some mountain — good for you.

It pays to explore these types of reactions. Are you that annoyed with selfies (fair enough), or is there something about this photo that you want? If it’s the latter, what is it about the photo that triggers desire in you? Perhaps you’re stressed out at work because you haven’t taken a vacation in years. Perhaps you just want to get out of the house more often and see new things. Or maybe you just want to take better pictures! Whatever the answer, envy can serve as a trigger to clarify your goals, whether it’s to plan a vacation from work or take a road trip this weekend. It’s so much easier to get what you want when you know what you want in the first place. Envy can help you figure that out, but you have to recognize it when it strikes.

Don’t feel bad about feeling jealous.

A little self-compassion will prevent your envy from turning into jealousy. “People get into a sort of envy where they start feeling badly about how they are feeling, and this just makes them feel worse about themselves, which then leads to a downward spiral of negativity,” Hill says. Understanding why you feel envious is an important first step in making the most of a destructive emotion; you can acknowledge your envy and move on.

“There is something about understanding how our mind works that allows us to look at our own behavior, nod, and say, ‘Okay, okay, I get this, I understand why I am feeling this,’” Hill continues. In doing this, she says, you have to acknowledge that, yes, it’s indeed possible that someone else might outperform you or succeed at something you haven’t. You also have to acknowledge that this might make you a little salty. “It’s not that you’re a horrible person; it’s not that you’re a loser. It’s all just a part of the human experience.”

When envy turns into jealousy, it can cloud your judgment and make you paranoid — which is why it’s important to check the facts, Lauren Appio says. “Figure out if you’re seeing current experiences through the lens of past experiences. Perhaps in the past there were times when you didn’t have enough or something was taken from you. Is that happening now, or are you assuming it will happen, based on your history?” The bottom line is, it’s easy to be mean to yourself and become paranoid when you’re envious — but, typically, that only makes things worse.

Try reaching out to the people you’re jealous of.

If you’re envious of someone, it’s often because they’re skilled, talented, or they’ve achieved something you haven’t. If you want to get there, too, you’ll do well to network with the targets of your envy. You can do this by offering your own support, whether it’s by helping them launch a new project or just congratulating them on a promotion. When you support your peers, you might still envy them, but it’s almost impossible to be jealous of them. After all, you’ve helped and rooted for them to be successful. In a way, support is an antidote to jealousy.

Appio says this solution is an example of an emotional regulation strategy called “opposite action.” “You intentionally choose to do the opposite of what you feel you should do. Practicing opposite action can actually generate different feeling states in you, perhaps ones that make you feel more generous, optimistic, and openhearted.”

Jealousy often has to do with feeling unworthy; when you support someone else, you feel useful, and maybe even responsible for contributing to their success. In a way, you share their success. Instead of ruminating over your co-worker’s promotion, for example, you could support her by congratulating her and offering your help if she needs it in her new position. Plus, success is rarely a one-person show. Quite often it’s a group effort, achieved through a network of support systems. By cultivating that, you’re also building a platform for your own success.

It may also help to change the way you think of success. Instead of looking at it from a mindset of scarcity, try approaching it with one of abundance. There are plenty of ways to be successful. “Remind yourself that there is more than enough to go around, that someone else can have something you want and it’s possible for you to have it, too,” Appio suggests.

Ask for help.

Finally, asking for help is another form of support, as it establishes the other person as an authority. If your colleague gets a bonus for outstanding performance, you might immediately feel left out. Acknowledge that feeling, then ask your colleague for feedback on your own performance. Even if you still feel envious, you set a friendlier, more empathetic tone.

From a practical standpoint, offering support can also help you network with peers who may be able to help you reach similar accomplishments. “Perhaps this person who you envy for getting a project or award you wanted can be a good networking contact for you,” Appio explains. “If you stay envious and avoid them, or otherwise damage your relationship with them, you miss out on the opportunity to join them in their success.”

How to Get Better at Being Jealous