It’s OK, Envy Your Neighbour

Despite what a really old book may imply, envy can be OK. In english the word envy seems to mean one thing but in other languages envy has multiple meanings and thus when thinking about envy we require more nuance. Sure enough, modern thinkers point out that we need to modify our conception of envy to fully articulate what the word means.

It turns out that some forms of envy can make us better people.

Richard Smith, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky who began studying envy in the nineteen-eighties, writes that the feeling typically arises from a combination of two factors. The first is relevance: an envied advantage must be meaningful to us personally. A ballerina’s beautiful dance is unlikely to cause envy in a lawyer, unless she once had professional dancing aspirations of her own. The second is similarity: an envied person must be comparable to us. Even though we’re both writers, I’m unlikely to envy Ernest Hemingway. Aristotle, in describing envy, quotes the saying “potter against potter.” When we admire someone, we do so from a distance. When we envy someone, we picture ourselves in their place. (Smith’s work, in turn, was inspired by a 1984 paper on “social-comparison jealousy,” by the psychologists Peter Salovey and Judith Rodin.)

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