How envy can help you find more joy

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

“Comparison is the thief of joy,” said Teddy Roosevelt, and in many ways, he was right.

Studies have shown that comparing ourselves to others on social media, particularly those who we see has having “more” of something than we do, can damage our self-esteem. We fixate on what we lack, rather than what we have. When we’re consumed with envy, it’s hard to see the joy that’s right in front of us.

But what if there’s another side to envy — one that doesn’t diminish our joy, but actually helps us find it? Yes, as an emotion, envy feels terrible: a combination of inadequate, disappointed, resentful, and ungrateful all at once. (They don’t call it a green-eyed monster for nothing.) But dig into it a little, and underneath that awful feeling is a clue.

We envy people who have something that we want but don’t have. It might might be money or property, or something intangible like a relationship or a talent or even a vague feeling, like being carefree. Many of us brush envy aside because we believe we’re supposed to be grateful for what we have, or because we fear the disappointment of admitting we want something we’re not sure we’ll be able to attain. But if we take the fear and judgment out of it, what lies at the root of envy is simply desire.

A homework assignment: Experimenting with envy

I tried a thought experiment the other day. I’d invite you to try this too. I scrolled through Instagram and rather than trying to suppress my envy, I paid attention to all the times I felt a pang of it. When did I covet someone else’s house? Their three-week jaunt through Europe? Their effortless and fun wardrobe? Their ability to look cool and not totally awkward making reels?

For each one, I tried to pinpoint the desire behind the envy. Sometimes it was as simple as “Well, it would be nice to have that kind of money! I’d love to be able to buy that fancy wallpaper without thinking about the 15 other things I’d have to give up to make it happen.” Sometimes it was deeper. Not so much a person’s clothes, but the creativity of their style. Not so much the fancy trip, but the ease they seemed to have in the pictures. And sometimes what I learned was surprising. There was one reel I would readily admit was goofy, but I envied the way the creator was just putting herself out there, unafraid to be her dorky self. It seemed strange to covet “goofiness,” but it made me realize that I often put so much pressure on myself to appear polished and like I know what I’m doing — goofiness feels impossible. Letting loose in a world where you feel like you always have to be in control? That is definitely something I envy.

What this exercise taught me is that I’d gotten so good at avoiding the feeling of envy, but in the process I’d clamped down on my desires. I’d tell myself things like: You’re focused on more important things than clothes. Or: Being rich seems nice, but money changes people. Or: You don’t know what their relationship is really like. Maybe it’s terrible!

These scripts were designed to help me feel better about not having certain things, but if you read them closely, you can see that what they’re really doing is judging the desire.

  • You’re focused on more important things than clothes. Translation: Caring about clothes is superficial. If you care about clothes, you’re not a “serious” person.
  • Being rich seems nice, but money changes people. Translation: It’s bad to want money. Money is a corrupting influence that will bring out the worst in you.
  • You don’t know what their relationship is really like. Maybe it’s terrible! Translation: People often aren’t as happy as they seem in relationships, and you’ll feel better about not being in a relationship if you tell yourself other people are unhappy too.

What my scripts were doing was “sour grapes”: telling myself that what I wanted was actually not that great, in an effort to convince myself not to want those things. But the truth is that I did want to find a great relationship. And I wished I didn’t have to stress about money so much. And pretending I didn’t want these things didn’t make the desire go away. It was still there trying to break through, kind of muttering to itself under its breath (you know the way you do when you don’t believe anyone’s going to listen but you just kind of have to vent anyway?).

The result was that while on the surface I seemed to be a content and happy person unbothered by envy, I also often struggled to figure out what I wanted.

How to know if you’re avoiding envy

One telltale sign that you’re over-managing your envy? You can’t make a vision board.

For years I loved the idea of a vision board, but I couldn’t figure out how to make one. I couldn’t see the vision clearly enough. Every time I asked myself, “What do I want?” I just got stuck.

After doing the exercise around envy, though, the pieces of my vision board just started to appear in my head. Listening to my envy, as hard as it was, helped open up some spaces for growth. For example, I didn’t know how much I was craving an outlet for visual creativity until I noticed the pang of jealousy every time a beautiful illustration or drawing popped up in my feed. I had been telling myself that painting was a hobby that was irrelevant to my work and therefore I didn’t have time for it. But this made me see that drawing and painting were more important to me than just a hobby. They were creative modalities I felt disconnected from, and this was impacting my confidence in other areas of life.

I decided to start a sketchbook. I told myself, it’s ok to be bad, because you have to be bad before you can be good. And the result has been fascinating. On days when I make something, even something terrible, seeing beautiful illustrations makes me feel inspired. It’s only on days when I don’t make something that I feel envy.

This isn’t to suggest that we’ll always be able to have everything we covet. I might never be a talented visual artist. But if I don’t listen to the desire, I can’t make a conscious decision about whether that’s a worthwhile goal for me to pursue. I can’t access that joy if I don’t first let myself want it.

Unraveling our envy defense mechanisms

There’s one more step to learning from our envy and using it to guide us toward joy. When we notice envy, it’s important to examine the scripts we use to talk ourselves out of it. Sometimes these are “sour grapes,” like the judgments I mentioned earlier. When we run across these judgments, it’s helpful to ask: Where did this belief come from? How do I know it’s true? What might be possible if it’s not true?

Take, for example, the judgment that caring about clothes is superficial. I’ve always loved clothes, but also always secretly harbored this belief that it was a frivolous thing to care about. This created a lot of tension for me. It made fashion feel like a guilty pleasure, something I could enjoy only in small doses. I couldn’t spend much money on clothes (even if I had it to spend) because it was a “bad” or wasteful use of money. Letting go of that judgment freed me from an unnecessary tension. It opened up space for me to enjoy getting dressed, and helped me see that it was possible to be both very serious and very stylish too.

Sometimes, though, our envy defense mechanisms aren’t about judgment, but fear. For example, take my envy of someone’s three-week European vacation. The line that kept ringing in my head was “I could never do that.”

Notice that “I could never do that” isn’t “I don’t want that.” It’s a belief that there’s some barrier preventing you from having what you want. Rather than take that barrier at face value, first examine if there’s a real desire there. In an ideal world, would you want to be taking a three-week trip through Europe?

If so, then ask yourself why you believe it’s not possible. And then have a conversation with all the obstacles your unconscious throws at you. Here’s an example…

  • “As a business owner, I couldn’t imagine taking off three weeks at a time.” Uh, it’s not like you have a boss. Don’t you run your own business? Who exactly is stopping you from taking that vacation?
  • “I can’t imagine making enough money to be able to take a trip like that.”
    Ok, but if you wanted to take that trip — if you really wanted it — could you imagine things you might do to earn or save the money for it?
  • “If I go on a trip like that, I won’t want to come back to daily life.” What would be the risk of letting yourself fully relax for that amount of time?What are you afraid might happen? What evidence do you have that that’s really true?

What I find when I take the exercise to this level is that there’s often a fear underneath it: a fear of losing control. A fear that I’m not talented or bold enough to make the dream happen. A fear of actually getting what I want, and realizing it’s not as good as I hoped.

Our relationship with desire is complicated. We often see ourselves as a ravenous society, filled with out-of-control appetites that are depleting resources and putting our very future at risk. We’re taught to be suspicious of desire: that it’s endless, and if we satisfy it, we’re just going to want more. Conventional wisdom puts desire and gratitude in opposition. It tells us that if we want to be content, we have to overcome desire.

But the flip side of this is that desire gives us direction. It’s a spark that motivates us to try new things, explore and enjoy life. Often we can’t figure out what we might enjoy until we let ourselves hear our desires. And envy is a surprising, yet powerful way to tune into those desires.

What do you envy? What does it tell you about what you desire? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

If you’re looking to boost your joy, the Joy Jumpstart is a fun, self-guided program to help you rediscover what lights you up in life. You can start immediately and come back to it whenever you need to. Sign up today!

July 8th, 2022

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    Discussion (13 Comments)

  1. Ashley on July 9, 2022

    Fantastic post! Inspiring and actionable. Thank you for sharing ❤️

    Reply
    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on July 9, 2022

      Thanks so much for sharing, Ashley!

      Reply
  2. Lazyretirementgirl on July 9, 2022

    Julia Cameron said it well, “ Green is the color of envy, but also the color of hope.” Thanks for this excellent essay.

    Reply
    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on July 9, 2022

      I didn’t know this quote. So good!

      Reply
  3. Marlene on July 9, 2022

    Thank you addressing such an interesting concept….unpacking our envy to really understand ourselves, and thus be more buoyant. The questions you suggest are helpful and I plan to try it….write down what I want without judging the desire, then listen to all the thoughts that arise from that “confession”.  Can I stop “shoulding on my wants” and just be. Thanks for the share, and great questions. 

    Reply
  4. Anne on July 10, 2022

    Wht if tht envy is due to health reasons tht got you derailed from the race and everyone who started on the same line as you are way ahead winning more races while you havent even finished and cant finish the first race.

    Reply
    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on July 10, 2022

      This is a hard situation. It sounds like you’re asking what to do when you feel envy because you want something that’s out of your control to have, yet you see others having it. I don’t have a perfect solution here, but when that happens I ask myself:
      – Will I never be able to have this? And I really and truly know this to be a fact? Then I work on accepting this and focusing on what else I might want that is achievable for me.
      – If this is something I could possibly have… Do I really want it? Or do I just want it because others have it? Sometimes it’s freeing to realize I don’t actually want this thing, but rather it’s something I feel like I’m supposed to want.
      – If this is something I want and could possibly have… What would need to be true for me to have this? What could I do to increase the chances? What might I have to give up? Is it worth it?
      Asking these questions helps me refocus on my own path and my own dreams. I realize it’s hard to see others further along on the way to your dreams, especially when you feel like you were unfairly held back and they didn’t have those disadvantages. But life isn’t really a race. We never know the “outcome” of life until it’s over – some people seem “ahead” and then get knocked down by circumstances later. Others have challenges early that they end up overcoming. We’re not competing with others for living out our dreams, though it might feel that way sometimes. If envy helps you get clearer on what you want, then it could be productive. But if you already have a clear idea of your desires, maybe for you envy leads to more distraction than discovery, and it’s best to focus on your own journey.

      Reply
  5. Kaye on July 10, 2022

    Thank you, Ingrid, for your post. It certainly has me thinking about the things that ignite my envy. One of the things I envy is travel stories and I realise I feel afraid of negative things that may happen … I’ll jave to work on that one!

    Reply
  6. Karen on July 10, 2022

    Thanks for this! Oftentimes I find myself asking the ‘if only’ question. If only I had enough money (or time or talent), I could buy that dress (or finish that quilt or paint that scene). Your thoughtful essay provides some valuable takeaways.  This past year I’ve spent a great deal of time providing personal care for my niece (paralyzed from the neck down). At 37 she has taught  me to give myself permission to explore envy. She no longer envies those with more mobility and has changed her thought pattern to do something meaningful and creative every day. Sometimes this is as simple as brushing her teeth. 
    Thank you Ingrid for your inspiration!

    Reply
  7. Lauren on July 10, 2022

    This is a big struggle for me too. I had hoped to be strong and fit at this point in my life, ready to tackle a career finally now that my kids are grown and gone and instead I’m suffering with chronic daily pain and physical limitations. Not only is there not the reward of a satisfying productive life but guilt over the inability to contribute financially. It makes it very hard to stay positive!

    Reply
  8. Heather Kanost on July 10, 2022

    Thanks Ingrid for this post. Your Joy book has been a game changer for me. I read if twice, looking uo all the references the second time around! This post was also interesting. I confess I already discovered that I could learn about my desires by tapoing into my envy, which has been hugely helpful for me, guiding many decisions over the past years. Much as I knew this already I still found your analysis useful, separating the fear element, for example. Love your work, would love to meet you one day and just talk, as I think you are onto a good thing here in your observations and understanding of joy and our need to tap into it, how to do ao, etc.

    Thanks so much.

    Heather

    Reply
  9. Heather on July 10, 2022

    I’m not sure if envy and jealousy are the same thing but I’ve been helped by Julia Cameron’s quote “Jealousy is a map.” It lets the feeling be instructive and it passes more quickly. It has helped me more than the quote “Comparison is the thief of joy” which feels like a criticism when you’re already feeling bad!

    Reply
  10. Liz B on July 11, 2022

    A top favorite of all your posts! Though I know envy points us towards our desires, you went deeper. Thank you, Ingrid!

    Reply

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