In our modern world, we are often faced with situations in which we lack what others possess. Whether it’s a friend’s fancy new watch, a co-worker’s apartment in the city, a frothy cup of coffee on a billboard or the neighbor’s new baby, we are surrounded by things that others have and we do not.
Envy is one of those painful emotions that most people try to avoid. It is a complicated mixture of desire and longing, with other emotions, such as inferiority, frustration, anger and discontent. Marketing campaigns are often designed to elicit envy, but its expression is socially unacceptable.
And envy, like many other emotions, is further complicated by both its useful and its destructive impact on our behavior. Envy can cause us to work harder, strive for more and innovate in ways that allow us to attain what we desire. But envy can also leave us feeling spiteful and resentful of others and cause us to behave in ways that are not good for us long-term, e.g. by spending money we don’t have or eating too much or making other unhealthy choices.
So what’s the difference between useful and destructive behavior? When does it prompt positive striving for more and enhance our lives and when are we likely to give into painful social comparisons, bitter resentment and impulsive, risky and potentially harmful behaviors?
A recent study in Emotion explores the connection between envy, impulsive behavior and self-control. According to the authors, envy can come in many forms.
Sometimes we experience envy as simple desire: “I want that.” At other times, envy is both longing for something we don’t have combined with a motivation to tear others down. Although both can feel frustrating, the longing to tear others down also often involves feeling shame and inferiority.
This complicated, painful emotion is difficult to avoid. It tends to be prompted by comparing ourselves unfavorably to someone else. These comparisons and judgments are spontaneous, automatic and involuntary.
We don’t have to be at the mercy of envy. There are multiple strategies to help us maintain self-control. These tend to be those classic strategies that help us control any painful emotion by doing such things as diverting attention from the situation, recognizing envious thoughts and changing the meaning we derive from them.
These strategies work well until our self-control is taxed. When we’re depleted physically or mentally we are less able to control our envious impulses. When we’re exhausted, distracted, intoxicated or stressed in some other way, we decrease our ability to influence our emotions. It is at these times that we act on envious feelings, with little or no regard for social, financial, health or other consequences.
Our limited capacity for self-control is important to keep in mind. Decisions about purchasing a new car, ordering that ice-cream sundae or buying an expensive pair of shoes are more likely to be irrational and influenced by envy when you’re overwhelmed, mentally fatigued, intoxicated or simply overly hungry.
The upshot? Stay away from shopping or even just browsing for something when you’re not a 100 percent well-rested and relaxed.