Why the green-eyed monster isn’t always evil

Ideas for modern living: envy 

By Alain De Botton
The Observer

Few emotions are as taboo for us as envy. If we chuckle at Gore Vidal’s famous quip, “Every time a friend of mine succeeds, a small part of me dies”, it is because it gives us a rare chance to own up to a feeling that we otherwise endure in lonely silence.

To refuse to feel envy is to refuse any chance of growth or development, to shut yourself off from fathoming how much you want what you might one day – if you act on your desires – have. It is healthy for anyone starting out in business or art to envy more successful entrepreneurs and artists, and to feel crushed by a sense of inadequacy. How else could one ever have the energy to achieve?

The real problem with envy is what you do with it. Envy is a highly beneficial emotion insofar as it goads us towards things we are capable of getting. It becomes noxious and destructive when we become unaware we are feeling it. An un-self-aware person envious of another’s love life will say romantic love is an illusion. A financially envious person will develop conspiracy theories about Wall Street. Such envy is depressing because it springs from feelings of inadequacy that aren’t owned up to.

We are in danger of missing out on something valuable when we simply label envy a sin. Like many of our drives, it has positive and negative components, which need to be balanced and managed rather than simply cut out like a cancer. We might respect envy as the first step towards generating something we can be proud of – something that will make others envious…

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