The Envy Bias: Why we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others

Random luck plays a key role in all of our lives. Some of us will be born healthier and smarter than other people. Some of us will be born in the US, whereas others will be born in a third-world country. These inequalities exist everywhere, and many of them are down to luck. We cannot control where we are born, or how healthy we are when we are born. Those factors are completely outside of our control. Yet many of us decide to feel envious or jealous about someone else. These are natural emotions because we all want to have more than we have. Throughout history, humans have hoarded as much as possible to ensure they will have enough for tomorrow. And when you see someone has more than you, then you feel as if they are better.

We are told not to feel envious of one another. Indeed, envy is a bad emotion. You have nothing to gain by feeling envious about someone else. Your envy or jealousy is not going to help you get something. It will not make you richer or smarter. It is a fool’s emotion. However, many of us continue to get caught up in the emotion. In order to avoid these feelings, we should first break them down to understand how they effect us, and how we can identify them in our daily lives.

Feelings of envy

There are two types of envy. The first — inferiority — is a good type of envy. This is the feeling that you are not as good as someone else, and motivated you to do something better. When you read a book about a famous person, you may feel envious of their success. You want to build habits like them and live a successful life like they did. And these feelings will make you push yourself to make other changes in our life. When I read about Benjamin Franklin’s self-improvement journey, I felt envious of his progress. Shortly after I started to incorporate some of his practices into my daily routine, because I wanted to achieve a similar level of virtue as him.

The second type of envy — malicious envy — is dangerous. This is the type of envy that makes us feel like we want to take something from someone else. We think that depriving someone of something they once had will make us feel good because we no longer have to look at that person’s think and think “I wish I had that”. Malicious envy is rooted in the belief that everyone you want should be yours, rather than someone else’s.

This emotion can be derived from inferiority, because after some people feel inferior, they think the best way to get ahead is to take from someone else. Malicious envy can also lead to you downplaying the importance of someone’s success, which in itself causes problems. The core reason malicious envy is dangerous is because you start to think about how to take something, rather than how to achieve it through merit. You are focused on making other people unhappy, rather than making yourself more successful. This feeling can quickly lead to emotions close to hate — you cannot stand the fact someone has something that you do not have.

Comparing ourselves to others

Envy results in a form of social bias when we compare ourselves to others. Our experience of the world is very limited — confined to only what we have heard, seen, and done. So we rely on other people to help us learn more about the world. They can share their own experiences and help us learn more about what it means to be human. So, we naturally compare ourselves to others to help us understand the world. But when we do this, envy comes into play. The way we see someone else is shaped by their accomplishments in relation to ours. We may see someone as better or worse at something based on how envious we are of them and their work.

The envy social bias is prominent when we are comparing ourselves to those similar to us. Indeed, we may not feel envious of a music star if we don’t like music. What would we have to be envious about? But if you did like music, you will feel more envy. How can I be as good as that person at singing? Envy is based on how we feel about ourselves. And those feelings will cause us to draw different conclusions about the success of others. Consider this: you are an aspiring singer. You see your friend has just had a record contract signed. How do you feel? You will most likely feel envious of the fact they have a contract and you do not. This will make you see the other person differently. You may avoid talking with them, or even break off the friendship. But if you didn’t care about music, you would congratulate them and celebrate their success.

How can we overcome envy?

There are a couple of different ways we can overcome envy, each with varying levels of difficulty.

Malicious envy → inferiority. Try to turn your malicious envy into inferiority. Ask yourself how you can learn from the other person and what you can do to be more like them. There will always be at least one lesson we can draw from the success of another person.

Get ahead of envy. If you start to feel envious of someone, stop the feeling as soon as possible. Celebrate the success of the other person and realize your time will come soon. Think about the fact there are still so many opportunities left for you in the world — you just need to go looking for them. Once you think this way, you will realize envy is a bad emotion to have. It doesn’t make any sense to be envious because envy takes away time you could be using to actually improve.

Everyone is different. Think about the differences between yourself and the other person. Realize they have different processes than you, and a different way of seeing the world. It does not take long to realize just how different the other person may be. And it is difficult to feel envious of someone who is so different from us. Consider this: let’s say I am envious of another writer. Then I realize they are only writing for money. My envy will almost disappear because I now know we have completely different motivations. They write for money; I write for exercise and to educate. How can I feel envy about someone who is so different from me?

Envy is one of the worst emotions we can feel. So many people and institutions throughout history — the Christian religion, Islam, the Stoics, and more — have condemned feeling envy. And that makes sense, because envy is a waste of our time. There is nothing fun about feeling envious of someone else’s success. And feeling envious does not lead to success. What does? Taking action based on the lessons you have learned about that person.