What exactly is envy?

From the meaning of the word…

Unlike greed and gluttony, it is worthwhile here to go back to the origin of the word. The English “envy” can be traced back to the Latin “invidia”. The verb to “invidia” is “invidere”, composed of “in” and “video” = “to look into”. What was meant by this was “looking too intrusively”. This corresponds to the ancient idea that envy is triggered by the eyes. Via the French “envie”, “invidia” enters the English language.

So envy is about wanting something badly that you have seen in someone else. Or at least not begrudging someone else something.

And by the way: the phrase yellow or green with envy dates back to pre-Germanic times. The ancient physicians Hippocrates and Galen developed a doctrine of temperaments. According to them, one of the four determining temperament types – the choleric – had an excess of bile. Bile made people envious and angry. The ancient physicians will have noticed that this bile is greenish-yellow in colour in patients who, due to stomach or gall problems, only vomited bile. It is not for nothing that we still use the expression. Bile comes up when we are angry about something, but also when we are envious.

I will stick to this meaning in the following. However, this exclusively negative interpretation – which I am convinced was also the basis of the classification as a mortal sin – requires differentiation from words that are close to it and sometimes – wrongly – used synonymously.

… as distinct from jealousy…

First of all, there is jealousy. While envy is about something someone else has and I want to have, jealousy is about the exact opposite. I possess something that someone else wants to take away from me. Whether real or only in my imagination is beside the point.

… or the sense of justice…

Envy is also often mixed with a sense of justice. Either by someone trying to disguise their envy as a just desire. Or also by devaluing the justice aspirations of others as envy. Even if justice is strongly dependent on changing values in the course of time, you can certainly agree with the Aristotles definition (yes, Aristotle again 😊) , which I reproduce here in a generally understandable way: Justice is an attitude whereby one does not favour oneself in relation to others. Envy, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. An envious person seeks his own advantage over someone and naturally does not want to be treated in this way.

…of admiration…

In the end, we also use the word “envy” for something like the ability of birds to fly or the ability of our children to get up again and again. But for me this is not envy in the sense formulated above, but rather a wistful admiration, a certain sadness, a regret.

…and constructive envy.

And what about the so-called “constructive envy” that one can read about in numerous writings on the subject? In my opinion, there cannot be such thing as constructive envy because of the  negativity of the feeling. However, there is the possibility of transforming this negative feeling into a positive action. More about this at the end.

Why do we need such a rather unpleasant feeling?

Perhaps for the best food?

I think that’s a very interesting question. From the point of view of evolutionary biology, food envy certainly makes sense, because it can be crucial for the survival of a group or an individual. That’s why we know that many predators in nature take the prey from a weaker predator. A classic case of envy in the old linguistic meaning. As long as it is not detrimental to the survival of the group, this food envy also makes sense individually, because it enables better nutrition and thus an increased chance of survival and/or passing on one’s own genes.

Or to behave in conformity with the group?

Moreover, according to some sociologists, envy is virtually the glue that holds our society together. According to them, it is the general human fear of the envy of neighbours or members of the group that forces people to behave in a group conform way. This may be true for a part of society, however, in my perception, rampant individualism is much more powerful today than the opinion of a group no longer perceived as vital.

It has been scientifically proven that envy activates the reward centre, which we use to make comparisons. Comparison seems to be an unconscious mechanism that runs automatically in many life situations.

For all these reasons, envy is, in the view of many scientists, an emotion that has always been there and will always be there, so we have to come to an arrangement with it.

So do we have to accept envy as an indelible part of our lives?

What part of the brain is involved in this emotion?

After all, this is an emotion that comes from the very old parts of the human brain that have to do with the pure struggle for survival. Envy is felt in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), an area of the brain associated with the developmentally ancient limbic system. So perhaps before we resignedly allow such a feeling to persist in our lives, we should examine its meaningfulness in our time. But more on that later.

And which genes?

There is indeed a gene variant (ADRA2b) that affects the neurotransmitter noradrenalin. People with this gene variant primarily evaluate the negative aspects of their environment. This makes them much more susceptible to envy. This gene variant occurs with varying frequency in different societies. In Canada, for example, 50% of people have this variant, in Rwanda only 10%. Noradrenalin is also involved in other envy reactions, because together with adrenalin it controls our feelings of stress. When people are stressed or even drunk, they react more quickly and intensively to potentially envy-producing situations.

How envious is our society in concrete terms?

Who do people envy the most?

The first important finding from the studies on this subject is that people envy the people whose situation is most comparable for the person concerned. This explains, for example, why it is the low-earning people who envy the support of the state for refugees. Managers’ salaries may be considered unfair, but the managers themselves are not envied because their life situation is so fundamentally different from theirs. If a person whom one envies suffers a misfortune, the more comparable the life situations are and the more envious one is, the greater the gloating.

The scientist David Zizzo at Oxford University was able to test the tendency to the latter emotion in an experiment. In this experiment, the test persons played for money and were allocated certain amounts of money by a random generator. However, some received more, some less. In return for giving away a certain amount of their own money, they could lower the account balance of other players. The test persons thus spent money to harm other players who had not received more money by fraud, but only by chance. Not only some of them behaved in this way, but two thirds (!) of the test persons.

What feelings arise from this?

The feelings associated with envy range from sadness (which, according to a study by Haubl, is felt more often by women) to anger, which can turn into active harming of the envied (which affected the majority of men). It is precisely from this feeling of anger that activities such as slander, denunciation, sabotage or betrayal can arise.

How envious are the Germans?

And if you are now asking yourself whether it is really true that Germans are particularly envious, I have to answer “yes” here too. A study by the Wall Street Journal last year (source – in German) shows not only that Germans – as is often felt – are clearly more envious than Americans, but also that they like to blame a scapegoat for all the misfortunes they suffer much more often than the French (who for their part – surprisingly for me – are even more envious than the Germans).

One wonders why one of the most prosperous nations on earth feels such envy. Envy in Germany is obviously based very much on fear.

Fear is a driving force in relation to xenophobia – the fear of not being able to maintain the status of one’s own living situation. Fear certainly also plays a role in German envy of successful entrepreneurs, who are quickly dubbed “capitalists, exploiters or cutthroats – a fear of being actively disadvantaged by them with regard to one’s own living situation. Both fears become clear in evaluations in which people who seem to get a lot of money but do little for it come off particularly badly. According to research by the Allensbach Institute, 43% of all West Germans but 59% of all East Germans associate them with a spontaneous antipathy. In addition to fear, especially in the eastern German states, there is bitterness about the opportunities that are not lived up to and the lack of support, which is therefore envied in others.

And what does this feeling do to us?

So this also means that the more anxious, dissatisfied and less self-confident people are, the more susceptible they are to envy. This is mainly shaped by upbringing (by always feeling short-changed, by favouring others, etc.).

But as envious people may be themselves, envious people are unpopular, so this feeling is rarely expressed. Therefore, envy makes people very lonely and probably contributes to a number of mental illnesses such as depression or burnout. This is because research has shown that envy weakens concentration and makes people give up more quickly (Hill/Texas Christian University). Physical consequences of constant envy are also known: Sleep disturbances, stomach and intestinal problems, heartache. In the worst case, strong envy can even lead to Balance Suicide (a suicide in which the balance of one’s life is so negative that no other way out seems possible).

From this point of view, if you notice envious reactions in yourself, you should, for example, control your consumption of social media. One third of the respondents said that after using Facebook they were mainly dominated by feelings of frustration and envy. Humboldt University has even determined that increased Facebook consumption can result in a spiral that makes you increasingly unhappy.

So: no, we don’t have to accept this feeling.

Which brings us to what you, what we can all do to free ourselves from this emotion. For as Arthur Schopenhauer wrote: “Envy is natural to man: nevertheless it is both a vice and a misfortune. The envy of men indicates how unhappy they feel; their constant attention to other people’s doings, how bored they are. We should therefore regard it as the enemy of our happiness and seek to stifle it as an evil demon.”

What can we do against envious people and what against envy?

Consider envious people as people who give us positive feedback on our lives.

Let’s start with the often quite subtle messages of envy in our environment. First of all, the others’ envy gives you feedback on how you appear to those around you: apparently successful, good-looking, motivated, happy. Therefore, simply take envy as positive feedback for what you have achieved. This is important, because you should not worry that the others’ envy could hinder you or limit your opportunities. Because envy towards you also gives others exactly the information that the envious person would like to prevent: there is someone successful, good at what you do, balanced, positive.

So it would be anything but clever if, out of fear of such people, you no longer celebrated your successes, no longer spoke loudly about positive experiences, laughed loudly and happily and appeared as happy on the outside as you felt on the inside. And by the way, this also applies if your genes have favoured you in some way. This is not a reason for shame, but for joy. Use the opportunities you have been given. Because if you don’t, then you have reason for shame. And of course, as with all negative people in your life, they have no place there. Break off contact, ignore them and let them live in their envy.

Reflect on your own envy and trace it back to its cause.

If you are envious yourself, this is an excellent opportunity to reflect on yourself. What exactly makes you envious? A skill, a success? Another person’s basic conditions that you would have liked to have? Things that someone possesses? What feelings does the person you envy trigger in you? Sadness, anger, or hate? If you allow these feelings and follow them, what do they make you? Do they make you small, unloved, worthless, unhappy?

Evaluate this cause for meaningfulness in your life.

Once you understand the feelings that cause you to envy other people, you only have to ask yourself one question: Do you want to be unhappy, worthless, small and unloved?

Buddha: “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

So: the only person your envy harms is yourself. And this realisation can be the first step towards change. Again and again I make the experience – also on myself – that change only seems possible when I have also taught myself the unloved behaviour, the unloved emotion. Because if I could do that, I can also teach myself something else. Envy, hate, anger and other negative emotions consume an enormous amount of energy. Energy that you can use much better and more usefully elsewhere.

Sometimes self-analysis is also helpful to realise that the envied person has done a lot, perhaps even endured a lot, to get what he or she now has. And maybe it is sometimes an incentive to kick oneself in the butt and finally start working on things. Then envy was the emotion you needed at this point to recognise and solve your task. Remember: unpleasant feelings can also be very helpful.

Buddha: “Hate cannot be destroyed by hate, only by love.”

And that’s the way you can go otherwise.

And again, we’ re somehow on such a fundamental topic. I haven’t found a study on ADRA2b gene in German population. But I suspect that perhaps more than 50% of us in Germany also carry the ADRA2b gene variant. Because in this country too we often see the bad first. Unfortunately, this also and first affects one’s own judgement. Here, too, so many people – clearly, at least in my practice – see little that is positive about themselves. Yet there is something lovable, something unique about every person – about you, about me, about the unloved neighbour – something that can be appreciated and honoured. It is the task of every human being to find this, because it is only when we recognise things about ourselves that are worth loving that it becomes easier to look at others with love – or at least with relaxed goodwill.

Regain freedom and ease for your own life.

And do you know what is waiting for you at the end of this path? Freedom. You no longer have to look at others to know what you are worth and what you want on this planet. And only a free person is able to make and implement free – own – decisions.

Not for nothing is freedom, according to Aristotle, one of the two basic conditions for a well-functioning society. The other, by the way, is equality of rights in the sense of equality of access to the resources of society.

In my very personal opinion, this is the reason why we do not have a functioning human system on a global scale.


And I think it is time that we replace one or another emotion that comes from our ancient limbic system with new emotions by conscious decision in order to become a free individual. Of course, this doesn’t work with meditating twice or buying a “positive thinking guidebook”. But if you make the conscious decision to focus your energy in the future on topics that make you happy and remind yourself again and again when you just hate your neighbour, then more and more synaptic connections will be created in your brain so that it will be quite easy to be free at some point.

I wish you much success in these attempts.

Yours, Claudia