Envy isn’t the green-eyed monster it used to be. Need proof? Look at E!’s program "It’s Good To Be . . ." which invites viewers into the glamorous lives of celebrities and dares them to envy.
Or, Fortune magazine’s annual Power Play issue, which came out in October. Gone is the list of the top 25 power brokers. In its place is a list of the 25 People We Envy Most.
"We eschewed the idea of ranking dealmakers and corporate chieftains in terms of raw power and instead chose a slightly different metric: Envy," wrote Reed Tucker in the introduction to the list. "What jobs do we covet most? Whose life is so fabulously filled with private jets, mogul confabs and Cristal-drenched parties that we would ditch our careers in a second to trade places with them."
The good news: Envy has mellowed with age.
Today, Webster’s Dictionary defines envy as "desire for some advantage, quality, etc., that another has." The malicious side of envy that inspired the notion of the green-eyed monster is marked as OBS, which stands for obscure, obsolete or archaic.
Only the wish to be like others or to have what others have remains, and psychologists say that’s not such a bad thing.
"I don’t think envy is bad," says Marci Harris, a Scottsdale-based psychologist. "It’s within reason to say ‘they did that and I can do it, too.’ Then it can be a positive motivator."
In Biblical times envy — one of the Seven Deadly Sins — was universally understood as a bad thing. The Judeo-Christian prohibition of envy is found in the 10th Commandment: "Thou shalt not covet."
"Envy is not the wish for what you do not have," says Gordon Clanton, a sociologist at San Diego State University. "Envy is the much darker wish that the person who had it would lose it."
Clanton, who teaches an undergraduate sociology course titled "Love, Jealousy and Envy: The Sociology of Emotions," says that kind of envy, referred to as bad envy by Aristotle, is condemned in every ethical and moral system. But banning envy only goes so far.
"You can’t stop me from sitting around and wishing my neighbor would crash his new Cadillac convertible," says Clanton.
He recounts an old Russian proverb to further illustrate bad or classic envy:
"God comes to a fortunate peasant and offers him anything he wants, but with this provision: Whatever God gives to the peasant he will give twice as much to his next door neighbor. Being deeply envious, the Russian peasant cannot figure out what to do. Can you picture the dilemma of a deeply envious person given this choice? He comes up with ‘take one of my eyes and take both eyes from my neighbor.’ "
Wanting what others have is an innocent wish, and that’s what most people think of when they talk about envying someone else.
As language evolves, so do attitudes. Today people use envy in an almost whimsical way. It’s "envy lite."
"What we seldom do is call envy envy," says Clanton. "We’ll refer to other things as envy."
For example, admiration. Clanton says what Fortune magazine should have said is that we admire those who made the list of the 25 People We Envy Most. Do people really wish ill upon Gwen Stefani, Tiger Woods or Kevin Federline (Britney Spears’ husband made the magazine’s Lucky Hall of Fame)?
"The list was meant to be fun," says Kate Bonamici, another Fortune reporter who helped write the profiles.
When did envy become fun?
"It’s about the aspirational culture we live in," says Bonamici. "People almost seem to live vicariously through these people."
Tribal cultures avoid envy, says Clanton, because they believe having any kind of advantage will turn the others against you. Americans, on the other hand, don’t fear envy because they’re encouraged to achieve without giving much thought to how our success will make our neighbors feel.
And our neighbors aren’t happy about it, says Erzo Luttmer, an economist with Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Inspired by envy among his academic colleagues, Luttmer conducted a two-year study titled "Neighbors as Negatives." Using data from the National Survey of Families and Households, Luttmer found that people reported being less happy when their neighbors were richer.
"People seem to care a lot about how others are doing," says Luttmer. "They were unhappy when their colleagues get raises or they were wondering how their house compares to others."
EMULATE THY NEIGHBOR
Envy requires comparison. You have to compare yourself to others to feel either good or bad envy. Making those kinds of comparisons is human nature. But we’re more likely to compare ourselves to and envy our peers than a movie star or sports figure. Their achievements are generally out of the average American’s reach.
"Envy has to be looked at together with competitiveness and drive," says Fortune’s Bonamici. "If you see someone doing something really well you might look at their background and you might say ‘I can do that.’ "
Psychologists say there’s nothing wrong with envy lite, which is to wish to have what someone else has.
Keeping up with the Joneses "is what this country is based on," says Harris, a Scottsdale psychologist for 32 years. "Being motivated to get ahead is not necessarily a bad thing."
But if having whatever your friends or peers have is all you think about, then you’ve got a problem.
"It’s what keeps me in business," says Elizabeth Nelson, a life coach in Scottsdale. "People are constantly competing and trying to be what someone else is as opposed to being who we should be."
Sometimes families can get too caught up in comparing themselves to others.
"I see families or young husbands and wives so consumed with getting ahead and working their way up the corporate ladder that they’re not paying attention to their children," says Harris. "Children need their parents. They need contact, they need interaction. They don’t need a car or a bigger house."
The trick is to turn envy into emulation.
"There are two ways I could respond to the star player on my basketball team," says Clanton. "I could hate his guts or I could say none of that matters. He’s a better player and I should emulate what he does."