Most of us have been brought up to believe that feeling jealous or envious is a bad thing, and that it is a petty or mean emotion to have, let alone, act upon. For thousands of years philosophers, religious leaders and more recently, psychologists have seen jealousy as an evil of which we should fight to rid ourselves. But it isn’t always a negative thing and it is very much a normal part of life.
All emotions perform two functions. Firstly they provide us with rapid information about our current circumstances, in particular, the presence of threats or opportunities. For example, hearing an unusual sound at night could trigger fear to heighten our awareness of potential danger.
Secondly, emotions help guide our behaviour. Fear leads us to take action to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Happiness keeps us motivated to pursue new opportunities and reinforces positive social interactions. Sadness usually results in withdrawal from activities for a while, so that the person can pay attention to their mental health.
Envy is a complicated emotion. It usually starts when you feel that someone else has something of value that you don’t have. This perception is partnered with uncomfortable or painful feelings. The value ascribed to the coveted item (or person) is totally subjective. One person might desire a flashy convertible which might leave someone else cold. There is also the popular joke about people who think others are constantly desiring their partners - when in fact those people wouldn't want the person even if they were coated in chocolate!
Recently, psychologists have been debating the fact that envy does, in fact, have a bright side, especially if the feelings are used as motivation for self-improvement. This is seen to be a benign form of envy. Contrast this with “malicious” envy, where we are motivated to do harm to the person we think has something we covet. For example, you might feel you have worked really hard, and prepared well for a job interview within your company and someone else gets the job, whom you think is less qualified but superficially charming. Malicious envy could lead you to badmouth that person, and generally act in an uncooperative way around them. Benign envy, in contrast, could lead you to take stock of yourself. This could result in your realizing that you could learn from your rivals cheerful and friendly approach to others, or maybe learn how to better allocate your time and efforts in a more goal directed fashion.
If you take the time to examine your feelings of envy they can often direct you to something you feel is missing in your life. You might be perfectly happy around a friend who is always sporting the latest fashions but feel a twinge of envy every time you talk to a friend that spends a lot of time travelling. This is a very good sign that maybe it is time to go book a trip!