Gretchen Rubin began developing her theory of envy when she heard a friend gossiping about a woman in her office.
“All she does is talk about these great trips, and she’s always making plans. Every vacation she has, she’s off to here and off to there,” the friend complained. “I totally envy her. I love to travel. I wish I was organized enough to plan these trips. Why don’t I?”
Rubin waited for a beat, and then asked the only question that made sense: “Well, why don’t you?”
Rubin, who researches and writes about happiness, habits, and the age-old struggle of knowing ourselves, says that attending to moments when envy rears its head can help us to lead happier lives. Envy clues us in to what we’re really yearning for.
“When you envy someone, it's actually a super helpful emotion,” she explains. “It tells you that somebody has something that you wish that you had yourself.”
Rubin’s charitable view of envy isn’t exactly common. Throughout literary and religious tradition, envy has never been portrayed as having much to offer humanity. Christian doctrine holds that pride is the only one of the capital sins that weighs heavier on the soul than does envy. Envy is also related to vanity, another deadly sin. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, envy is directly associated with the work of the devil.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of envy—also the trait that separates it from its sibling emotion, admiration—is that envy hurts. It is a difficult, unpleasant experience, braided tightly with feelings of shame and embarrassment. Rubin explains that, rather than admit that we’re feeling envious, we’re more likely to say that we resent the person who has it all, or that we’re angry at them, or even to make fun of them.
And yet, on the road to attaining what will truly fulfill us, says Rubin, it turns out that envy is one of our greatest allies. Coveting another person’s qualities, achievements, or possessions can give us both the fresh insight into our own psyches and the impetus to go out and start to make a change or two.
“A lot of times, once you acknowledge that truth to yourself, you can take steps to get it,” Rubin says. We can't always have what we envy in other people, but often, we can. Or we can take steps toward it. If you envy somebody in a long-term committed relationship, maybe you need to say to yourself, "Well, I really need to make a game plan here of how I'm going to meet somebody! Is there anything I can do?"
Rubin encourages people who know they could be living lives with a little more purpose and contentment to ask themselves “Whom do I envy?” and the follow up question, “What can I do to get what they have?” To hear the other question Rubin recommends to people searching for what will make them happy in life, listen to Rubin’s talk on the podcast Simplify, an episode titled “You Do You.”
"Simplify" is a podcast for anyone who’s taken a close look at their habits, their happiness, their relationships, or their health and thought, “There’s got to be a better way to do this.” Hosted by Caitlin Schiller and Ben Schuman-Stoler. Brought to you by Blinkist. Subscribe to "Simplify" on iTunes, Stitcher, RadioPublic or wherever you get your podcasts.