(Illustration by iStock)

Let’s say you find yourself in this unenviable situation: You’ve been laid off. During a frustrating job hunt that makes you want to crawl under a large rock or hide in your closet, you notice an email alert has come in from LinkedIn: “Congratulate Johanna Smith on her work anniversary!”

She has the most fabulous job in the world and in your field. As you’ve recently noticed in your Facebook news feed, she was promoted to an even more fabulous job before the work anniversary — 300 people liked her announcement and another 100 tweeted and re-tweeted that she is absolutely the best at what she does and the world will now be a better place because of her.

Also, she has three kids and the eldest was accepted to an Ivy League university (400 Facebook likes).  Clearly she has a personal trainer — you figure she must be doing five sessions a week — because she also has extremely fabulous abs. This was glaringly obvious from the photos she posted on Instagram during her February trip to St. Croix.

[Surprise! Thrive ways to thrive in an uncertain world]

You, on the other hand, have gained 40 pounds since you last saw her, are tempted to wear a wig and sunglasses to Whole Foods and your high school senior is struggling with C’s in three subjects. What vacation?

You might call a friend and confess that this Johanna jealousy is consuming you, or quite possibly seethe privately and hate your life. Indeed, you may be in the throes of what is known in self-help circles as the “compare and despair” syndrome, or trapped in the sticky web of what psychologists call the “upward social comparison.”

If so, you are experiencing envy, not jealousy. There is much confusion between the two terms, often used interchangeably. They are very different, although both have terrible reputations.

“These are emotions that are hiding in plain sight, and they have these pervasive powerful effects that aren’t acknowledged,” said W. Gerrod Parrott, a professor of psychology at Georgetown University.

Parrott is among a growing number of researchers exploring envy and its implications, including how envy can motivate the envious to improve their own lives. He is currently working on new research looking specifically at envy in the workplace.

Envy need not involve good friends or relatives, but the closer the envious person is to the target of their envy, either in their social or work life, the more potential this emotion has to create ill will and harm the relationship, Parrott said.

The feelings that may arise with jealousy and envy are also distinct. Parrott has described the differences this way: Envy causes feelings of inferiority, longing, resentment and, sometimes, guilt or shame about feeling envious. Jealousy typically involves feelings of distrust, fear of loss and abandonment, anxiety and anger. But responses to either of these complex emotions can also overlap.

[A Harvard psychologist suggests a six-step method for getting the most out of your dreams at night]

Jealousy typically involves three people, a triad, such as a love triangle or sibling rivalry for a mother’s affections. The jealous person is faced with a real or perceived threat of losing an important resource, like the attention of a parent or another close relationship. Envy typically involves two people, a dyad, and one of them wants what the other has.

There are multiple studies of jealousy, particularly romantic jealousy, but envy is drawing increasing interest from social psychologists, who are examining the distinctions between what they call “malicious” and “benign” envy; identifying antidotes to what can become a destructive poison that corrodes interpersonal relationships; and examining how envy, at its best, can motivate a person to make positive changes.

“Negative emotions are best when they occur in small doses and there’s something you can do about it,” said Christine R. Harris, a professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego and a co-author of “Can Negative Social Emotions Have Positive Consequences? An Examination of Embarrassment, Shame, Guilt, Jealousy, and Envy,” a chapter in a 2014 book that Parrott edited.

“We’re trying to avoid that chronic bitterness, “ Harris said. “We can use a re-evaluation of the situation, keeping in mind that one’s own happiness is what’s important.”

Envy, if it is not fleeting and harmless, has great potential to harm self-esteem, psychologists say, as the envious person is drained of precious energy that could be channeled toward self-improvement. At it’s worst, envy could involve gossiping about the envied person’s life — trying to recruit people into a shared resentment against the target of envy — internalizing anger about what could be perceived as an injustice, or wishing and even inflicting harm on another.

Aristotle described envy as “the pain caused by the good fortune of others.” That brings to mind one of envy’s typically toxic cousins: Schadenfreude, which refers to the experience of joy or pleasure in the misfortune of another.

Parrott, in a new focus on the role envy in interpersonal relationships,, conducted a study of the experiences of those who are targets of envy called “I Fear your Envy, I Rejoice in your Coveting: On the Ambivalent Experience of Being Envied By Others.” In it, he reviews the writings of Aristotle and other ancient Greek philosophers to show how envy was seen as a harmful vice in that society.

Pulling one person down, perhaps by trying to sabotage them, would hurt the entire community, the ancient Greeks believed. By contrast, emulation — striving to succeed using the target of envy as motivation — was seen as a great virtue, Parrott’s research showed.

Richard Smith, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky who has collaborated extensively with Parrott, asked in a blog post for Psychology Today: “Can envy motivate us to work harder to achieve our goals without also making us hostile?”

The latest research suggests the answer is yes. But it takes effort and a willingness to explore an unpleasant set of emotions, not repress them, and regulate them in a healthy way, experts say.

Among some recommendations from psychologists for countering the negative effects of envy, especially at a time when instant and constant information about other people is flooding social media sites, is to conduct a reality check.

Others may well have things you covet. (And in a sign of how prevalent envy is, there is the trendy acronym, FOMO, used often on Facebook and Twitter, for “fear of missing out,” another element of envy.)

But before you fall down a rabbit hole, look for the proof in the narrative you are telling yourself about the target of your envy. For example, are you really getting the whole story from social media sites? It’s no secret to people who spend time on them — or to social psychologists — that posts, tweets and pictures are often carefully selected to highlight accomplishments, celebrations and happy milestones.

Sticking with the idea of the reality check: Experts suggest asking questions like: What is going well in your life? Can you take the focus off other people?

If you are a regular user of social media like Facebook and Instagram, you are unlikely to decamp. But psychologists say you can, for example, limit your exposure to what may trigger your envy by setting limits on the amount of time you allow yourself to spend on them each day.

You could also focus on what psychologists call the “downward social comparison,”  mentally listing the life advantages you have that others may not, not in order to feel superior to those who have less than you, but to access two of the most powerful weapons against the envy: perspective and gratitude.

You can consider whether your  envy is the result of unfulfilled goals or desires.  Has the person you envy written the book you’ve been dreaming of writing but haven’t found the time or willpower to do it? Are they taking a risk you’d like to take yourself?

Finally, consider emulating the target of your envy, even asking the person out for coffee or a drink to find out how they do what you’d like to be doing, or what it took for them to get the job or whatever else they have that you want.

If you can accomplish that — admiration and motivation to make positive changes — then not only will you benefit, Parrott said, but you will also “turn your rival into an ally.”

 

Want more inspiring news and ideas to improve your life? Sign up for the Saturday Inspired Life newsletter.

If you liked this story on Inspired Life, you may also enjoy:

How to communicate like a Buddhist — mindfully and without interruptions

What hurricane Katrina taught us about human resilience