Envy is passive greed. It is also the result of a particular way of thinking of yourself.
Greed, as the word is commonly used, refers to an "excessive or rapacious desire, especially for wealth or possessions." Of course, there can be a beneficial effect to a desire for more, when it is channeled through the free market system, where in order to get more yourself, you have to create value for others – as Milton Friedman so brilliantly explains in this video.
Envy is an expression of that same "excessive or rapacious desire, especially for wealth or possessions," but with a difference: The envious person does not believe that he has the ability to earn the things that he desires. This leaves only one alternative: He must covet what others have attained for themselves.
Wanting things is fine. Desiring a better life, a nice place to live, etc. is natural and normal and good. The harm comes when you get obsessed with attaining things so that you become disconnected from your relationships, your principles, your empathy and your own heart.
The same can be said of some of the potential triggers for envy. There is nothing wrong with seeing that somebody has something that you would like to have; whether that be a possession, a great marriage, a beautiful home, or satisfying work – or anything else that inspires you. We can inspire each other in this way to reach higher than we otherwise would, and this can be a great benefit to everyone.
The harm comes when you take that potential inspiration and turn it into a negative: wanting to possess it regardless of the effect on others, wanting to have what others have at their expense – and if you can't have it, feeling that they should not have it, either.
This is the foundation of the whole "tax the rich" policy of the Left. They have it, you don't, you should, they shouldn't, let's use force to get it for you – or at least to deprive them of it… out of a sense of "social justice," of course.
No, it's out of a sense of passive and spiteful greed – which is what envy is.
Industry and inspiration are the positive qualities toward which you can steer yourself when you feel the very human emotion of desire. You can choose to direct your energy in a benevolent way, looking consciously for a win/win scenario and applying yourself to achieving what you value.
Greed and envy are the negative qualities that you can fall into when you allow your Rat Brain to guide you – following your impulses and automatic responses without regard to your consciously chosen principles, values and priorities.
The dysfunctional nature of greed and envy have one thing in common: a fixed trait mindset.
We have a choice between two fundamental mindsets, or ways of thinking about ourselves:
Most of us are some mixture of these two. To the extent that we think of ourselves in fixed trait terms, we tend to avoid challenges, give up easily and defend a more fragile sense of self from any criticism or evaluation.
To the extent that we think of ourselves in growth terms, we tend to embrace challenges, persevere through difficult times and be open to the opportunity that criticism and evaluations hold for our own improvement.
A person with a fixed trait mindset will be more concerned with comparing themselves with others, and making sure they come out on top. A sort of top dog/bottom dog or Lenin's famous "Who, Whom?" – Who prevails over whom – you either win or you lose … a zero sum game, which is the antithesis of win/win.
A fixed trait mindset is not conducive to win/win scenarios. If someone has more than you, that diminishes you; if someone is smarter than you, then your ego is threatened; if someone is more successful than you, then they must be brought down; all in the name of protecting a more fragile sense of self.
Those with a growth mindset tend to be more successful, in part because they are looking for a win/win and are able to find more creative and effective approaches to problem solving. They also tend to embrace a challenge and dive in to difficult tasks with relish rather than aversion.
In one of the studies cited by Carol Dweck in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2007), adolescent boys with a fixed mindset felt better about themselves when they thought of girls as dumber and more scatterbrained than boys. Boys with the growth mindset were less likely to think this way in the first place, and when they did, it did not lead them to feel better about themselves.
As Dweck points out, in the fixed trait mindset, "The lower you are, the better I feel is the idea."
So now for the good part: There is something that can be done about this mindset that leads to envy. It is not difficult to change a fixed trait mindset. The main thing that is needed is to be aware that you are using it.
If you know that you are using a fixed trait mindset, then you have the opportunity to choose to think of yourself differently. Rather than thinking of yourself as smart, or talented, or dumb, etc., think of yourself in terms of what you do – how much time and energy do you put into improving your skills at work, in your relationships, your interests?
Is there something that you want in your life? What do you need to do to earn that? Do you want a better marriage? What are you doing to improve your behavior in the marriage that will improve things? (As opposed to identifying what your husband or wife needs to do to make a better marriage)
Channel your desire into active, benevolent behavior that has integrity with your conscious values, principles and priorities.
If you find yourself coveting what somebody else has, catch yourself; remind yourself that this is a passive, helpless stance and see if you can find a way to earn what you are drawn to that they have. If you find yourself enjoying somebody else's loss, catch yourself and remind yourself that this is a symptom of a fixed trait mindset – see if you can identify the static position you are holding and open yourself to doing whatever your best is, while appreciating the best that others bring.
To free yourself of a fixed trait mindset is to open up a world of delightful challenges, dynamic allies and greater resilience and success. It will also likely relieve you of the burden of dysfunctional greed and envy, which is a great win/win for you and everybody you deal with.
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