We want what we don’t have. And we especially want what others have.
This isn’t a philosophical musing—it’s human nature. According to evolutionary psychologists, we are wired to constantly compare ourselves to others. These comparisons trigger one of our more complicated emotions: Envy.
Defined as the desire to have a quality, possession, or other attribute belonging to someone else, envy gave our prehistoric ancestors the competitive drive necessary for survival in a world with limited resources. But today, envy is often (and understandably) categorized as a negative emotion. After all, it can be destructive —left unchecked, envy can stir up feelings of inadequacy, resentment, and even hostility in response to others’ success. This is particularly true around the holidays, when we’re inundated with cards splashed with smiling family photos and invited to parties full of the inevitable “What’s new with you?” chatter.
But as counterintuitive as it seems, envy can actually be an asset: Research suggests that when we change how we think about envy, it can motivate us to make positive changes. Here’s how to transform envy into inspiration:
- Find What’s Missing
When you feel envious, it’s because someone else has something that you wish you had. Think of envy as a clue about what it is you really want, and use your feelings to define exactly what that ‘something’ is.
For example, imagine that you’re feeling jealous of a coworker’s promotion. Are you envious of the job itself? Maybe you’re itching for more responsibility in your current role. Or let’s say you’re envious of a friend’s picture-perfect social media feed (a minefield for envy). Are you pining after their vacation photos? Maybe you need to start saving up for a getaway yourself.
Understanding what you want is the first step in clarifying your goals. When you can identify how your life will improve, you can tap into your motivation and get to the essence of what you’re trying to achieve. Make a list of the possibilities—anything and everything that excites and motivates you.
- Shift Into “Student Mode”
The key is to shift your perspective from “That should be me…” to “I can do that!” As author and media coach Susan Harrow says, “When there’s something I want, I’ve trained myself to shift out of ‘jealous lurker mode’ and into ‘student mode.'”
Get there by thinking about the steps you need to take to achieve what you want. Or better yet, go straight to the source of your envy and ask them what they did to achieve the success you’re striving for. What’s worked for them? What hasn’t? What can you apply to your own life?
- Take a (Small) Step
Now, you’re ready for action. Break the process of reaching your goal down into small, achievable steps. Dreaming of a new home? Call up a real estate agent. Looking to grow professionally? Schedule a networking lunch with a mentor. Feeling disconnected from your partner? Plan a date night. Taking an active step forward shifts your attention away from what you can’t control (like other people’s success) and towards what you can control—you.
Check in with yourself after taking that small step. Do you feel motivated, accomplished, or more positive? Set aside more time tomorrow to take another small step—and repeat until you get what you want.
- Appreciate What You Have
If you’re still feeling the pull of jealousy, take a minute to practice gratitude: Make a list of three things you’re thankful for to refocus on what you have, instead of what you lack. This trains your brain to look towards the positive, which boosts your mood, your self-esteem, and your resilience. The more momentum that builds, the closer you’ll come to your own goal—and the less reason you’ll have to envy others.
Kara Baskin is a Boston-based journalist and well-being expert. For over 15 years, she has been helping consumers live healthier, more fulfilling lives, writing for outlets such as The Boston Globe, Time, and Women’s Health. Kara has also collaborated on several books on women’s health and resilience. Find her on Twitter @kcbaskin