How to handle envy

Jane Murphy / 15 April 2016

Think everyone else is having a better time and far more luck than you? Wrong! Here's how to stop envy from getting in the way of your friendships.



Let's start with some good news about envy: it tends to decline with age. In a 2015 study from the University of California, around 80 per cent of the under-30s age group reported feeling envious in the previous year, compared to just 69 per cent of over-50s.

And the most common targets of envy? Both men and women were more likely to envy someone of the same gender and around the same age – usually a friend, rather than a relative.

The researchers also found that what people envied tended to change with age. Younger people tend to feel envious over looks, romance, academic and social success, while the older generation report more envy over financial and occupational success.

Related: Dilemma - my friend is jealous of my success

Why do we feel envy?

So where does envy come from? 'It can stir up pre-verbal feelings in us,' says integrative psychotherapist Hilda Burke (hildaburke.co.uk). 'Ultimately, it brings us back to the time when we first wanted something that someone else had – our mother's attention usually – but couldn't fully express that. So when we're envying someone else's achievements, what we're experiencing is something very young within ourselves.'

What this means, according to Burke, is that we need to go easy on ourselves when envy starts to stir. This is a very common, very natural emotion. Witnessing someone else's good fortune – whether it's down to hard work and perseverance or simply luck – can highlight our own insecurities and perceived failings. The trick, of course, is not to behave as you did when you were a baby – by throwing all your toys out of the pram and howling the house down. Instead, it's time to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

How to cope with your own envy

'Ask yourself what this envy is telling you,' suggests Burke. 'If a friend has just landed a wonderful new job, maybe this highlights the fact that you're unhappy about being stuck in the same position for the past 25 years. So rather than resenting your friend, be honest with yourself about why you haven't tried to move on. It's never too late to retrain completely or simply update your CV and start applying for new, more interesting roles.'

It's also important to look at your life in the round. 'Sometimes we feel envious about just one aspect of someone else's life,' says Burke. 'For instance, you may use their financial success as the yardstick by which to measure your own finances. But if you stop to appreciate the blessings you do have – good health or strong family relationships, for instance – it can help to dissolve your envious feelings. Learn to appreciate the things you do have, rather than focusing on those you don't.'

Related: Are you your own worst critic?

Handling other people's envy

In fact, while you're envying your friend for her lucrative promotion or early retirement, chances are she's feeling envious of something you have that she doesn't.

In the University of California study, reports of being the target of envy were consistent with reports of experiencing the emotion – the only difference being that many more people said money provoked them to envy, compared to people who reported being envied for their wealth. The researchers suggest this may be because we're not very good at spotting this specific kind of financial envy.

So what can you do to ease the situation if you notice a friend displaying signs of envy? 'We can't manage anyone else's feelings or responses to our good fortune,' warns Burke. 'However, appreciation is an important factor here. It's hard to be around people who are doing well on so many levels, yet fail to see it. So being vocally appreciative and humble about our blessings can help our friends feel good about it, too. On the other hand, if we simply dismiss the wonderful things we have, it can make them feel even more envious.'

Ultimately, the lesson here – whether you're feeling envious or being envied – is to count your blessings.

Remember, everyone's fortunes chop and change over the years. Helping one another through the bad times is key to a strong friendship, but so is learning to celebrate the good times together. Why allow envy to drive a wedge between you?

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.