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The Upside Of Envy: How Feeling Bad Can Help Make You Happier 

We're not kidding. Read on.

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Nhung Lê
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Cindy and I have been friends for 30 years. She is beautiful, financially secure, and happily retired, with a live-in boyfriend, Bob, whom she adores. The other day, she told me about their 10-day trip to Italy later this month, and I felt a sudden flash of envy. I love Cindy! I’m happy for her! And I’m a single mom of two teens with another decade of work ahead of me — and no Italy plans in my near future.

Envy tends to have negative connotations (it’s one of the Seven Deadly Sins, after all), so you may surprised to learn that it can have positive attributes. Researchers divide envy into two types: malicious envy and benign envy. With the former, we tear down people who have what we want (“She doesn’t even deserve that promotion!”), but benign envy can motivate us to improve ourselves (“If she can do it, I can do it, too”). Here’s a closer look at how to use envy to get what you want.

The Experience of Envy

Sometimes described as “the intense, unpleasant feeling that one feels when one realizes that another has something that one strives for, pursues, or yearns for,” experiencing envy feels, well, crappy. But it’s what you do with that emotion that matters, says Tina B. Tessina, PhD, (aka "Dr. Romance") psychotherapist and author of The 10 Smartest Decisions a Woman Can Make Before 40.

“Malignant envy can be pernicious, but envy can also be used as motivation, inspiration or role modeling. I define envy as wanting what someone else has. If you do that in a jealous way, it can be malignant and lead to feeling bad about yourself and others,” says Tessina. “But, if you see the other person as a role model showing you the way to have your own version of what they have, it can be very inspirational and motivating.”

Envy as a Wakeup Call

Instead of feeling guilty about feeling envious, dig a little deeper. What do you envy? What does your life seem to lack that you want? “Right now, I'm having a great deal of envy for people in my life who are or who have taken applying vacations and trips,” admits Meg Pritchard, 59, of Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. “Because I run my own business, I'm envious of the people I work with at my clients who are working on the same projects I am and who are taking a week vacation over the summer or fall when I don't feel I can … Last year I tapped into the envy and the feeling that I couldn't have what I wanted, and determined that I have/had a desire for a number of things: 1) More freedom in my work/off time — one of the reasons I started my own company. 2) To travel again. 3) To not lose the opportunity to visit my daughter while she was living abroad for a year.”

Pritchard used those insights and planned a two-week trip that let her work reduced hours and make the most of her daughter’s time off from her job abroad. “In a women's empowerment class I took, the leader said once that if you're envious of what another woman has, in that envy is the kernel of a desire that you need to pay attention to,” she says. “If you dig in, it might not be that you want exactly the same thing that the other person has, but somewhere in there is something that resonates with you.”

Jackie Dishner, 59, admits to envying women who have had more successful careers than she does. “There was a point where envy kept interfering with my progress. I had to dig really hard in those moments. I had to get mindful. I had to catch it when it reared its ugly head and remind myself it’s not about them, it’s about me,” says Dishner, a Phoenix resident. “Why is it happening for me? Then I’d go inward and uncover what I needed to do: Pitch more? Stay in the moment? Take a class? Talk to my therapist? Find out what envy was trying to warn me about and take action of some sort.”

The Next Time You Feel Envious…

So, the next time you’re envying someone’s promotion, new car, or expensive trip, don’t stew over it. Instead, ask yourself the following questions:

1. How envious are you? Is it a fleeting emotion or something stronger?

2. What is it, exactly, that you envy? If necessary, drill down to determine what you want that you feel you currently lack.

3. What can you learn from the person you envy? Can you emulate him or her in some way? “Don’t waste time in bitterness and resentment about what someone else has,” says Tessina. “Instead, observe that person and others who have what you’d like to have, and figure out what they did to achieve it.”

And don’t feel guilty about feeling envious. We all experience the emotion to some degree, and it doesn’t necessarily mean your life is lacking. Take Lisa Berch Bakewell, 63, who says she is “super envious of people — primarily women — who have their financial sh*t together. I envy friends who seem to have no financial worries. That said, I will never regret any cash spent on travel and experiences, such as concerts, sporting events, meet-and-greets, etc. I’m always willing to exchange money for memories.”

As for me? The envy I felt about Cindy’s upcoming vacation didn’t last. But it made me realize I want a vacation I can look forward to, too — and I’m planning one now.

Do you often feel envious of friends? Let us know in the comments below.

Follow Article Topics: Relationships