The words jealousy and envy are often used interchangeably, but they mean different things. Jealousy is when one is anxious or fearful that someone will take away what one already has – which is why we talk of jealous partners. Oh, you’re going for drinks with that attractive work colleague again? Or, I don’t know, let’s say you hear of a writer in the market for a Saturday column and you have one.
Envy is wanting what another has. We say we are “jealous” when we see someone’s holiday pictures on Instagram, but in fact we are envious. It’s an antisocial emotion, and one we’ve all felt.
But some psychologists recognise something known as “benign envy”: rather than stewing and wishing the downfall of those who have things or experiences we covet, we are inspired by their success to work harder and achieve the same.
Then there is something even more benign: feeling actively happy about someone else’s success, divorced from any self-interest. There’s a lot of humour to be mined in a friend squealing to another, “I’m so happy for you!” but dying inside with a brought-to-the-boil feeling of why not me?
Feeling genuine joy at another’s joy is a thing. It’s known as muditā in Buddhism. There’s also a German term, mitfreude, which would serve as the opposite to schadenfreude. The fact that the former is not widely used, but the latter is well-known worldwide probably tells us something. Recently, another term has emerged, in English, for this vicarious pleasure: compersion. (The etymology here is when one experiences shared joy with one’s partner as they have sex with another person.)
Sometimes this empathic pleasure is easy. I don’t want children, so if a friend announces they are pregnant, then, OK sure, I’m slightly pissed off at the thought of losing another one of my pals to nappies, but it’s not difficult for me to be genuinely happy for them. But if one is unsuccessfully trying for a baby, it would be natural to feel envious.
As adults we are meant to be better at handling jealousy and envy. Perhaps that is why I have stood beaming at so many friends’ book launches, and been thrilled to attend house-warming parties at homes I could never afford. Of course, the temptation is there to lock the new owners in the bathroom and squat in it, but most of all I am happy for them. And, more importantly, I mean it.