Envy at its Worst: In the Future Tense


A new study shows that we’re more jealous of our friends’ plans and prospects than their past accomplishments.


It is better to be envied than to be pitied, wrote the Greek historian Herodotus, and in our use of social media it’s clear that most of us agree. After all, why post selfies of yourself and your sweetheart lifting champagne flutes en route to Thailand if not to induce an eat-your-heart-out response in your friends?

Ubiquitous public displays of everyone’s happy moments—with the low points edited out—are one reason, according to a 2017 study, that most of us believe other people lead richer social lives than we do. Research shows that most of us think we are better looking, smarter, more competent and of course less biased than other people. But our perspectives do a 180 when it comes to our social lives.

When we hear about our friends’ plans to share a summer cottage on the seashore, for example, we may feel green with envy. We imagine that they’ll have a blast—the group dinners on the screened-in porch, swimming together at the pond, the bike rides to get ice cream. The idyllic possibilities are enough to make a working stiff with one week of holiday gag.

Now a new study, published last month in the journal Psychological Science, adds a counterintuitive twist to this familiar story: Other people’s plans for the future irritate us much more than experiences they’ve had in the past. At first this idea might seem strange. Don’t we feel envy for people’s accomplishments and possessions, such as their expensive cars? We do, but the study shows that jealousy stings even more when we think about the good things that lie in their future. In fact, our envious feelings ramp up as someone else’s fortunate occasion gets closer—and plummet once the event is over. Apparently envy is time-stamped, like an email or a tray of raw chicken from the supermarket.

In the study, researchers asked 620 participants to imagine their best friend in each of five circumstances: on a dream vacation, a dream date or in the ideal job, car or house. To make the exercise more personal, the participants were asked for the initials of their best friend. Then they had to rate, on a scale of 1 to 7, how they would feel during the days and weeks leading up to each drool-worthy event, as well as the days and weeks that followed. “Imagine the 10 days and nights of your friend in Maui next month. How do you feel about this?” said Ed O’Brien, one of the study’s lead authors and a professor at the University of Chicago. “Now roll back a year. How does the trip make you feel now?”

The researchers discovered that envy includes negative emotions, like malice, but can also be a source of positive feelings, like increased motivation. Each feeling has its own timetable: “While negative reactions decrease over time once the friend has achieved something we want, time has no effect on the positive form of envy, the motivation to try to do that sort of thing in the future,” explained Prof. O’Brien.

The finding that envy is more predictably triggered by other people’s future prospects than by their past achievements fits into a larger argument. The human brain evolved to have an emotional bias toward the future. according to American social psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues. First we focus on what we want, and then a second, more cautious stage of thinking comes into play so we can figure out what we must do to get it.

So if we want a kinder social media world, we should stick to posting about events that have come and gone, rather than inciting envy with things we’re looking forward to. Got plans for a long, lazy summer frolicking with friends at the beach? For now, you might want to keep that to yourself.