Here's What Happens To Your Brain When You Experience Envy, According To Science
I'm as guilty of it as anyone: I see another mom and immediately assess how I'm falling short. Whether I'm scrolling through social media or having a playdate at a friend's house, it seems there is no escaping the green monster. I don't want to be jealous — I want to high-five and affirm everyone, even as I stay in my own lane — but it seems to happen nearly every day. And with the entire world on phones, moms today are battling envy more than ever before. But what happens to your brain when you experience envy? And why can't we just let it go?
First of all, Carol Barkes says, its important to keep in mind that envy isn't all bad. Barkes has an MBA in Conflict Management and Negotiation and is pursuing a PhD in peak performance psychology with an emphasis in Neuroscience and Conflict Management. If anyone can teach us a thing or two about the neuroscience of envy, it's her.
"Envy is a vital part of our evolutionary DNA. It is an adaptive response to limited resources shared by your group," the Boise State University lecturer tells Romper. "When we look at what others have, we notice what we could have that would increase our chances for survival." We can use the feeling of envy to propel ourselves forward to do and be better.
Barkes continues, "Our brains are social in nature, which has helped us survive despite not having incredible claws, razor sharp teeth, or thick fur. We acted as a group to outwit the realities of nature so our brain has dedicated a significant amount to social interaction. It is what has kept us at the top of the food chain."
That's just the right amount of perspective to help shift our guilt over feeling jealous of another mom friend and her superfood snacks or flat tummy — maybe it will propel us to get healthier or more fit — but it's still a nagging feeling to have to battle. Why does it always seem to be those in our everyday lives that we feel most envious of? According to Barkes, proximity is the nature of the beast.
"We feel more envy toward those in our social circle, geographical location, or who are like us in other attributes then we do toward celebrities or other outliers," she tells Romper. "We pay more attention to our own in groups, people of the same sex, social status, ability, looks, etc. than we do people like Bill Gates who seem far out of our realm of comparison."
But its not just who we are envious of that has specificity, it is what we are envious of, too. Neuroscience indicates that human beings do not typically envy abstract things, like happiness, as much as we do things we can quantify like social status, money, weight, and clothing. Our brains simply have a hard time visualizing the abstract the way we do the concrete.
If you've ever wondered whether there is a difference between envy and jealousy, or if the words are interchangeable, social science has an answer for that too. "Envy is between two people and addresses what another person has or is that you would like; it could be an attribute like beauty or something substantive like wealth," Barkes clarifies. "Jealousy is between three people and revolves around losing something (or someone) you have to another." Good to know.
Barkes reports that envy is registered in the same part of the brain as physical pain and, incredibly, can be treated as such with ibuprofen. Sound impossible? Perhaps, but it might just be different enough to work. My guess is some of us will be popping a bottle in the diaper bag before the next playdate, just in case.