Envy is one of the most useless of feelings, both in our private and business lives. Yet many people experience it, at least from time to time. They envy their neighbor’s fancy car and exotic vacations, or wealth in general.  They envy their friends’ educational achievements or the praise they receive for being high achievers. Or they envy their acquaintance’s acumen and success in business. The higher someone’s achievements, the more they are envied by others. Take “the 1%,” the top income earners in the world, for instance. I doubt that 99% of the people envy them—I certainly don’t—but many people do. Where does envy come from, and why is it a waste of time?

Envy is a thoroughly second-handed feeling. Instead of focusing on their own lives—how to make them better and how to achieve their goals through their own effort, enviers dwell on what others’ have and what they themselves do not. Instead of admiring achievers, being grateful, and wanting to emulate them, enviers focus on the negative: what they themselves lack but others have. Enviers feel sorry for themselves.

The enviers do not seek to identify positive action they can take. They don’t ask: What can I do to become an achiever, too? They want the achievers to share their success and their wealth, so that these, and their consequence, happiness, would be more equally distributed. Surely, most people do not go to their better-off neighbors directly to ask for some their money or one of their cars; however, they whole-heartedly support government’s progressive income tax schemes that make those who produce the most pay a disproportionate amount of taxes. For example, the top 1% of the income earners in the United States pay 30% of all the income taxes, whereas almost 50% of Americans pay no income tax at all.

The philosophical idea that gives rise to the emotion of envy is egalitarianism, a warped notion of justice that is rampant today and wreaks havoc not only on our personal success and happiness but also on the entire economy.  According to egalitarianism, all results should be equal, regardless of effort, ability, or merit. Everyone should get as equal a “slice of the pie” as possible, regardless whether or how much they contributed to the making of the pie. People who believe in egalitarianism—the overwhelming majority today—are prone to envy.

The problem with egalitarianism and envy is that they hinder human survival and success. In people’s private lives they lead to negativity, self-pity, and support of egalitarian laws and programs of governments (minimum wage laws, progressive income taxes, welfare programs, etc.). In business, the consequences of egalitarianism and envy are similar: antitrust laws, affirmative action laws, lobbying for government hand-outs and for protection against competition, etc. Egalitarianism and envy don’t lead to achievement of any positive values such as efforts at learning and self-improvement, or product innovation, increased cost efficiency, and wealth creation.

By “redistributing” achievements governments ignore a crucial fact: somebody must achieve and create wealth for there to be anything to “redistribute,” and the creators must be motivated to create. Slaving for the sake of others doesn’t do it for most, as all egalitarian—or socialist—experiments in history have shown. Look at the Euro zone cracking, as the better-off countries such as Germany are increasingly reluctant to bail out the basket cases (egalitarian paradises) like Greece.

I conclude with a positive suggestion:  don’t waste your time on envy. Instead, focus on your life and your business: what can you do to be productive and achieve your goals. You can only live your life and run your business, after all. Instead of egalitarianism, embrace justice. Give others (and yourself) what they objectively deserve. Give achievers and producers your admiration, support, and gratitude since you benefit from their achievement and production, both psychologically and materially. Someone else’s success can inspire and encourage you, and their material achievement benefits you in the form of better, less expensive, new products and services, more opportunities, and more wealth overall. Ayn Rand called envy “the hatred of the good for being the good.” Instead of hating and envying the good, let’s love and thank the good for being the good.

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Jaana Woiceshyn
Jaana Woiceshyn teaches business ethics and competitive strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada. She has lectured and conducted seminars on business ethics to undergraduate, MBA and Executive MBA students, and to various corporate audiences for over 20 years both in Canada and abroad. Before earning her Ph.D. from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, she helped turn around a small business in Finland and worked for a consulting firm in Canada. Jaana’s research on technological change and innovation, value creation by business, executive decision-making, and business ethics has been published in various academic and professional journals and books. “How to Be Profitable and Moral” is her first solo-authored book. Visit her website at profitableandmoral.com.

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