Jealousy, Envy & Schadenfreude: Green Eyed Monsters

  

“Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.” [Othello, Shakespeare]

Shakespeare first introduced the term “green eyed monster” in his tragedy “Othello” as a metaphor for jealousy. The metaphor is particularly poignant as jealousy has the ability to morph us into monsters: many a crime has been committed out of jealousy. This article explores the different types of jealousy, how both psychology and Islam approach these emotions, the consequences of these emotions, and finally how to overcome them.

  

Jealousy and Envy…and Schadenfreude?

 All of us have experienced feeling jealousy. Psychologists define jealousy as insecurity and anxiety about losing something that already belongs to us – for example a child being jealous of losing a best friend to another classmate. Envy, however, is defined as feeling insecure and bitter due to someone having something you currently do not possess, but wish to, and that you also wish the other person did not have what it is that you desire.

Seeing it written down in text may make us uncomfortable and indeed, it is rare that people can admit to feeling envious, whereas all other emotions are easier to express if experienced. It comes as no surprise then, that the core emotion at the centre of envy is shame. The insecurity that emerges upon comparison to others, warps feelings of shame into the cognitive construct of envy. But note – shame does not have to translate into envy, it is essentially the way we process the information coming in, the way we see the world, and interpret it, that leads to envy. Effectively – envy is a choice.

But that’s not all. There is a third level of jealousy – Schadenfreude, a word with roots in German that is lesser known, however widely practiced in today’s society. Schadenfreude is literally “harm-joy” whereby a person feels joy when another is harmed in some way. Gossiping about others and feeling satisfaction when others fail is massively widespread. Looking around at tabloids today you can see most of the celebrity culture news pieces are built around schadenfreude…. and people seem to love reading such articles, as schadenfreude allows people to gain gratification from the suffering of those that they envy.

 “HOLLYWOOD COUPLE SHOCK DIVORCE- SHE CHEATED ON HIM!”
 “HAS SHE GAINED 10 POUNDS OR IS SHE PREGNANT?”
“BRITNEY SHAVES HER HEAD, IS SHE HAVING A BREAK DOWN?!”

  

Three Conditions Needed for Envy

For Envy to occur, three conditions need to be in place:

  1. To be confronted with someone who has something we see as superior to what we possess
  2. To desire that something or wish that person did not have that something
  3. To feel pained by the emotions arising from the two conditions above.1

Essentially the pain is derived from comparison to others and perceiving them to have an advantage over us, and wishing that they did not do so – either by our gain or their loss. At the core of envy, is therefore inferiority and self-criticism: “I’m not good enough”; “He’s more successful than me”; “She’s prettier than me”; “they’re richer than we are”.

  

Conditions of Envy vs. Islam

As outlined there are three core tenets of envy: an inferiority complex, the perceived lacking of something, and the negative emotions that arise as a result of this perception. These emotions can range from shame, depression, hopelessness and so forth. The pain you would feel as a result of these emotions would be the fuel for envy, as no one wants to feel shame or depressed.

Considering these conditions of envy in perspective of Islam, something interesting comes to light: each of these conditions are discouraged in the religion.

Inferiority complexes are discouraged as you are not meant to compare yourself to others, but should instead have faith in what was given to you by God as being part of your destiny, and what is given to others as part of their destiny, and therefore accepting that all provisions and qualities are from God.

And so many a moving (living) creature there is, that carries not its own provision! Allah provides for it and for you. And He is the All-Hearer, the All-Knower. [Quran: 29.60]

To feel inferior is to feel ungrateful for your own blessings and look at the blessings of others. Islam encourages you to count your own blessings, which we can unfortunately become disillusioned, forgetful and ungrateful of simply by being blinded by what others have. The second entrapment of envy was indeed to perceive you are lacking something, however the Prophet of Islam suggested to:

“Look at those below you (less fortunate than you), and don’t look at those above you, for this is better.” [Hadith: Muslim]

By always looking at those with less than yourself, you reframe your mentality from feeling loss, to instead feel gain, and thus foster feelings of gratitude rather than envy.

Nevertheless self-esteem should not be derived from materialistic possessions (essentially anything that can be lost in this life) – in Islam, the only thing that can be carried onto the next life are your deeds, and therefore in Islam one can only be superior or inferior as a result of his or her deeds. A famous hadith from the Prophet’s last sermon alludes to this when it discourages racist supremacy and inferiority:

“There is no superiority for an Arab over a non-Arab, nor for a non-Arab over an Arab. Neither is the white superior over the black, nor is the black superior over the white — except by piety.” [Hadith]

To succumb to one’s envy is explicitly prohibited. A famous hadith recalls what God told Prophet Moses:

“O son of `Imran, never be envious of people concerning the favours I have conferred on them by My grace; do not glower at them, and do not succumb to your (envious) self. Indeed, the envious man is indignant at the bestowal of My favour, and contests My apportioning of gifts among My creatures. Whoever is such, he neither belongs to Me nor do I belong to him.” [Hadith]

The hadith highlights the fact that “the envious self” is something to struggle against rather than accept, and that to give into envy is to show indignation to the gifts you did get from God. The hadith suggests there is even a severing of ties between God and us if we are to yield to envy, indicating the damage to one’s faith by entertaining envious thoughts.

  

Schadenfreude and Islam

Schadenfraude is the evolved form of envy whereby if the one who is envied suffers some harm or misery, the envier feels pleasure as a result. Examples include being pleased or feeling a dull satisfaction at someone losing their job, failing a project, or going through a break up.

Destructive envy in Islam is called Hasad, and is seen as a disease of the soul. Al-Ghazali, a Muslim philosopher from circa 900AD described hasad as a “beast-like attribute”, which, left unchecked, could morph a human towards his animalistic side rather than help him grow and reach the full potential of his soul. Undeniably when animals are envious of each other, they may maim or even kill the other. Many a crime has been committed fuelled by envy, from robberies to even murder – indeed the first murder according to Islamic and Biblical traditions was committed due to envy, whereby of the two sons of Adam and Even, one became the first murderer and the other the first murdered.

One of the most oft-recited Surahs (verses) from the Quran asks believers to seek God for protection from those that practice envy or hasad, and thus is taken very seriously in Islam as something to be wary of.

Say: I seek refuge with the Lord of the Dawn…. from the mischief of the envious one as he practises envy” [Quran: 113.1…5]

The active protective supplications against hasad and those who may feel envy and schadenfreude against you, demonstrates the prohibition against feeling this way towards others, and something God does not take lightly.

The problem with schadenfreude is that it is orchestrated in a hidden manner, creating the “person with two faces” as no one really reveals that they feel pleasure at another’s suffering. In Islam this is directly harmful to the sense of brotherhood required by the faith. The prophet encapsulates the need for the exact opposite of schadenfreude perfectly in his hadith:

“The Muslim Ummah (community) is like one body. If the eye is in pain then the whole body is in pain and if the head is in pain then the whole body is in pain” [Hadith]

So rather than feeling pleasure at the pain of our brother or sister in faith, or even humanity, true Muslims would share the pain rather than revel in pleasure. Brotherhood is promoted as a crucial concept of faith and a way to counteract feelings of envy:

“Do not envy one another and do not hate one another, and do not turn your back on one another (in discontent) and be the servants of Allah like brothers.” [Hadith: Bukhari and Muslim]

In fact, your faith is neither complete nor true if you are not capable of feeling happy for others:

The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” [Hadith: Bukhari & Muslim]

With such a heavy emphasis on loving for others what you love for yourself, there is hardly any room for the converse emotion of schadenfreude in Islam.

Another interesting concept relating to this matter is the origin of envy. As belief in the existence of the devil is an article of faith for every Muslim, Muslims would attribute devils as the ones encouraging people to feel schadenfreude for each other rather than love. Indeed a Muslim would go so far as to argue that the devil feels intense schadenfreude when a Muslim comes to harm, as he has sworn himself to be the enemy of the first man, Adam, and all his descendants.

“Beware of envy because indeed envy destroys good deeds in the same manner as fire destroys wood”. [Hadith]

In fact, the genesis of envy is said to be from Satan himself when he was jealous of Adam. The Satan’s envy was fuelled by pride, as he believed he was worthier than Adam, and that Adam was not deserving of the status that he was granted by God. Out of his pride and envy he refused to obey God’s instructions to bow down and respect Adam, and as a result exposed his love for his own ego than his need to obey God. This is at the crux of Islam’s view of the stages of jealousy: by entertaining envy you are putting your own ego before God, thinking you deserve more than He has given you.

Therefore, Islam clearly proclaims that envy and schadenfreude are detrimental and potentially harmful to one’s mind, soul and faith. But has psychology derived the same conclusion: is jealousy truly bad for us?

  

Is Envy Truly Bad For Us? The Science

Destructive jealousy and envy are linked to anxiety and depression, which can in turn affect our physical health2. Indeed envy has been linked to high blood pressure, higher stress levels, and even a strong predictor of cardiovascular disease3.

Constantly ruminating, comparing ourselves to others and lowering our self-esteem will lead to a negative self-image, which fuels depressive thoughts. It is no wonder envy has been linked to mental health problems. A recent study linked envy and depression when it found that those who compare themselves to others on Facebook, and regularly feel envious have higher rates of depression4. Not to mention it would be difficult to have close friendships that assist our personal growth if we are feeling envious every time they succeed – and the isolation that would occur as a result would add to depressive symptoms. Schadenfreude also would mean friendships are false.

What is even more fascinating is the neural circuitry behind envy and schadenfreude. Within the brain there is a region termed the striatum, which contains regions that become activated in response to things that give us a sense of reward, for example winning a competition or seeing a loved one.

  A study looked into the processing that occurs when people experience envy and schadenfreude. What the scientists discovered was that when participants felt envy they experienced a decrease of activation in the reward regions of the striatum. To take things further, they also discovered that when experiencing schadenfreude the participants experienced an increase of activation in the reward related regions of the striatum5.

These findings are profound – it fundamentally highlights that when we feel envious, we feel a loss of pleasure. However when we experience schadenfreude towards others, we feel pleasure directly within the reward centers of the brain.

This is not exactly good news.

The reward centers of the brain are powerful as they help shape our future behaviors, what we crave, and essentially who we eventually become. For example, a young child who watches a particular cartoon and finds pleasure in it, (i.e. reward centers activated) may watch more of the same series, and then go on to become a full-fledged fan of the series, buying all the movies and merchandise as you want more of what you enjoy. However as time goes on sometimes you need much more of it to give the same spike of pleasure.

In fact drugs and nicotine operate on this principle. They appease the reward centers of the brain, with the risk of making you addicted. Anything in excessive amounts when combined with activation of the reward center can lead to addictions or unhealthy obsessions. Destructive habits such as porn addictions, over-eating, and smoking also involve the reward processing centers.

With that in mind, schadenfraude starts to look a lot more sinister. In other words, over time you may develop a habit of gaining pleasure from the suffering of others, which will slowly impinge on your ability to be authentic and eventually create a personality that gains sincere pleasure from the suffering of others. Truly a green-eyed monster!

Therefore, it is quite clear that envy and schadenfreude can be detrimental to both our mental and physical health. While psychology does not entirely and explicitly agree that there is a soul, it is clear that envy and schadenfreude are detrimental to personal growth.

But does that mean that there is categorically no good in envy?

  

Can Envy Be Good For Us?

A study looked into if there can by any positive consequences of envy. The participants were primed (subconsciously influenced) towards envy by being asked to write about envy, and others were not primed to envy. When these participants who were students, were presented stories about successful students, those primed with envy actually remembered more details about the students6.

This suggests envy can kick-start the brain into focusing attention, as it is seeking out methods of gaining an advantage akin to the peers or the envied ones. The brain is likely to remember details so that it can mimic similar successes. However, bearing in mind the negative consequences that harboring envy can have, this ability should be harnessed without resorting to envy – or worse, schadenfreude.

Essentially when someone is jealous or envious of another’s success, this should be reframed away from “I don’t want him to have that” to “If she can have it, I can have it too. What do I need to do to make sure I can achieve it?”. At the end of the day you will have things that others also envy. It is about understanding that live is about living, learning, and growing. Successes and failures, gains and losses are a part of life, and the intricacy of both highs and lows are what make life so beautiful.

Intriguingly, Islam has the exact same leeway for envy. Whilst it is uncompromising on the ban of giving in to your envious self for the sake of materialistic gains, it fascinatingly makes an allowance for only one type of envy: the envy of the immaterial – good deeds.

The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “There is no envy except in two cases: a man whom Allah has given this Book so he stands to recite it during the day and night, and a man whom Allah has given wealth and he spends it during the day and night.” [Hadith: Bukhari, Muslim]

This hadith points to how those who stand to “recite” (i.e. pray) and those who give charity are the only ones to truly envy, as they are preparing for the eternal life rather than this material world. It is as if, in Islam, envy suggests attachment to this world and so it is explicitly forbidden, however to be jealous of others who are gaining good deeds should serve as a motivation to also gain good deeds. The interesting thing about good deeds is you can only gain an advantage over others in good deeds…by actually performing good deeds! By encouraging competition and essentially encouraging the shaping of a mentality that derives pleasure from charitable acts would create a nation that would not be subsumed by their obsessions over material gain, but those who are humanitarian and always looking for ways to make the lives of others. Ultimately a society with such an underlying rhetoric would be a successful one. Thus, this incredible wisdom is the only example of “envy” being allowable in Islam.

  

How to Overcome Envy

The cure for envy lies in gratitude and reframing. By being grateful for what we already have we seldom have the need to feel envious of what others have. Reframing can help us cope with situations that elicit jealousy, envy or schadenfreude. For example, if you fail to get a promotion and your colleague gets it instead, you can reframe your thoughts away from envy to thoughts that encourage self-growth and camaraderie, such as:

I am happy she got the role, she deserved it, she would have been crushed if she did not get it.”

“Perhaps I need to grow further in my role before I can get a promotion. What can I do to become better at my job?”

“What can I do better next time?”

“I may not have a promotion but perhaps I can look at other companies to see if perhaps I can try a new role?”

“I am grateful to even have a job, whereby I can afford food, shelter, clothing – basic essentials are easy for me because I have this job. I will take a deep breath, accept this loss and have faith in a future win.”

As you can see, by reframing how you see an event can avert you from envy and other emotions such as bitterness and resentment.

  

Conclusion

Ultimately envy is driven by the need for gain, but if the psyche and iman (faith) pay the price, you actually lose. Remember that happiness is a state of being not having, and some of happiest people in this world actually would be classed as those in poverty. Reframe your understanding of what happiness is and what success is – and you will find envy being tamed.

Shaz A


References:

  1. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/hide-and-seek/201408/the-psychology-and-philosophy-envy
  2. https://www.mentalhelp.net/blogs/the-nature-of-envy/
  3. https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/bitstream/1807/43300/11/Pila_Eva_201311_MSc_thesis.pdf
  4. http://www.nhs.uk/news/2015/02February/Pages/Facebook-envy-associated-with-symptoms-of-depression.aspx
  5. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/pcn.12182/epdf
  6. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/ulterior-motives/201109/the-upside-and-downside-envy

Audio-Visual Credits:

‘Iva Villi’ http://www.freeimages.com/photographer/nahhan-41426

‘leona lim’ http://www.freeimages.com/photographer/leonalim-41514

‘James Knight’ http://www.freeimages.com/photographer/jkpics-58296

About psychislam 12 Articles

PsychIslam aims to demonstrate how Islamic teachings taught 1400 years ago via Quran and Hadith hold truths that are being discovered by psychologists today. Read our articles to learn about fascinating parallels between Islam and Psychology that are scientifically supported. Explore a range of topics from miraculous advice about sleep to Prophetic wisdom about anger.

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