The Stoic Antidote to Envy

The Stoic Antidote to Envy


Chapter 25 / 53: In this guide, Epictetus reminds us that in life there is always a price of admission to get the things we want. If we do not pay it, we cannot expect the goods. This way of thinking is very useful for navigating feelings of envy and bitterness.

Do you ever experience envy when others get things you do not? 

Some examples:

  • You are at a work meeting and someone else gets promoted.
  • You are out, and your friend seems to get the attractive girl or guy.
  • You work hard, but someone you know somehow earns twice as much as you.
  • You are waiting in line, but other people are let into the venue first.

When these things happen, sometimes we can get bitter or resentful...

Why wasn't I the one who had this reward?

This way of interpreting the situation is not reasonable. Instead, the correct response when this happens is contentment.

Let me explain:

(i) If someone gets some reward, and they actually deserve it this is fantastic. They are getting what they deserve, and we can trust that the world is operating how we would like.

(ii) If someone gets the reward, but you feel they don't deserve it, remember that they must've still acted in such a way to get the reward. They were willing to engage in certain behaviors (that you weren't, often for good reason) to get a particular outcome.

For example, if you refuse to go out and socialize, you cannot expect to have an abundant social life. If you refuse to give praise to others, you cannot expect to receive the same advantages as someone who gives praise.

discomfort is the price of admission for a meaningful life -- stoic flowchart

You might see someone who "has their life together" and you are envious of that, but at the same time, you aren't willing to follow the same systems and protocols they are. Sometimes, discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.

It would be unfair and greedy on your part, then, to decline to pay the price that these privileges entail and hope to get them free.
— Epictetus, Enchiridion, Chapter 25
In the deepest sense, we are all getting exactly what we choose.

I might choose to spend $100 on a new pair of shoes. Just because you don't want to spend that amount of money on a pair of shoes, that doesn't mean you come off second best. In fact, while I have gained a pair of shoes, you have gotten to keep your money.

In life, there is always a "price of admission." If you don't get something that you want, were you unlucky or just unwilling to pay the price of admission? If you are unwilling to pay the price of admission, but still want the goods, then it is you who are unfair and foolish, rather than life itself.

It is worth noting, also, that we always benefit in some way whether we pay the price of admission or not. If you are not invited to a party, you have lost the experience of the party, but you have also gained the advantage of not needing to praise the host, who you might find disagreeable.