12/17/2012 11:31 am ET Updated Feb 16, 2013

Is Envy Good for You?

It's a familiar, if uncomfortable, feeling. Your best friend announces she's engaged to the handsome doctor she's been dating, and the congratulatory hug you offer lacks genuine warmth. Your friend's made the team for Saturday's big game, and you take a certain pleasure in telling him you can't be there to watch him play. Something nasty's gnawing at your stomach, and you smile through gritted teeth as that voice in your head asks, Why them and not you?

Envy is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, a flaw of character we like to keep firmly in the closet. And it's hardly surprising that we keep our envy secret. How ungracious is it, after all, not to be looking forward with delight to your day as your best friend's bridesmaid? And who but a total louse would hope your friend might suffer some injury, so you can take his place on the team?
We all know the fairytale of Cinderella, where a downtrodden girl makes good. What stands between Cinderella and her happy-ever-after are two manifestations of the bitterest envy - her step-sisters, bent on bagging her Prince Charming for themselves.

In history, musical prodigy Mozart shared the limelight with Antonio Salieri, a composer who in his lifetime had far more success than Mozart. Yet Salieri was so eaten with envy over what he saw as Mozart's effortless talent, he's rumored to have seen Mozart off with a fatal dose of poison.

An extreme case, maybe. But from childhood complaints of, "It's not fair!" to the sniping of office politics and the back-biting on a girls' night out, envy is everywhere. It seems to be in our nature to resent others' gifts and good fortune, especially if we see them as undeserved advantages.

Envy raises its ugly head when we focus on what we want that we don't possess now, and at a more intense level, we may even wish for and take pleasure in someone losing what we have coveted. Feelings of unfairness and the hostility that sometimes goes with it are part of being human, but when you focus on your lack or your deficiencies - when you compare yourself and your life unfavorably with your friend, your work-colleague or your love-rival - you can only perpetuate your darker emotions. And that makes you feel bad.

So is there a solution? Is there anything you can do to quash the most ungenerous of emotions?
Well, why not turn envy on its head, and make it the spur you need for self-improvement? The ultimate weapon against envy is not to compete where you can't shine, but to do your absolute best where you can.

Start by making peace with yourself, and accept the gifts which make you unique. Make a pact with yourself to be the best you can be. Then pinpoint the circumstances and qualities in others that trigger your envy. Is it someone's singing voice, their work promotion, their new car? Envy shows us the things we'd like to have - so draft a plan to earn what's important to you. Sign up for a night-class. Start a training program. Forego a treat or two, and start saving for what you want.

And aim for genuine pleasure in the achievements and good fortune of others. Cheer on your friend when he scores that goal. Enjoy your best friend's wedding day. Then go out and do something special, and make yourself wonderfully proud of you.

Anne Zouroudi is the author of the new book The Doctor of Thessaly, part of The Mysteries of the Greek Detective series.