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Why We Envy Others

When We Want What Others Have

written by Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD September 11, 2019
Why We Envy Others

Social animals learn to meet their needs by watching others. Seeking what others have is the core survival strategy of the animal brain. Our human instincts tell us to envy others and envy what they have. Practical awareness of this natural impulse can help you manage your ups and downs.

Getting Real with Your Own Wants

Mammals are not born with survival skills. They wire them in by observing the survival behavior of others. When a young mammal sees others get a reward, it motivates them to seek that reward. No conscious thought is necessary due to mirror neurons and dopamine.

Dopamine is released when a mammal meets a need. The good feeling motivates a body to repeat the behavior that stimulated it. A young mammal enjoys a drip of dopamine when it observes another individual get a reward, thanks to its mirror neurons. Repeated experience wires the young mammal to expect good feelings in the ways it sees others get them.

I’m not saying you should want what others have. I’m saying you do, and when you know how you create this urge, you have power over it. Unfortunately, people often feel powerless instead. They blame society and other externals for responses they create internally. This is easy to do because our mammalian limbic system is not capable of using language. It can’t tell you in words why it turns on a feeling, so your verbal brain jumps to the conclusion that the impulse came from outside you. You end up feeling powerless over your impulses.

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