Envy is a complex emotion that can be tangled up with many other feelings. Resentment, feelings of inferiority, guilt, and longing can all be part of what it means to be envious. (1)
At its worst, envy can also involve unkind feelings towards some who has what you want. This is known as malicious envy and is a destructive expression of very normal emotion. (1) When you harbor resentful or harmful feelings towards someone else, it may not hurt them, but it definitely hurts you. Those types of feelings are bad for the soul.
As an example, imagine a friend gets a new car that you really want but can’t afford. If you’re not aware of your envious feelings, they may become malicious. You might begin to think unkind thoughts about your friend, such as “she doesn’t work as hard as me and doesn’t deserve that car.” Those thoughts will likely make you feel bitter and eventually impact your friendship.
Thankfully envy can also be “benign envy,” meaning there is no hostility towards the other person. (1) This type of envy can spur us to work hard and achieve success. It can also make us more aware of what we value in life.
If you really want the same car as your friend has, you could turn your desire into positive action and pick up some extra work to save up the money you need. But, conversely, you might recognize your desire for the car, but after reflection, decide you value your free time more than the car and all the extra work it would require.
Envy does not have to be a destructive force in life when we have the emotional intelligence to see it for what it is.