If “comparison is the death of joy,” as Mark Twain famously said, then salary envy is the death of self-worth. Salary envy—a.k.a. being jealous of our friends, family, colleagues, enemies, etc. who make more money than we do—is a very real phenomenon.
It’s easy to give your peers the stink eye to mask your feelings of inadequacy over not making as much money as you want or need to. After all, we’ve been hardwired to link our personal value to our income. But we shouldn’t sink into a pit of self-loathing because society didn’t teach us to distinguish between the two.
And while money can’t buy happiness, it’s completely natural to want more, especially if you’re grinding away and still doggy-paddling in this sea of economic instability.
Well, fear not my salary-obsessed friends. While the causes of social inequality are systemic and deep-rooted, we can at least work to fight the symptoms of salary envy.
Focus on the root of your salary envy
Recognizing that you’re envious about someone else’s salary “taps into a theory called social comparison,” says Lisa Barron, an organizational management professor at UC Irvine’s business school. “We do these social comparisons all the time to understand how we’re faring. The ubiquity of information these days skews the picture, and we think everybody has more stuff than we do.” That inevitably impacts our self-esteem.
“The first thing you should do is ascertain whether the other person’s salary is appropriate for the work they’re doing,” Barron says. “Take a cold, hard look at that, and then do a reality check and ask yourself, ‘Why am I comparing myself to this person?’” If it isn’t just another case of wage gap privilege, “it might be that the person has more credentials and more experience in that field,” she says.
Explore freelance and contract work
Maybe you’re low on funds this month and you need to pay off some bills ASAP. While scraping for change on HQ Trivia is entertaining, there are more lucrative ways to earn serious bucks. Sometimes working toward your goals means putting in the elbow grease—and exploring freelance and contracted work for some extra cash. The flexibility of these gigs allows you to set your schedule around your current job.
Get clear on your value
Pricing consultant Casey Brown says it’s totally normal to have fears around asking for the salaries we need. The question is: how do we move past those fears? “Clearly defining and communicating your value are essential to being paid well for your excellence,” she says in her 2017 TEDTalk.
“No one will ever pay you what you’re worth. They’ll only ever pay you what they think you’re worth—and you control their thinking.”
This doesn’t mean we’re instructing you to barge into the boardroom and give a rousing speech about what an underpaid badass you are. But consider having a one-on-one talk with your boss about the value you bring to the company and negotiating a salary that properly reflects the work you’re doing.
Leverage your talents for a promotion
“Have a talk with your boss about where you’d like career to go—not saying, ‘I want to be a CEO tomorrow,’ but a realistic conversation about your aspirations. Ask your boss about what you need to do to get there,” Barron says. Find out if your company has salary transparency, determine what higher-paying roles intrigue you, do your homework, and figure out how you can leverage your talents for a promotion. “Put together a plan that’s going to help you get to where you want to be salarywise,” she says.
Take a look at the bigger picture
“If you experience social comparison all the time—not just with your salary, but with lots of things—it’s good to take a moment to work on that. Realize that what somebody else is doing doesn’t really have an impact on you,” Barron says. “It’s important to analyze yourself and think, ‘What am I doing that isn’t making me happy? Is it that I’m not really liking my work? Is it that I’m not happy with what I have or the experiences I’m having?’ Take a bigger look at your life and see what changes need to be made to take care of your own happiness.” You might find that the root of your salary envy isn’t the actual figure, but the amount of joy you derive (or don’t derive) from your work.
There are many economic forces working against millennials that are out of our control. However, how we respond to those conditions is up to us. Wherever you are on the salary envy spectrum, keep in mind Maya Angelou’s wise words in Letter To My Daughter: “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”