Scrolling through my social media feed, I saw friends with huge smiles and Band-Aids on their arms, holding little slips of paper. “Got my first dose of the vaccine,” the captions read. I texted a friend: “I have so much vaccine envy, I can taste it.”
I’ll leave it to you to decide what your vaccine envy tastes like, but if you’re feeling it, you’re not alone.
Robert H. Shmerling, senior faculty editor at Harvard Health Publishing, had it, along with citizens in Wisconsin and Nevada. There is massive inequity in vaccine distribution. Black, Latino, and low-income communities are being underserved while continuing to bear the brunt of the virus. For those fortunate enough and healthy enough to just be waiting your turn, it’s easy to get impatient.
The Washington Post interviewed psychologists and other mental health professionals, who gave some suggestions for coping as the vaccine becomes available at different speeds and in different ways all over the country. You might try “emotional brain training,” acknowledging envy, then transforming those feelings through expressing positive emotions. Or you could try Buddhist meditation, concentrating on feeling joy for the person, and joy that we’re one step closer to a safer public health situation, instead of envy. The message from these practices is to get rid of or transform those envious feelings into something positive. As the neuropsychologist Eric Zillmer put it, “Envy is like a weed. It starts growing, and if you don’t prune it, it will cover the entire tree.”
However, philosophers argue that emotions reflect what we care about. I feel sad when I can’t see my friends and family because I care about them. I feel fear about catching the virus because I care about my health. I feel anger toward people who don’t wear their masks or take proper precautions because I care about protecting the public welfare. My feelings of sadness, fear, and anger all have their roots in care. If none of these things mattered to me, I wouldn’t be liable to sadness, fear, or anger.
Though long seen as a vice or a moral flaw, as a moral philosopher, I see envy as an emotion that helps us know and discover what our values are.
Envy is usually associated with wealth — wanting the exotic cars, huge yachts, or opulent homes that the rich and famous enjoy. We may be critical of that envious feeling because desiring those things seems materialistic. But what we are really expressing is disappointment at ourselves or others for desiring the wrong things or for caring too much about things that aren’t really important. Yet we feel similarly about things that are valuable and meaningful. We envy people for their happy romantic relationships or fulfilling careers because it pains us to see people enjoying things we want. Painful feelings are just as reflective of our cares as pleasant feelings.
We have vaccine envy because we care about our health, the health of those we love, and the elements of our old lives that we miss. Since envy is just part of caring about all these things, there’s no reason to try to get over it. Envy is one of the most common human emotions, but its bad reputation comes from the vicious things people do with it. It can take the form of spite or competition as we see people trying to cut in line for the vaccine or traveling to other cities and states to get it. That bad behavior happens when we refuse to simply let ourselves feel negative feelings — without burying them, without acting on them, and without reaching for the latest positivity app to help train them away. We wish it away because it hurts, but it’s healthy for human emotional life to not always feel good.
So, go ahead and text fellow vaccine-enviers to commiserate, mutter angrily as you scroll through those happy photos, and impatiently wait your turn. There’s nothing wrong with being pained by watching other people get what you want.
Krista K. Thomason is an associate professor of philosophy at Swarthmore College.