LOS ANGELES — Peter Jacobsen, 64, has made only five trips to Trader Joe’s since the pandemic began. Each time he moved quickly to limit his potential exposure to the coronavirus.
“I know what I’m getting,” he said. “I don’t shop around, just pick it up, bag it and get out of there.”
But on a recent trip to the market in mid-March, he ran into an older friend who wanted to stop and chat.
She had recently received her second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and this was her first visit to Trader Joe’s in a year, she told Jacobsen — another sign of life finally getting back to normal.
As she talked, Jacobsen grew increasingly anxious. He was happy for his friend, but at the same time he wondered when he would experience a similar sense of relief. He also wanted to get back home. And fast.
“I was still in that pandemic mode and she’s relaxed,” he said. “Vaccine envy is real.”
The pandemic has taught us a lot about ourselves — how we handle fear of the unknown, cope with isolation, and respond to the deep inequities that the coronavirus laid bare.
And as more people across the country joyfully announce they have received that long-awaited shot in the arm, many who are still eagerly awaiting their turn are also confronting their own feelings of envy.
“I like to say that envy is a universal emotion that nobody seems to have,” said Josh Gressel, author of the book “Embracing Envy: Finding the Spiritual Treasure in our Most Shameful Emotion.” “It’s the one emotion that everyone is ashamed to admit.”
And yet some people are admitting it.
“My vaccine envy is such that I’m questioning if I’m really a good person after all,” David Wagoner of Virginia tweeted Thursday.
Bei Deng, a 24-year-old with no underlying health issues who lives in Koreatown, said she’ll probably mute friends who post photos flaunting their vaccinations on social media to keep her anxiety down until she too gets the shot.
And Kat Sambor, 36, an event planner in Echo Park, acknowledged that seeing friends and acquaintances getting vaccinated ahead of her was emotionally confusing.
“I’m super happy for every person who said they got it — I want everyone to get it, I want my loved ones to be safe,” she said. “I know every person who gets vaccinated gets us closer to the end of the pandemic, but at the same time there’s that duality with jealousy.”
For better or worse, envy has always been part of the human condition. Every known language has a word for envy. It shows up in the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not covet.” Studies have shown that even capuchin monkeys experience envy.
“Envy is the desire for something that someone else has, and it’s an unpleasant emotion,” said Christine Harris, a psychology professor at the University of San Diego who studies negative emotions.
Most experts agree that envy serves an evolutionary purpose — comparing ourselves to others and striving to obtain the things they have can help us expand and grow.
“If we didn’t feel envy, we would wither away on the evolutionary vine,” said Richard Smith, an envy expert and retired professor of psychology who taught at the University of Kentucky.
Still, most of us feel ashamed of any envy we experience.
“I think of it as a two-headed monster,” Harris said. “There’s one head that wants to devour what the other person has, and the other head wants to chew on yourself for having such loathsome feelings.”
But Harris encourages those who are berating themselves for having vaccine envy to give themselves a break.
“Experiencing envy does not make you a bad person,” she said. “It’s natural, and we are wired to have these emotions.”
It is also true that we can feel happy for someone and envious of them at the same time.
“One of the reasons people feel really dirty for experiencing envy is because they forget we are complicated and can have multiple emotions at once,” Harris said. “This happens in friendships all the time. You do want what’s best for your best friend, but you also think: ‘Why can’t I have that too?’”
Smith said the degree of envy we feel toward others is often regulated by how deserving we perceive them to be.
“If you think someone doesn’t deserve something, quite naturally you get angry when they get it,” he said.
This aspect of envy has become front and center in the last few weeks as vaccine eligibility has expanded.
It was easy to feel unfettered happiness when health care workers — who had bravely exposed themselves to the coronavirus for months — became eligible for the vaccine. Similarly, many felt joy and relief when older people were able to get protection.
But as younger, seemingly able-bodied people began posting vaccine selfies on the internet, envy inevitably raised its head.
“One of the things often said about envy is you are more likely to envy someone who is similar to you,” Smith said. “So, if you see someone who is similar to you get the vaccine, your initial reaction is, ‘Why?’”
New York comedian Matt Buechele encapsulates this feeling in a video he calls, “Trying to figure out how all your friends got the vaccine.”
“What does Kevin do for a living? Is he a nurse?” he asks. “He’s a software engineer? I don’t know. … Did I miss an eligibility list?”
“Obviously I’m happy for them,” he continues. “I just … I gotta learn more about our friends.”
Wondering how a seemingly healthy friend got the vaccine is understandable, Smith said. But when a friend you believe to be healthy and able to keep themselves safe exuberantly posts on Instagram about receiving the vaccine, it may be prudent to reserve judgment.
“There is so much invisibility around illness,” said Dr. Stephanie White, chief medical officer of WesternU Health in Pomona. “We may not know about someone’s recent cancer diagnosis or a pregnancy they are not ready to share.”
White, who runs a vaccination clinic, also said there’s no reason to vilify those who had the time and patience to wait outside a clinic to get a leftover dose.
“It is very hard to perfectly distribute vaccines,” she said. “Actually, it’s impossible.”
Doses remain viable for only six hours after they’ve been mixed. Therefore, if any are left over at the end of the day, White would rather give them to people who have waited outside the clinic than throw them in the trash.
“As long as these folks are polite and respectful, we’re glad they’re there,” White said.
Envy experts say those who have received the vaccine have a role to play in mitigating the pain they may inadvertently cause when sharing their good news.
“I think people are so focused on the joy they are experiencing when they know the lottery has come up for them that they forget many people are still suffering,” Harris said.
And for those experiencing guilt around receiving a vaccine early, White suggests celebrating and then setting out to help others. For the first time in a year you can safely offer to babysit a friend’s kid, do grocery runs for a neighbor, or volunteer at a Boys & Girls Club.
“If you are an able-bodied person who out of luck, privilege or connection was able to snag a vaccine, you are an asset,” White said.
She’s glad you’re safe. Now she wants your help. And feel free to take a selfie of that too.