Mind & Body

Envy Can Be Good for You

In Roman Catholicism, envy is a deadly sin; outside the church, too, people are rarely proud of being envious. We shouldn't paint all envy with the same broad brush, though. It can be an unhealthy emotion, but can also be constructive — and, according to a study, downright motivational.

It's Easy Being Green

Psychologists have found that there are three main ways we react to successful people: with admiration, benign envy, or malicious envy.

All three feelings start with what's technically known as an "upward social comparison." In other words, you look at someone who's better than you in some way — better at Monopoly, styling their hair, tutoring dyslexic children — and react to the difference between the two of you.

Admiration is what Søren Kierkegaard, the famous Danish philosopher, called "happy self-surrender." It's taking joy in this other person's success while accepting yourself as you are. Envy, meanwhile, is the opposite of acceptance — it means wanting to close the gap between you and the other, "better" person. If admiration is happy self-surrender, Kierkegaard wrote, "envy is unhappy self-assertion."

But as we said, envy comes in different flavors. Malicious envy means hoping to close the gap by attacking the "better" person and bringing them down. It sparks aggression. This usually involves a belief that the other person's success was undeserved, and it's the most classically unhealthy response to difference. Benign envy, though, might not be so bad. It means attempting to close the gap by working hard and rising to the "better" person's level. It revs your work ethic and motivates you to achieve.

Distinguishing between benign and malicious envy isn't a new idea. In various languages — including Dutch, Thai, and German — there are entirely different words for the different feelings. The researchers on this particular study, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2011, were Dutch and surveyed Dutch university students, which meant they could talk precisely about different strains of envy.

You're Doing Amazing, Sweetie

The researchers on this study had a specific goal: to see if, counterintuitively, benign envy inspires people to work harder than admiration does. Though a highly Instagrammable sentiment, the theory that admiration itself was motivational had never been subjected to scientific experiment before, and — spoiler — it didn't stand up to testing.

Instead, researchers found that benign envy was far more motivating than admiration. When students recalled feelings of benign envy, they set more ambitious academic goals than students who recalled feelings of admiration or malicious envy and they were more likely to say they'd study harder in the coming semester than the last one.

Even better, they didn't just say they'd work harder — they really did it. Recalling benign envy made students perform better on a word-association task than recalling admiration or malicious envy. The task was specifically designed to require attention and an investment of time, too, which meant it rewarded hard work rather than innate talent.

In yet another study, researchers found that students were more likely to feel benign envy towards a successful, fictional classmate — Hans de Groote — if they had been primed to believe that change was easy and within their reach. In other words, benign envy flourishes around a growth mindset; students primed to view change as difficult and talent as mostly innate were more prone to admiration.

This means it's possible to engineer benign envy — but should we? Benign envy and motivation aren't always better than admiration and acceptance. Not all self-improvement is attainable, and compulsively working toward impossible goals can be bad for your health. Really, the key conclusion here is that benign envy and admiration affect us differently, but both are valid, healthy, and probably not sinful.

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Dealing with some malicious envy? Check out "Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence" by Rick Hanson to get a little less green. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Mae Rice February 13, 2019

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