“Negative emotions like loneliness, envy, and guilt have an important role to play in a happy life; they're big, flashing signs that something needs to change.” - Gretchen Rubin
Social media can be a disturbing source of jealousy. Sure, we’re staying connected with family and friends, but we’re also being shown a never-ending, one-sided stream of images and news about other people’s seemingly awesome lives.
When someone you know goes on the trip of a lifetime or buys a self-driving car, a flash of envy is nearly unavoidable. But is it a bad thing, or is there an upside to this twisted admiration?
Turns out, it depends on what kind of envy you’re experiencing. Richard Smith, PhD, editor of the anthology Envy: Theory and Research, talks about two psychological theories, or types, of envy -- malicious and benign.
Malicious envy wants a rival to lose what they have. A neighbor wins the lottery, and, since it’s unlikely you can also win, the resolution of this jealousy can only come from your rival mismanaging finances and losing their wealth. Benign envy, on the other hand, does not require a rival to lose.
Smith gives the example of a neighbor who buys a convertible. If the envy turns malicious, you hope a tree falls on his convertible. In its benign form, however, you don’t need the neighbor to experience a loss, you just need to motivate yourself to make more money to get a convertible too.
If channeled properly, benign envy helps us to clarify our desires and inspire deeper motivation. And, according to this study out of The Netherlands, Envy Outperforms Admiration, we consciously choose which type of envy we experience. Researchers found the choice often stems from the belief in our ability and potential to achieve the admired outcome.
In The Netherlands study, students envious of others doing well in school were motivated to spend more time on schoolwork and this envy even led to better performance on tests. But when student’s didn’t believe in themselves, and didn’t think they could obtain the gains making them envious, they found no motivation in the envy, which could lead to helpless bitterness.
But we can make the choice to use our envy for good (benign) or evil (malicious), regardless of whether the desired outcome is attainable. Here’s how. Even if you cannot attain what you see and desire in another, you can look within to isolate your insecurity and define what it is you hope for and value in the situation. In this way, you can isolate the attainable aspects of the object, or result, you envy.
Take the example of the lottery winner. An envious person might ask, “why do I want to win the lottery like my neighbor?” If it’s simply a desire to buy more stuff, then turning it benign may be a bit tricky. But for most of us, the envy in this scenario is not about obtaining a yacht. The jealousy more likely stems from the neighbors newfound freedom from financial obligations. They can leave their oppressive job and pursue their dreams without having to worry about money.
If that’s the true cause of the envy, than the envious person who looks within can begin to consider ways to lessen their own obligatory financial responsibility in the world (even a world without lottery winnings). So, what would you do with your life if you won the lottery? Are you sure you can’t do some version of that now? What insecurities are holding you back from trying? It’s easy to see why analyzing envy, in this way, could help people lead a better life.
And, it turns out, that Facebook jealousy, in particular, is useful and good for you. Julie Exline, PhD, a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University especially sees the good potential of envy when people envy their friends. She has coined the term, “Frenvy,” and believes this situational envy, in particular, helps people confront their own shortcomings and doubts.
This is because when we begin to criticize, judge and envy someone we love, we quickly flip the envy dial to benign. We don’t want to see a loved one hurt or see them lose their advantages in the world just for our resolution or gain. In this way, Frenvy almost immediately forces us to look within and better understand why these feelings are happening. We want to know what this jealousy is “really” about (since we care for the object of our jealousy) and we take inventory -- of our own insecurities, of our own desires, and of the kind of friend we want to be. This can bring an amazing amount of clarity, positive self assessment and motivation.
So the next time you find yourself turning green over someone’s good fortune, stop and turn the green gaze within. Isolate what it is you really envy in their situation and then choose to confront your insecurities, cultivate belief in your potential, and motivate yourself to achieve similar gains.