Envy: The Feeling Can Help Us Even When It Hurts
Wanting what another person has can spur us to better ourselves
Scientific American Mind (November 2013) Volume 24, Issue 5
By Jan Crusius and Thomas Mussweiler
It’s the pain of occupying an inferior position relative to another and a desire for what that other person has.
Envy can also motivate us to try harder and perform better on challenging tasks. The trick is to learn to channel the more productive of its two forms.
Aristotle. He described its dark, destructive side and the pleasure a person can take in another’s pain, today captured by the German term schadenfreude.
He also suggested that envy could encourage people to strive harder to reach a desired state—a facet that was long overlooked in empirical investigations of envy.
Social psychologist Niels van de Ven of Tilburg University in the Netherlands and his colleagues compared how people from their home country and those from the U.S. and Spain expressed intense feelings of envy in their respective languages.
(In Dutch, as in German, Polish and Thai, two words can mean envy, whereas English and Spanish have a single word.)
In 2009 the psychologists found that regardless of language, their subjects’ experiences divided into two types:
malicious envy, characterized by negative thoughts and ill will, and
benign envy, in which hostility is less evident. Although dark feelings still factored in, the subjects mentioned more positive sentiments, such as admiration. They were more likely to believe
that the envied person deserved good fortune and to express a desire to make up the difference through their own efforts.