Envy is one of the seven deadly sins.
“Never underestimate the power of jealousy and the power of envy to destroy,” Oliver Stone said.
I’m going to do just that. I’m going to postulate that envy also has the power to create and to motivate, that it is, in fact, GOOD.
This topic is a natural for me since I spend so much time counting other people’s blessings. I salivate over my friend’s number-one New York Time’s bestseller; my colleague’s trip to Tibet; my brother-in-law’s cake job; my friend’s fast metabolism; and my husband’s normal brain wiring and calm disposition.
It doesn’t feel good.
Research says it’s not supposed to.
But the same research says that envy motivates us to become better people. And I so believe it.
Evolution of Jealousy
Two decades ago, jealousy was considered by mainstream psychologists to be a type of pathology — an emotion that deserved a few weeks on the therapist’s couch. However, now it is understood as a natural response to defending our personal relationships, assets, accomplishments … anything that we would put in the “good” category of our life.
This emotion originates from the amygdala – or fear center of our brain – the primal part of our limbic system that is activated when we are in the midst of danger, sending a flight-or-fight reaction for survival. Ape is coming after me. No really, he is eating a banana and running toward my hut.
Jealousy is an evolved adaptation, activated by threats to a valuable relationship, functioning to protect it from partial or total loss, explains David Buss, Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas and author of The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy Is as Necessary as Love and Sex.
The Power to Motivate
This evolved adaptation supposedly protects us, yes. But it also has the power to motivate. My friend with the bestseller? I’ve studied how she got there, and although I can’t pull off her strategy, trying to do so made me a better writer, not to mention a more savvy business person.
Benign envy — just like benign tumors — won’t kill you.
Much like the unwelcome lump growing somewhere in your body, benign envy serves as a wakeup call to learn what you could be doing — in your career, in your love life, in your friendships — but aren’t. Someone else is, and that doesn’t feel great.
Psychologists Niels Van de Ven, Marcel Zeelenberg, and Rik Piers explain the motivational element of jealousy in their article “The Envy Premium in Product Evaluation” published in the Journal of Consumer Research. They cite research by Susan Bers and Judith Rodin that indicates envy is not the result of “all upward comparisons to another person” but from people who excel in a field that is important to them. Other research led by Leon Festinger concluded that comparisons are more likely to be made with people who are initially similar. In fact, the more similar another person is, the more intense the envy.
Guess What? You’re Like Her
I could do without the last factoid, but I acknowledge there is a lesson there. Not only do you get jealous about something that means a lot to you, your feelings grow more intense the more you think you could accomplish the same thing (but don’t) — because essentially you have the same assets as the person who has your boyfriend’s attention, your slot on the bestsellers list, the brain you want.
That’s what hurts, and that’s what motivates.
Van de Ven, Zeelenberg, and Piers highlight research that found that although envy in the workplace had negative consequences for well-being, it inspired people to improve their position and push themselves higher along the chain of command.
A five-year project by academics at the University of Cambridge concluded that sibling rivalry often has a positive effect on a child’s early development, even in cases where the relationship was less than cordial. Yeah, there were some behavioral problems that resulted — aren’t there always — but in general the toddlers benefited from sibling rivalry.
Case in point: the William sisters.
Venus, a seven-time Grand Slam title winner (singles) and Serena, a 23-time Grand Slam title winner (singles), both of which were coached from an early age by parents Richard Williams and Oracene Price. Sibling rivalry — coupled with some traces of mutual jealousy? — certainly seemed to have motivated to greatness, there.
Should we be so lucky.