There’s a fine line between envy serving as a major motivator towards success, and it motivating us to do terrible things to peers, co-workers, or even friends.
In November 2019, an episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain focused on envy, and its surprising double-edged impact. Harvard social psychologist Mina Cikara said that if you see someone else has more than you have or has traits that you wish you had, it can spur benign envy. You wish no harm on the other person, you just wish you were more like them.
This sentiment can manifest itself as admiration and can serve as a positive inspirational force — you change your actions and behaviors to replicate the other person’s success or characteristics, or you can use it to set specific goals (“One day I want to write a book, like she did”, for example).
I’ve felt benign envy towards fellow speakers and authors and used it to push myself to achieve things I admired. It works.
Envy’s dark side.
Envy can also quickly turn malicious, causing resentment, anger, and even a desire for revenge. This more hostile form has to do with, as Cikara says, “leveling the playing field not by bringing me up to where you are but rather bringing you down to where I am.” It can even spin into what’s known as schadenfreude –the pleasure we feel at the suffering of others, explained by Cikara as, “If I feel good every time I watch a bad thing happen, maybe next time I’ll make a bad thing happen.”
Unfortunately, we reserve our worst envy for people who are actually in our circle. You won’t feel envious comparing how much you make to what Jeff Bezos makes. But you’ll feel it compared to a fellow leader that heads up the other division of your company. Relevant comparisons stoke your sense of envy. And once you feel malicious envy towards a relevant comparison, it’s easy to slip into schadenfreude, especially because it makes you feel good (as you’re drawing pleasure from the others ill-fortune, whereas malicious envy just makes you feel bad).
At that point, you’re more likely to help misfortune along by engaging in toxic behavior. Cikara proved this with her classic envy study (described on Hidden Brain). She recruited Boston Red Sox and New York Yankee fans into her research –the two teams have one of the most bitter rivalries in sports. She monitored the fans brain activity as she showed them video clips of unfavorable moments for their rival team, like a rival player striking out in a key moment versus another team. Even though it was made clear the participants favorite team didn’t benefit from the opposing team’s bad outcome, great pleasure was often derived just from witnessing the failure.
Seems harmless enough right? That’s what we do as sports fans. But Cikara says in what was “really exciting for us as academics, but probably bad for the world”, they found that two weeks later, participants showing the most pleasure (as measured by their brain activity) were much more likely to say they might heckle, threaten, or even hit a rival fan.
Cikara believes slipping into schadenfreude can take far worse form, as in the 2014 bombings in Israel’s Gaza Strip when reports showed people cheering from their couches as they watched bombs get lobbed at the other side.
Leveraging envy to help versus harm.
So the key here is that, knowing everyone has feelings of envy from time to time, choose to use them as positive motivators, fodder for setting helpful goals to achieve success on something that’s important to you.
At the same time, be very conscious of how much joy you take when the target of your envy falls down, or from even imagining that they do. The amount of pleasure you take in harm befalling a rival can predict how far you might go to play your schadenfreude out. If it’s too much, it might be that first step towards you doing something to actually make them fail. I’ve seen this happen in corporate, where one leader was so jealous of another, he began engaging in behaviors to undermine his rival. That never leads to anything good.
So don’t go seeking envy, but when it shows its green face, either cast it out or recast it to be a positive (and harmless) motivator.