Can Envy Be Healthy?

Envy gets a bad rap. I mean, let’s be real: being on a list of “seven deadly sins” isn’t good PR for anyone.

Fortunately, psychologists aren’t always the types to judge a sin by its cover, and research into this most human of emotions has found that envy might actually have a good side.

To learn about the positive and negative effects of envy, researchers often talk about two different types of envy: benign envy and malicious envy. This is a distinction that we don’t have in English but that does appear in some languages like Dutch, which has two different words for “envy.”

The main difference between benign and malicious envy is how you feel about the person you’re envious of. Benign envy is about thinking: “I envy that person and I want to pull myself up to their level.” Malicious envy is: “I envy that person and I want them to fall down to my level.”

Research has found evidence for a clear difference between these two kinds of envy, in both cultures that have separate words for them and those that don’t. As you might expect, malicious envy leads to all sorts of unbecoming emotions, including schadenfreude (pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others).

Benign envy, however, the feeling of being envious of someone and wanting to achieve the successes they have, can actually be a positive emotion that sparks healthy competition.

For example, a recent study of 251 college students found that students who felt more benign envy set higher goals and consequently performed better academically. How much benign envy these students felt was unrelated to how much malicious envy they felt, supporting the idea of the two as separate emotions.

Other research has found that feeling envy toward someone who’s successful might in fact be better than feeling admiration, at least from the perspective of self-improvement. A series of experiments published in 2011 found that benign envy but not admiration motivated people to study more and that benign envy, when coupled with a belief that self-improvement was possible, led to an immediate increase in performance on a test measuring intelligence and creativity.

These results suggest that despite envy’s incredibly bad marketing strategy, there might be some upsides to the emotion. If benign envy still doesn’t seem all that benign to you, consider that we’re actually more likely to feel benign envy toward people we’re closer to. (Malicious envy, by contrast, doesn’t appear to discriminate.)

What seems to matter isn’t so much whether we feel envy, but what we do with it. While envy that’s focused on wishing bad things on other people probably won’t bring much other than unhappiness, envy that makes you want to outdo the people you’re envious of can be motivating and energizing.

So if we want to be scientific about it, we should probably revise the deadly sins to include “malicious envy.” In the meantime, stay tuned for upcoming research on benign sloth and benign gluttony.

Image: Flickr/Florencia Cárcamo