Envy can be an ugly emotion. A study published in the journal Science showed that it actually activates a region of the brain involved in processing physical pain. No wonder people go to such lengths to ignore or deny the emotion. Yet it's nearly impossible to dodge, because envy is an inevitable consequence of the comparisons we seem programmed to make.
Researchers have found that when you put a group of strangers in a room, they start to assess each other almost immediately. "Whether you're aware of it or not, most people are automatically sizing up the crowd—who's smarter, who's tougher, who's more beautiful," says Richard Smith, PhD, editor of the anthology Envy: Theory and Research. "We're all different, and those differences matter." But—contrary to popular belief—feeling envious isn't always a bad thing.
Psychologists have identified two very distinct kinds of envy: malicious and benign. Malicious envy is bitter and biting, driven by a need to make things equal, even if that means tearing another person down. Benign envy, on the other hand, has an aspirational aspect—you think, "If she can do it, maybe I can, too." Though the feeling is still unpleasant, it's tinged with admiration rather than resentment.
In a study published last year, economists at the University of East Anglia found that malicious envy stifled innovation among farmers in four villages in rural Ethiopia. During experimental games, the farmers were often willing to sabotage their peers, even at their own expense. As the sabotage became more widespread within a community, farmers were less likely to adopt new practices, for fear that they would be targeted by their neighbors.
Meanwhile another 2011 study, done in the Netherlands, revealed benign envy as a powerful motivational force. Researchers at Tilburg University discovered that—compared with feelings of malicious envy and pure admiration—benign envy led students to dedicate more time to their schoolwork, and perform better on a test that measures intelligence and creativity.
Next: Understanding your envy