Christie Aschwanden learns that this very human impulse isn't necessarily a negative one—and can lead you in positive directions you never expected.
When I heard about my friend's book deal, I wanted to be happy for her—really, I did. Sharon* had spent months laboring over a heartfelt essay about her traumatic childhood, and the piece was published to wide acclaim. Now she had landed a contract to turn the story into a memoir for a sum so enormous it could buy my house twice. I should have been celebrating her success. Instead, I was busy hunting for reasons she didn't deserve it.
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.
Envy of a friend, the sentiment infamously known as "frenvy," can take either form—malicious or benign—which makes it a delicate test of your affection, says Julie Exline, PhD, a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University. As I was discovering in the weeks following Sharon's announcement, frenvy forces you to confront your own shortcomings and self-doubts in a new and particularly discomfiting light.
"Because this person similar to you has the thing you covet, you can imagine having it, too," Smith says. "Your sober judgment was that it was unobtainable. But now that she has it, you can almost taste it." At this juncture, you can either let your envy inspire you to pursue the goal your friend accomplished—or let it poison your relationship.
For me, honesty proved the best tool for turning my negative reaction into a positive one. As soon as I caught myself criticizing Sharon in my head, I forced myself to admit that my response was purely emotional and had nothing to do with her. Taking ownership of my envy helped me recognize that I needed to decide what kind of friend I was going to be: the backstabbing frenemy or the supportive confidant? Choosing the latter gave me a reason to feel good about myself, instead of wallowing in self-loathing.
When I recounted my experience to Windy Dryden, PhD, professor of psychotherapeutic studies at Goldsmiths, University of London, and author of Overcoming Envy, he confirmed that acknowledging the feeling is the first step toward taming it. The next step: figuring out what your envy is actually about.
I certainly wasn't envious of the child abuse that was the subject of Sharon's memoir. Nor did I covet the pressure she felt to deliver a killer manuscript to the publisher that had fronted her such a colossal sum.
Examining Sharon's situation from these different angles reminded me that we all have unique burdens as well as blessings. (As Exline puts it, "Even a person who seems to have it all has problems, too.") The precise thing that Sharon had and I wanted was the financial freedom to drop bread-and-butter writing assignments and focus instead on the work most dear to her.
Once I'd identified my desire, my envy of Sharon faded. I didn't hate her. I was frustrated with myself for failing to pursue my own pet projects. Sure, I wanted an opportunity like Sharon's. But book advances are based on factors beyond my control. I could covet a windfall that was out of my reach, or I could accept the fact that our situations were different and take it upon myself to carve out time for my own creative writing.
I used Sharon's success as inspiration to finally finish a book proposal I'd been dreaming about for years. Now I view my relationship with this wonderfully gifted, kindhearted, fallible woman as an opportunity to practice a tradition that Buddhists call mudita—finding vicarious joy in the good fortune of another.
Christie Aschwanden spends her free time running with her dog, feeding her chickens, and stomping grapes. She blogs at lastwordonnothing.com/christie.