David Ludden is a professor of psychology at Georgia Gwinnett College and the author of the book The Psychology of Language. As a psycholinguist, he’s interested in questions such as how the brain processes language, how we learn language, and how we use language to build and maintain social relationships. Recently, he has mostly been interested in the last question.
Feelings, in general, are not always easy to understand. What’s worse (or better?) is that we are specifically made to feel something, depending on the situation.
Now, every existing thing has two sides of the same coin; this principle is also applied to our emotions, no matter if they are usually considered good or bad. But today, we’ll see more in detail one feeling in particular: envy.
Let’s take a look.
How come you became that interested in a complex emotion such envy? Many people talk about it but only a few did a huge research like yours; what motivated you to focus on this specifically?
Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of reading in the literature on communication in relationships. That’s when I came across new research on envy. Although it’s not specifically about communication, envy is a complex social emotion that can have a really big impact on our relationships. Like most psychologists, I’ve just assumed that envy is bad and should be controlled as much as possible. But after looking deeper into it, I’ve found that it can have a positive side as well. In hindsight, it makes sense. Human emotions are complicated, and they’re rarely all good or all bad.
Everyone had their own Brent, in a moment of life or another; it’s known that he/she did nothing wrong, that they got what we first wanted for having more skill. Then why do we still get angry with this person? What drives us to make negative thoughts other than envy, anger and frustration?
Brent is the character in my article that gets the promotion you wanted. This made-up example gives us the opportunity to explore the nature of envy. First of all, we need to think about what emotions are and what they’re for. Emotions provide us with information about our current situation and the motivation to do something. Envy provides us with information about our status in the social structure. Before, you and Brent were equals, but now for some reason he’s above you. That’s what triggers the feeling of envy. After that, it motivates us to do something to mitigate this loss in social standing. Here’s where envy can be either positive or negative. It’s positive when it motivates us to learn from Brent’s example and improve ourselves. In this sense, anytime you look up to a role model, you’re experiencing positive envy. But of course envy can also motivate us to do negative things like spreading false rumors behind Brent’s back or trying to sabotage his efforts to succeed. Of course, negative envy doesn’t do anyone any good. It doesn’t help you improve, and because it disrupts the social network, it can cause harm to other people besides the one you intend to hurt. My guess is that your tendency toward positive or negative envy is probably based on the way you’ve seen others behave in similar situations, especially when you were young.
Would it be possible to just use the bright side of envy to become a better person? Could it also become completely negative one day or another, leading our mind into a vicious cycle in which we can’t get out?
Here’s where mindfulness comes in. You may have a habit of feeling negative envy every time someone gets something you wanted. But if you’re aware of your habits, you can change them. This is especially true when you understand that you can turn your negative envy into a positive motivation to improve yourself. And you’re right, if we give into negative envy, it draws us into a vicious circle that can be hard to escape. Such people tend to have a negative outlook on life generally, and they feel they have no control over the events in their life. They’re not happy people, and they’re definitely not pleasant to be around.
Is there a way to totally repress our envy in general? Supposing that, could it be a coward or a wise thing to do if we had the chance?
It’s never wise to try to repress your emotions. Like whack-a-mole, if you push down an emotion at one time, it just pops up again at another time, often in an even worse situation. Emotions provide you with valuable information and motivation, so you should never disregard them. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should be a slave to your passions, either. You’ve also got to do a reality check. Use emotion and reason in tandem to guide your behavior. The next time you feel a twinge of envy, embrace the emotion and ask yourself how you can use it to improve yourself. Channeling your envy into self-improvement is definitely a wise course of action.
Does it boost our hidden capacities that we first didn’t think to possess? Is it a great advantage to be envious in this case?
That’s the whole idea behind positive envy. You use the feeling to push yourself forward, make yourself better than you were. You can learn from those you feel envious of, but only if you can avoid the dark side of envy.
In your article, you correctly said religious leaders and psychologists always viewed it as a bad thing. Do you think they were wrong or right in some way? Should envy be considered something to avoid or fully embrace, both the dark and bright side?
When people say that envy is a bad thing, they’re talking about negative envy. And they’re certainly right. Negative envy is a corrosive emotion that’s harmful to you and everyone around you. However, we should embrace positive envy because of the way it can motivate us to do better. Envy, like all emotions, provides us with motivation to do something. But we can use our reason to channel our envy into a positive course, giving us the motivation we need to improve ourselves.
As you stated before, anger and fear are not, of course, the same emotions. Let’s just put the case that we feel an emotion considered “good”, joy: does it have a negative side too, like every other feeling mentioned before?
You make an excellent point. We can see positive and negative sides to all emotions. Fear protects us from harm, but it can also keep us from pursuing opportunities. Likewise, anger can motivate us to protect ourselves when threatened, but when it’s expressed inappropriately it can seriously damage our social relationships. But what about joy, which seems purely positive? Or is it? There’s no word for the concept of “negative joy” in English, but the Germans have a good word for it. They call it Schadenfreude, or “shadow joy.” You experience Schadenfreude when you feel happiness at seeing someone else fail or suffer. Slapstick comedy is based on Schadenfreude. You laugh when the comic slips on a banana peel, gets hit on the head, or falls into a manhole. I suppose we’re thinking, “Good thing that’s not happening to me!” But of course, we know it’s just an act, and nobody is really getting hurt. But we can also relish the real pain of other people. Let’s say you’ve been stewing over Brent “stealing” your promotion, and now you learn he just got fired. Schadenfreude! But still, what good does it do you? Like negative envy, it’s corrosive to yourself as well as everyone else in your social network. So I suggest we keep on the bright side and avoid the shadowy aspects of all our emotions.