Thursday, December 13, 2012

The upside and downside of envy

There are many unpleasant emotions.  We may feel anxious in stressful situations, sad when we do not achieve our goals, and envy when others have something that we want.  These negative emotions are often physically unpleasant.  It is really uncomfortable to be stressed, and it feels almost physically painful to be sad. 

It is important to remember that there have to be some benefits to having negative emotions.  In the short-term stress can create energy and focus to overcome a problem, though long-term stress is dangerous.  Sadness about failing to achieve goals often leads to rumination.  Thinking about what went wrong in a situation is often useful (at least for a little while) to help you succeed in the future.

What about envy?

An interesting paper in the October, 2011 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Sarah Hill, Danielle DelPriore, and Phillip Vaughan explored both positive and negative consequences of envy.

On the positive side, envy seems to create attention to people in the world who are the targets of envy.  In one study, participants either wrote about situations in which they experienced envy or they wrote about everyday situations that were unrelated to envy.  Later, they read newspaper articles about other college students.  The people who were primed with envy by writing about it spent more time reading the articles about other students and remembered more about the students than the people who were not primed with envy. 

Another study found that this increased attention and memory for people happens most for those people who provoke envy.  A third study ruled out the possibility that this result was based on other emotions like admiration for the person. 

So, the upside of envy is that it helps you to pay attention to people who have things that you want. 

What is the downside?

When you are experiencing envy, it seems to get in the way of doing other thinking.  There is quite a bit of research suggesting that stressful emotions can get in the way of thinking.  Envy is like stress in that it is a negative emotion.  Consistent with the research on stress, people who were experiencing envy spent less time than people who were not envious working to do a difficult task in which they had to unscramble letters to form words.

Putting this all together, then, envy is an emotion that may help you to get what you want in life by allowing you to focus on people who have things that you desire and to learn about those people.  The cost of this focus, though, is that it makes you worse at focusing on other types of thinking.  Finally, like anything else, too much envy is clearly a problem.  If you spend all of your time focusing on what other people have that you do not, you will not spend enough time doing what is necessary to get what you want out of life.