We've all heard the old gym adage "No pain, no gain" and it turns out that what is good for your athletic performance is good for your intellectual performance as well.
When people are exposed to high performers, they can have one of two different reactions: they can embrace that high performer as being similar to themselves and bask in that person's glory or they can see the performance of the other person as a signal that they aren't measuring up. While the first reaction can lead to immediate boosts in self-esteem and positive emotions, it is the second reaction that leads to better performance. In this way, feeling good can actually be bad for you.
Why would feeling good be bad for you? Well, researchers have noted that when people feel the satisfaction of completing a goal, they tend to rest for awhile. This is called the post-reinforcement pause and has been observed in everything from rats in mazes to pigeons to people. And people can experience this satisfaction vicariously. Research conducted by Michelle Van Dellen at the University of Georgia has demonstrated that seeing someone else complete a goal can make people feel like they have completed the goal themselves. So, basking in the glory of someone else's accomplishments can undermine your motivation to perform. That explains why feeling good is bad, but why should feeling bad be good for you?
One reason is that feeling bad is a signal. Feeling embarrassed, ashamed, or just plain bad about oneself can all be signs that something is wrong. These negative emotions can push people to take action to change their mood. For example, Duane Wegener and Richard Petty at Ohio State University found that when people are in a negative mood, they are more willing to exert effort in reading information about the university, if only because there was the chance that this information might boost their moods. In contrast, people in a positive mood were less likely to pay attention to details or carefully consider information, in order to avoid information that might harm their moods. Similarly, feeling bad after seeing someone else perform well can be interpreted as a signal that you are not performing up to standards or as well as you could. To reduce these bad feelings, you might devote more energy and effort to performing well. The bad feelings trigger a need for change and improvement that enhance your motivation to perform.
Knowing that comparisons with high performers can trigger bad feelings, some people avoid them. For example, after running a 10k, a person could choose to look at the people who ran faster or look at people who ran slower. Obviously, looking at people who ran faster could lead to bad feelings, while looking at people who ran slower could lead to good feelings. When I see that I have been beat by a woman 10 years older than me, I could feel inadequate and slow, but when I see that I have run faster than a woman 10 years younger than me, I could feel superior and fast. People who have high self-esteem are less likely to make those upward comparisons (at least immediately following a performance). They seem to understand that upward comparisons might ding their positive self-views, so they avoid them. People who have low self-esteem are more likely to make those upward comparisons—which may account for why people low in self-esteem are often times more realistic and accurate in their estimates of their own abilities and likely outcomes.
There is a benefit to looking upward, acknowledging that you have been outperformed, and not shying away from feeling bad. Research in educational contexts by Hart Blanton of the University of Connecticut and in business contexts by John Schaubroek at Michigan State University has demonstrated that people who look upward, despite the potential pain, are more successful. As another adage goes, "the pain is temporary, the pride is forever."