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The Power of Positive Envy

This misunderstood emotion is just a tool, like a screwdriver or a blender.

 Image by Yama Zsuzsanna Márkus from Pixabay
Source: Image by Yama Zsuzsanna Márkus from Pixabay

Steve Jobs observed that everybody says they go the extra mile but few people actually do.

“That’s why the extra mile is a place filled with opportunities," said Jobs. "Be early, stay late. Make the extra phone call. Send the extra email. Do the extra research.”

Of course, we need motivation to do that, and the mere idea that we should go the extra mile doesn’t always do the job.

That’s where envy comes in.

Granted, envy gets a bad name. “The ulcer of the soul,” Socrates reportedly called it.

Taylor Swift tried to put being envied in perspective: “Don’t worry. People throw rocks at things that shine.”

Poor envy. It’s long been misunderstood—not to mention used interchangeably (and thus incorrectly) with its co-worker, jealousy.

As I explained in my science-based advice column:

Jealousy often gets confused with envy, but evolutionary psychologist David Buss explains that they are “distinct emotions” that motivate “distinctly different” behaviors in line with the differing problems they were “designed” by evolution to solve. Buss’ research finds jealousy is activated “when there is a threat to a valued social relationship.” Envy, on the other hand, is triggered “when someone else has something that you desire or covet but currently lack.”

To understand why envy is an emotion to embrace, not fear or be ashamed of, it’s important to understand that human emotions aren’t just interior decor for our mind: a little colorful something-something to keep it interesting upstairs. Our emotions are motivational tools. They evolved to help increase ancestral humans’ chances of surviving and mating and making babies who survived to pass on their genes.

Envy is one of these useful emotions. We evolved to be creatures of "social comparison,” judging how well we're doing personally and professionally by how we stack up to others. Envy basically functions as a social alarm clock. Evolutionary social psychologist Abraham “Bram” Buunk and his colleagues explain that the feelbad we get from envy pushes us to get cracking to narrow the "status gap" between ourselves and others.

Importantly, envy in and of itself isn’t ugly. As I noted in another column:

Buunk and his team explain that there are actually two kinds of envy: malicious envy and benign envy. Each kind motivates people to try to shrink that "status gap" between themselves and others. The difference is in how. Benign envy pushes people to work harder in hopes of matching or beating the competition. Malicious envy is the nasty kind — the kind that motivates a person to loosen the ladder rungs, hoping to cause their golden-girl co-worker to topple to her (professional) death.

The upshot? Envy isn't something to be ashamed of. You should just see that you use it in a positive way: as a tool for self-motivation instead of co-worker sabotage.

Granted, envy can feel like a bummer emotion, because you’re focusing on what you don’t have. But there’s also a positive way to look at that. It’s by identifying goals to pursue that you can start pursuing them. And that’s where Steve Jobs’ wisdom is helpful. Jobs said, ”I’m convinced that about half of what separates successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance."

Ultimately, envy is that trainer at the gym who pushes you (when you’re sure you’re near death from exertion) to go that extra rep—or, in Jobs’ terms: that extra mile.


Buss, David M. "Sexual jealousy." Psihologijske teme 22, no. 2 (2013): 155-182.

Buunk, Abraham P., and Pieternel Dijkstra. "The social animal within organizations." Applied evolutionary psychology (2012): 36-51.

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