My friend, let’s call her Gladys, has some big news. It’s so big she has come to a sudden halt, pausing the rapid chatter and easy gait of our evening walk. “My husband landed a teaching fellowship,” she blurts. It’s a major career advance and something he has pursued for a while. But why does she seem so flustered? “It’s in Budapest,” she adds, dispelling my confusion. I can barely catch up as she springs into a giddy description of her future life, detailing plans to learn Hungarian, reconnect with distant relatives, and travel Europe during her children’s school breaks.

I’m completely wowed and genuinely excited for my friend. On the heels of these warm feelings, however, a pricklier sensation roils in my gut. Then it hits me: I badly want an immersive, extended overseas adventure for my own family. Imagining Gladys and her kids making their way down ancient cobbled streets as I remain in our dull suburban neighborhood, I feel physical pain near my heart. It’s envy—hot, raw, and real—and it nearly takes my breath away.

Growing up, most of us learn that envy leads to trouble. Even into adulthood our reflex response to craving—whether for other people’s vintage BMW motorbikes, charming mates, or teaching fellowships— is one of shame. We’re taught this preemptive guilt because it nips envy in the bud before malevolent feelings or ugly behavior can follow. But this whacka-mole approach fosters an exclusively negative understanding of envy, one that social psychologists have largely discredited. They have found that many forms of the emotion are perfectly harmless and some even deeply helpful. My pangs over Gladys’s good fortune, in their own small way, reminded me of how much I love travel and would like to take my family on a trip. The green-eyed monster, if we allow ourselves to listen to it, has a lot to teach. It’s time we shake envy loose of its stigma and heed its unlikely wisdom.

Sparked by upward social comparisons, envy centers on how people rate themselves in relation to others perceived as possessing some superior quality, achievement, or object. Whereas jealousy stems from a fear of losing something we already have, envy bubbles up from the opposite feeling: that of not having enough. For years, research focused on envy’s destructive potential. Take, for example, the guilty delight felt when a sibling or a celebrity gets knocked down a peg. Recently, however, a growing body of studies, many led by Niels van de Ven, a psychologist at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, suggests that envy actually subdivides into two categories: malicious and benign. Malicious envy is that nasty yearning that motivates someone to bring her competitors down, while benign envy is a constructive desire to move oneself up. The English language doesn’t have different words for these two types of envy. Yet, interestingly, Dutch does—benijden and afgunst—and in Russia, people speak of either “white” or “black” envy to describe benign and malicious envy, respectively.

When I phone van de Ven, he immediately affirms the utility of envy. “Every emotion is there for a reason,” he explains. “We are a social species, sensitive to our relative standing, and, in a way, envy helps us regulate our social standing.” But a greater understanding of how we size ourselves up against our peers is just one of the many benefits that envy affords. In a 2011 study, van de Ven found that benign envy provides significant motivation in pursuit of qualities or skills that we deem worthwhile in another. Envy, then, helps us not only identify what we value but also find the wherewithal to bring it about.

Effort is necessary but not sufficient for improving oneself. We also need to carefully acquire the skills we lack. Envy helps in this regard as well. “Comparison can provide information on how a task is done,” writes Simon Laham, psychological researcher and author of The Science of Sin: The Psychology of the Seven Deadlies. “If you have the good fortune to observe a skilled performer, you watch, you learn, and so you perform better.” In other words, you might indulge that telltale envious stare but at least you’re, well, staring. Sustained concentration is crucial for developing new abilities.

All of this talk of self-improvement might sound a bit narcissistic. After all, the primary criticism of envy isn’t that it precludes action but that it cultivates the wrong kind. The dude at the wheel of a red Ferrari appears to be happy, so we strive mightily to get a Ferrari of our own. Not exactly virtuous. But, as it turns out, envy can also hone our sense of fairness and justice. In a famous study led by the primatologist Frans de Waal, capuchin monkeys received cucumber pieces in exchange for passing small rocks to investigators. They quickly became agitated, however, when monkeys in neighboring cages suddenly got grapes instead. Replicated with domestic dogs, the experiment demonstrates how inconsistent treatment makes many of us sensitive creatures buggy with envy. The phenomenon, called “inequity aversion,” is thought to help us perceive and disavow unfair treatment. Paired with an other oriented attitude and a larger critique of, say, the way wealth is distributed, this feeling can spur us to take concerted action toward protecting our most vulnerable neighbors.

Avoidance of envy, if it was ever feasible, is a dinosaur gone extinct. The trick is to steer ourselves toward the emotion’s beneficial side. “Being a bit more aware, a bit more mindful,” says van de Ven, “can help transform initial malicious envy into a more benign form.” With its lens for gaining “better insight into our feelings and what we find important,” envy can bring us closer to what we dearly want to attain, and help us course-correct, if necessary, to get ourselves back on track.

Envy can, of course, distract us, too. Ad executives count on it. But when we bring our attention back from the impossibly slender model or buff athlete, it might land on envy of an entirely different variety. That’s okay. Hell, it’s great. In that moment, we may find exactly what we’ve been needing to.

Louisa Kamps is a contributing writer/editor at ELLE magazine. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.


The Evolution of a Feeling

An interview with the psychologist Paul Ekman

As a graduate student in the 1950s, Paul Ekman wanted to know how expressions and gestures were understood in the context of psychotherapy. Surprisingly, while there was an abundance of theories on how language conveyed emotional states, he found almost nothing on how the hands and face betray our inner feelings. Ekman’s research led him to argue that emotions are innate to all humans and universally recognizable rather than a product of cultural forces. Certain emotions can be classified by a unique set of facial “micro expressions” that signal to others what we’re feeling. These emotions include anger, fear, sadness, enjoyment, disgust, and surprise. More complex emotions like jealousy and love, however, are considered to be “emotional plots” because they do not have unique facial expressions and occur over an extended period of time. Ekman’s initial curiosity turned into the focus of his long-spanning career and helped develop the field of facial expressions now used in areas as disparate as computer animation, marketing, and counterterrorism. We asked Ekman, named by the American Psychological Association as one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century, about what sets jealousy apart and how his exposure to Buddhism influenced his conception of emotions.

How are “emotion plots” like jealousy different from other emotions? If I tell you I’m amused, you don’t know what’s amusing me. If I tell you I’m angry, you don’t know whether I’m angry at the weather or at Obama or at my wife. Anything can be the target. But jealousy is a story line. It has a script with three people. There is the loved one, the rival, and the person who fears losing the loved one to the rival. Each of those people may feel a number of different emotions within that plot. So that’s why I call it a plot, because it’s a story line that specifies the actors, the past history, and the current situation. It’s not a single emotion, because clearly each of those people at different points may feel different emotions: contempt, anger, fear, and so forth.

You’ve written about how emotional expressions developed as a result of natural selection. If jealousy has no specific expression, what forces shaped its development? None of us know the answer to questions about how these emotions evolved, but we can speculate. I presume that the adaptive nature of jealousy was to preserve family units long enough to raise offspring. The issue, of course, is this: if a rival takes over the family, will they take over the raising of the offspring from the person who preceded them? It’s not as safe an outcome as the natural or biological parent.

Are there gender differences in the emotions? If so, how has the evolutionary process led to these? My research has found no difference between males and females in the physiology or expression of emotion. I presume that there are major differences in what males and females at different points in their life become emotional about, but that’s not what I have studied. There are huge individual differences in many aspects of emotional experience: how quickly one becomes emotional, for example, or how strong the emotions are, and those swamp differences between males and females.

How do you think Buddhist practices can help people identify destructive emotions like jealousy and reduce their negative effects? I don’t consider any of the emotions to be destructive. If they were, it’s not likely they would have been preserved over the course of our evolution. Nor do I consider jealousy to be necessarily destructive. It’s certainly not something we like to experience, but it can have positive effects. It may cause us to reaffirm our commitment to our mate, for instance.

Where Buddhist practices seem to be of most help is in developing more awareness of emotions as they are beginning to arise— the spark before the flame. That’s not specific to jealousy, but it can be useful for any emotion.

Interview by James Thacher, Tricycle’s former Web Coordinator

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