Social archives grow continually, most constantly being filled with shared inspirational quotes over beautiful sunsets accompanying stories of people overcoming all of life’s perilous odds. They sit there, urging everyone to follow grandiose dreams — because nothing is impossible if you just #believe.
As awesome as those quick jolts to creativity might be at the right times, they’re otherwise like a delicious spice that’s not worth much without a main dish to be consumed with. And for those posting them, all too often they’re doing so to make others jealous — of their life, of their vacation, of their little perfect slice of the American dream.
Yet for all of its bad reputation, psychologists find that envy (or, to be more specific, a particular type of envy) is what can one day get you to finally visit one of those unadulterated beaches with margarita in hand. Envy, it's said, is a good thing.
Psychologist Niels van de Ven and his colleagues from Tilburg University previously surmised that there are two types of envy: malicious and benign. The first type basically refers to the widespread bad reputation of the deadly sin, recognized fully as The Wicked Queen from Snow White.
Benign envy, however, “leads to a moving-up motivation aimed at improving one’s own position,” says van de Ven.
While applauded emotions such as inspiration and admiration tend to be more platonic in nature, at the core of benign envy is “upward social comparison” that can continuously raise the bar. Another study by the same team, titled “Why Envy Outperforms Admiration,” demonstrates this. It comes to the conclusion that we envy what we want for ourselves, and what we truly believe deep down we are capable of obtaining.
Though the latter can get tricky.
Harnessing benign envy is a delicate process that can have a reverse effect when handled incorrectly. Just imagine how aspiring guitarists must feel like in the age of YouTube, a site filled with 6-year-olds who still have problems with simple addition but can already play as if they were touring the country snorting drugs off TIME Magazine covers.
Speaking to Rooster, Robin Nabi shares a similar view, that envy is a nuanced emotion. She's author of the paper titled “Inspired by Hope, Motivated by Envy,” which touches on this very thing.
“When looking up to another person, one might feel admiration,” she says. “When comparing to them, one might feel envy. A person can certainly both admire and envy another person. It simply depends on the thoughts the person is holding about the other in any particular moment.”
Jeffrey Davis M.A., a speaker and writer, further explains the good type of jealousy in his article, “Creative Admiration: From Envy to Mastery.” He says that the key is choosing “a master within reach that inspires but does not frustrate you.” Basically, taking it one step at a time toward newer and newer heights.
As an example, if a guitarist does stumble upon a Sungha Jung video and watches it by accident, he or she should never get discouraged by it. Davis explains anyone can “imitate and emulate,” meaning that the act of mimicking something and making it their own is all part of the process.
“Truth is, from being an infant on, we learn what it means to be creative human beings by imitation,” he says. “You might as well do it intentionally and learn in the process. From imitation comes, perchance, emulation.”
It’s not unlike the time a best friend decides to unload on you drunkenly at a concert, saying things like: “You know, one thing I decided to borrow from you is your spontaneity. I have always admired how natural you are.”
The confession can be unexpected, and surprising, revealing that you can borrow something from someone other than money. Admittedly, it can be used as a learning process, too.
As time goes on, you may find yourself doing the same — borrowing a little something here and there and embedding it into life from the swagger of a favorite gangster on screen to the moves of football players. It’s a win-win loan — you never have to return it.
Mastering envy might be a potent stem of personal growth and success, an art that can help you be the one worthy of admiration rather than only the one doing the admiring.