Jennifer Breheny Wallace—The Upside of Envy: Envy Can Lower "Life Satisfaction," but at Its Best, Can Provide Motivation and Inspiration

As an economist heavily invested in studying happiness and life satisfaction, I was very interested in the essay by Jennifer Breheny Wallace linked above. Here is the key passage:

A study published last August by the journal Plos One, led by researchers at the University of Michigan, found that the more people used Facebook, the less satisfied they were with their lives. In another study last year involving almost 600 Facebook users, German researchers say they witnessed the “rampant nature of envy” on social-networking websites.

So modern envy seems to be bad—but it doesn’t have to be. Researchers are finding that, if approached the right way, there can actually be an upside to this deadly sin.

Psychologists classify envy in two ways: malicious and benign. With benign envy, you are motivated by another person’s success and strive to emulate it. With malicious envy, you want to cut the advantaged person down so you look better by comparison. Let’s say you feel pangs of envy after your rival at another firm gets promoted. Malicious envy might drive you to undermine his success, but benign envy would inspire you to work harder and get promoted, too.

Studies show benign envy can be a great motivator. In a 2011 study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers in the Netherlands conducted a series of experiments with more than 200 university students. Researchers found that when they triggered feelings of benign envy—as opposed to admiration or malicious envy—in the students, it drove them to want to study more and perform better on a test measuring creativity and intelligence. While admiration may feel better, the researchers found, it doesn’t motivate performance like the pain and frustration of envy.

The research mentioned is not mine–the University of Michigan is a hotbed for research on happiness and life satisfaction in general. I’d be glad for the reference.