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Turn Envy into Strength – David Ludden’s view

Professor David Ludden

David Ludden is a professor of psychology at Georgia Gwinnett College and the author of the book The Psychology of Language. As a psycholinguist, he’s interested in questions such as how the brain processes language, how we learn language, and how we use language to build and maintain social relationships. Recently, he has mostly been interested in the last question.

 

Feelings, in general, are not always easy to understand. What’s worse (or better?) is that we are specifically made to feel something, depending on the situation.
Now, every existing thing has two sides of the same coin; this principle is also applied to our emotions, no matter if they are usually considered good or bad. But today, we’ll see more in detail one feeling in particular: envy.
Let’s take a look.

How come you became that interested in a complex emotion such envy? Many people talk about it but only a few did a huge research like yours; what motivated you to focus on this specifically?

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of reading in the literature on communication in relationships. That’s when I came across new research on envy. Although it’s not specifically about communication, envy is a complex social emotion that can have a really big impact on our relationships. Like most psychologists, I’ve just assumed that envy is bad and should be controlled as much as possible. But after looking deeper into it, I’ve found that it can have a positive side as well. In hindsight, it makes sense. Human emotions are complicated, and they’re rarely all good or all bad.

Everyone had their own Brent, in a moment of life or another; it’s known that he/she did nothing wrong, that they got what we first wanted for having more skill. Then why do we still get angry with this person? What drives us to make negative thoughts other than envy, anger and frustration?

Brent is the character in my article that gets the promotion you wanted. This made-up example gives us the opportunity to explore the nature of envy. First of all, we need to think about what emotions are and what they’re for. Emotions provide us with information about our current situation and the motivation to do something. Envy provides us with information about our status in the social structure. Before, you and Brent were equals, but now for some reason he’s above you. That’s what triggers the feeling of envy. After that, it motivates us to do something to mitigate this loss in social standing. Here’s where envy can be either positive or negative. It’s positive when it motivates us to learn from Brent’s example and improve ourselves. In this sense, anytime you look up to a role model, you’re experiencing positive envy. But of course envy can also motivate us to do negative things like spreading false rumors behind Brent’s back or trying to sabotage his efforts to succeed. Of course, negative envy doesn’t do anyone any good. It doesn’t help you improve, and because it disrupts the social network, it can cause harm to other people besides the one you intend to hurt. My guess is that your tendency toward positive or negative envy is probably based on the way you’ve seen others behave in similar situations, especially when you were young.

Would it be possible to just use the bright side of envy to become a better person? Could it also become completely negative one day or another, leading our mind into a vicious cycle in which we can’t get out?

Here’s where mindfulness comes in. You may have a habit of feeling negative envy every time someone gets something you wanted. But if you’re aware of your habits, you can change them. This is especially true when you understand that you can turn your negative envy into a positive motivation to improve yourself. And you’re right, if we give into negative envy, it draws us into a vicious circle that can be hard to escape. Such people tend to have a negative outlook on life generally, and they feel they have no control over the events in their life. They’re not happy people, and they’re definitely not pleasant to be around.

Is there a way to totally repress our envy in general? Supposing that, could it be a coward or a wise thing to do if we had the chance?

It’s never wise to try to repress your emotions. Like whack-a-mole, if you push down an emotion at one time, it just pops up again at another time, often in an even worse situation. Emotions provide you with valuable information and motivation, so you should never disregard them. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should be a slave to your passions, either. You’ve also got to do a reality check. Use emotion and reason in tandem to guide your behavior. The next time you feel a twinge of envy, embrace the emotion and ask yourself how you can use it to improve yourself. Channeling your envy into self-improvement is definitely a wise course of action.

Does it boost our hidden capacities that we first didn’t think to possess? Is it a great advantage to be envious in this case?

That’s the whole idea behind positive envy. You use the feeling to push yourself forward, make yourself better than you were. You can learn from those you feel envious of, but only if you can avoid the dark side of envy.

In your article, you correctly said religious leaders and psychologists always viewed it as a bad thing. Do you think they were wrong or right in some way? Should envy be considered something to avoid or fully embrace, both the dark and bright side? 

When people say that envy is a bad thing, they’re talking about negative envy. And they’re certainly right. Negative envy is a corrosive emotion that’s harmful to you and everyone around you. However, we should embrace positive envy because of the way it can motivate us to do better. Envy, like all emotions, provides us with motivation to do something. But we can use our reason to channel our envy into a positive course, giving us the motivation we need to improve ourselves.

 

As you stated before, anger and fear are not, of course, the same emotions. Let’s just put the case that we feel an emotion considered “good”, joy: does it have a negative side too, like every other feeling mentioned before?

You make an excellent point. We can see positive and negative sides to all emotions. Fear protects us from harm, but it can also keep us from pursuing opportunities. Likewise, anger can motivate us to protect ourselves when threatened, but when it’s expressed inappropriately it can seriously damage our social relationships. But what about joy, which seems purely positive? Or is it? There’s no word for the concept of “negative joy” in English, but the Germans have a good word for it. They call it Schadenfreude, or “shadow joy.” You experience Schadenfreude when you feel happiness at seeing someone else fail or suffer. Slapstick comedy is based on Schadenfreude. You laugh when the comic slips on a banana peel, gets hit on the head, or falls into a manhole. I suppose we’re thinking, “Good thing that’s not happening to me!” But of course, we know it’s just an act, and nobody is really getting hurt. But we can also relish the real pain of other people. Let’s say you’ve been stewing over Brent “stealing” your promotion, and now you learn he just got fired. Schadenfreude! But still, what good does it do you? Like negative envy, it’s corrosive to yourself as well as everyone else in your social network. So I suggest we keep on the bright side and avoid the shadowy aspects of all our emotions.

22 Comments

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  1. Excellent article, filled with good points, amazing explanations, while still being entirely psychologically accurate and sound.
    I love the arguments Ludden is supporting here, that no emotion is entirely bad nor entirely good, it’s simply the information coming from the outside world, which we choose our own interpretation to, that’s quite the point to make, as it is very true and highly applicable to real-life situations. There should be more talk on envy surely, as we do live in a time where there is a great emphasis on success and an even greater celebration of those who are successful. At times, it can be overwhelming to find our own place in these situations, yet, our focus should remain inward.” If I envy Brent, why not strive to be similar to him, to what I see I lack, to serve my own needs and ideas?”, is the key motivation, at times too hard to derive from what we find in real life.

  2. What an amazing idea and a brilliant concept to now place into everyday life. I really like this article, its suggested new ideas that I’ve never noticed before. Nicely written and in depth, thanks!

  3. i really enjoyed reading this article. I believe that every emotion can be both transformed into something positive, or negative. i think however people in general will perceive ‘envy’ as a native emotions, thus it’s will be hard to believe that something positive can be produced from this.

    i usually myself become envy with someone’s success, but it is actually becomes a motivation from me to be a better myself.

    What i think is missing from this article is actually the definition of ‘Brent’. There’s no clear description, what is ‘Brent’ in here, and it may confuse the reader.

  4. Firstly, I’m really glad you mentioned that it was Ludden’s view in the article’s title, it helps to remind the reader that they can have their own opinion and that this isn’t a set in stone point of view. Secondly, I thought the article was really well handled, even with the questions being slightly confusing. The article was informative and to the point. The source seems reliable and knowledgeable in this area, and it really feels well put together. The introduction was quick, to the point, and a good hook. The body was full of intriguing discussion and formative information. I hope this article is spread so that others can learn about the positives of such a negatively regarded emotion.

  5. Like many other comments before, I greatly enjoyed reading this article. It was an interesting topic with ideas force you to think and analyze times when you were envious. Professor Ludden really does a great job of explaining how complex emotions are and how they are neither good nor bad but rather a combination of the two.

    My main critique of this article is the questions that were asked. Overall, the content contained within them was good. The mention of Brent was confusing to me as I had never read any of Professor Ludden’s work before. I found, in general, the wording of the questions to be confusing. I think a lot of them can be shortened to one or two sentences and in doing so the wordiness would be solved and the question would be a lot clearer. In addition, it was mentioned that Professor Ludden did a lot of research on Envy. What was the research? What were the results?

    Still, I really enjoyed this article and would love to see follow up ones done.

  6. This article is very helpful because it moves away from envy having a negative connotation to it having a positive and negative side. People are often envious because they are self-conscious or feel lower than someone else. Having these “envious” feelings and it being thought of as a bad thing can bring down people even more. By thinking of them as positive by saying that it is a goal or a role model, this negates the need for the persons self-esteem to be negatively affected by the emotion. I constantly find myself comparing myself and feeling envious of others because many things in life are competitive. For example, I am envious of other peers I see from college who have internships for the summer. One part of myself wishes I could have been as successful and am upset, but the other part is happy for them and commends them. They must have done something I did not and were able to get to that point. I shouldn’t be envious of something when I did not take the same steps to achieve it. In situations where the other person has worked harder to achieve something I wish I have, it motivates me more to try harder if it is really something I want.

  7. Envy is something I come face to face with everyday (while at school). I’m constantly wondering why I’m not as good as others. This interview is really enlightening though and sheds some light on a few things I believe some people have experienced. “Positive envy” is great motivation; there’s nothing like the vision of someone who succeeded over you seeing you triumph even better. I’ve had that dream once or twice, and I’m certain many readers have as well. Which leads me to why I liked this article: it was thought provoking. Most of us just wallow in our puddles of jealousy and self-loathing and don’t do much about it. Ludden’s perspective, or rather method, of handling that feeling leads us into a much more productive pathway.

    In addition, I loved the questions asked in this interview. They cleared up a few things and gave us readers some really interesting information. For instance, “negative joy” or the cycle of envy. The infographic on success was a great addition as well, the only thing I’d think of adding to it was a connection to envy and how it makes a successful person (infograph form).

    Another thing I would add is a summary. Sharing your opinion and your take on the interview could spark more discussion and lead readers to agree or disagree.

    Really loved this interview though! Great topic!

  8. The part at the end about negative joy was interesting. I thought people found slapstick humor funny because they were just a little bit sadistic, but using a model of positive and negative sides of emotions works much better.
    If all emotions do have a positive and negative side, I wonder what the positive to sadness is.

  9. I really enjoyed reading this article.
    I definitely agree with two sides to each emotion. It’s particularly interesting that this theory could be applied to envy.
    I’m really curious about something…do you think this could be applied to personality traits? such as stubbornness?

    • Thank you!
      Also yes, I definitely think this could be applied also to the personality traits, like, as you said, stubbornness: the positive thing is, this trait also means integrity, refusing to change your opinion. Still, refusing to change what you think is also, of course, considered negative (like Envy in this case) so it’s a fifty-fifty.

      Marco

  10. I really enjoyed reading this interview. The reasoning behind positive and negative envy is truly different and a very good point that all people should know. I love the idea of positive envy because I think it’s natural to be motivated/influenced by others for the good of the world. Understanding negative envy is also very important which the interview was able to point out those qualities. Great article!

  11. I like that more than one version of envy is used in this article and showing the impacts of both in our relationships with the people around us. Great idea using Q and A to effectively answer anyone’s questions. Good organization of the article as well, clearly defining the main points of each paragraph. Although the article does not give much advice on how to steer clear of negative envy, it does show the impacts of positive envy. Keep it going, great job!

  12. I think this article is really beneficial because it shows the negative and positives of envy. It really highlights the emotional component and while it’s not directly giving advice it shows the reader how to use envy to propel themselves to a higher standing instead of letting this emotion become a detriment to their success. Really really well done! I will say I was very confused when your question mentioned Brent, thankfully Professor Ludden explained in his answer but be conscious that your reader may not know the reference material you’re forming your questions from. Try to make things more explicit, like the reader has never heard of any of this before 🙂

  13. This interview offers great and insightful points about envy that I had personally never thought of before!

    A way to tidy up this piece would be to make the introduction more succinct and lean more on the focus of the piece- envy. It almost gets hidden. I would suggest to give it a capital letter or put it on a new line and get rid of the “Let’s take a look”.

    The grammar and content are sound, but having shorter and more clear questions would give this article the “punchiness” it needs and would draw the reader in more easily.

    I thoroughly enjoy the picture- it made the points clear and easy to understand.

  14. I appreciate that Ludden referenced his article in your first question mentioning the character, Brent. Until that point, it was unclear to me who you were speaking of and how they were relevant to this discussion. You should consider revising that question, for clarity.

    – I’ve always taken envy to be descriptive of an internal process and jealousy to be the behavioral manifestation of envy. That is to say that I would have never considered someone’s actions as indicating that they are envious, just their line of thinking.

    I really like that you asked about whether other emotions, namely “positive” emotions, have a downside. Aside from the example used, I think that people pleasing can be an example of negative joy. If someone feels compelled to always be happy or if they believe that being happy makes them a good, worthwhile person then they would be more likely to turn a blind eye to what their negative emotions are signaling about the people they interact with or their environment.

    I think that perfectionism may be seen as negative joy as well for a similar reason. The person is chasing an expectation, either externally or internally motivated, that when met gives them a feeling of ease, achievement, and joy. If their desired outcome is not met, then they may experience anxiety and sadness.

    Very nice interview!

  15. This was quite an interesting read. The entire interview was very well-focused on the intended topic of envy and there were little grammatical errors although one glaring one I noticed was in the first question where the author mentioned “…did a huge research like yours…” Some additional proofreading could easily remedy the issue.

    In regards to the topic in general, I liked the explicit example of what causes envy overall and the mention of mindfulness to use envy as a motivation to do better. However, there are a lot of grey areas that were not explored including the fact that there is no general formula that more than a few individuals can follow to use mindfulness nor is there one way to use envy. I understand that perhaps for clarity purposes envy was defined as negative and positive, but as another commentator mentioned, there is a lot of grey area associated with many topics including this one. Personally, I only find mindfulness helpful when I have identified the relevant values of the emotion or habit at hand because I need a method of action that resonates with my personal beliefs and values not some objective logical flaw in thinking. Additionally, for me envy is neutral and I use it to help me identify what I really want and the role models I can research so that I may come closer to achieving my desires. Therefore, for me envy itself is not the fuel rather it is a guide. With all that said, I think I good follow-up article could include the interviewing of different people on their own uses of the emotion envy to explore the grey areas of the topic.

  16. This article has made me rethink envy. Its confusing to me for I am an envious person. Is it possible to have negative envy and positive envy at the same time? If so I think that’s what my life is based of. There were a few grammattical errors in the questions but the article was very informational.

  17. While I do love the idea that people are putting more research into envy to prove it is not an entirely bad emotion, I would like to disagree on some points. I feel like there’s maybe a mild bias, or it’s too black and white – that only positive envy is good, and negative envy is bad. As a negative person, I often get negative envy, but it’s never inspired me to ruin someone’s career or hurt them – more as it’s inspired me to do better than them. I feel like there’s a grey area being missed in which negative emotions can have positive impacts on people’s lives too.

  18. This was such a great new perspective on envy and emotions in general. I’d thought of personality traits before as having good sides and bad sides, but not really emotions. It was really informative and thought-provoking!! I also loved getting the flip side and seeing how joy can be negative as well. It really shows that you can direct how an emotion will effect you – negatively or positively. I really like that he touched on mindfulness and how you can direct these emotions.
    The interview was written really well! The introduction was great and so were the questions. I was just a little bit confused when Brent got mentioned before he was explained. But besides that it was great!

  19. Very interesting point of view about envy and emotions. It wasn’t hard to read but I found some parts a little repetitive.

    The part that attracted me the most was the last question, and how good emotions could have a negative side too. I think most people have this kind of emotions instead the bad emotions turns a good think. Is more common to feel some level of happiness when someone we don’t like had a bad moment but is less common the realization of that and how is possible to turn that sentiment in something good.

    I liked the infographic too, its point some attitudes that I, as a reader, can pay attention to try and change it.

  20. This was such a refreshing interview! I have always been able to use my envy in a positive way and it has led me to great lengths that I would not be able to imagine for myself, had it not been for seeing and envying others who had. That said, I have recently been struggling as the boundary between envy and jealousy has become more blurred for me, and it would be lovely to see some research or questions comparing and contrasting jealousy and envy!
    Reference to the German term ‘schadenfreude’ was so lovely and helped illustrate the point more effectively.
    Overall, easy to read, very informative and applicable to real-life situations!

  21. Definitely an interesting take on something like envy; it’s not discussed very often for the sake of itself. The questions asked were also varied enough, though perhaps a couple of them were quite similar to each other, which caused the answers to seem a bit redundant.

    All in all, a succinct interview with a pleasant format leading to an easy read.

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Turn Envy into Strength – David Ludden’s view