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Positive Envy

greenThe more envious you are, the more motivated you become — sometimes, reports Jennifer Breheny Wallace in The Wall Street Journal (4/26/14). Envy is more widespread than ever, largely because social networks are so often little more than a platform for braggarts. Studies have shown that "the more people used Facebook, the less satisfied they were with their lives." But psychologists say there are two kinds of envy — malicious envy that inspires you to take down rivals and benign envy that motivates ambitions.

A "2011 study" of "more than 200 university students in the Netherlands" found that benign envy "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." "Those painful pangs of envy are there for an evolutionary reason," says Sarah E. Hill of Texas Christian University, "alerting us that someone has something of importance to us."

Sarah conducted a study to "test whether envy improves attention and memory — the tools needed to copy a rival’s steps for success." She found that a test group primed with feelings of envy "paid closer attention and better recalled details" about fictitious interviews with successful peers versus an envy-free control group. The best way to guard against malicious envy, experts say, is "to take stock of your own achievements when faced with envy," which tends to channel the envy in a more productive direction.