Envy: The Great Motivator

By Stephen M. Pfeiffer, Ph.D.

If envy were a fever, all the world would be ill. ~Danish Proverb

We’ve been told that we’re not supposed to feel envious of others. In fact, coveting another’s advantages, successes and possessions is one of the seven deadly sins. Plus, envy makes us feel unhappy with ourselves. But maybe experiencing discontent because we haven’t achieved what another has is not such a bad thing. In fact, studies show that some envy can actually be good for us.

An article in the

Wall Street Journal

explains that there are two kinds of envy: malicious and benign. According to the article, a 2010

Harvard Business Review

paper found that malicious envy can damage careers and workplaces, but benign envy can help us discover the areas that are important to us and help us focus our time and energy into those areas. Malicious envy makes us want to undermine the other person so that we feel better about ourselves. Benign envy, on the other hand, can be a motivator. For example, if we feel benign envy upon hearing about a colleague’s promotion, we won’t want to secretly plot to get that person fired; instead, we will be inspired to work harder so that we, too, can get promoted.

Interestingly, experiencing benign envy is even more beneficial than experiencing feelings of admiration. The article also cites a

2011 study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin

in which researchers conducted a series of experiments with more than 200 university students. Researchers studied the effects of feeling admiration, malicious envy, and benign envy. They found that only feelings of benign envy motivated the students to want to study more and perform better, not admiration.

Envy not only motivates us to want to achieve more; studies show that it gives us the tools we need to achieve.

Sarah E. Hill

, a Texas Christian University researcher, and others conducted experiments, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, to test whether or not envy improves attention and memory, which were deemed the tools necessary to accomplish a rival’s success. One half of the subjects were asked to recall past feelings of envy and one half wasn’t. Both groups watched mock interviews with fictitious peers, and the group asked to recall past feelings of envy better recalled details about the interviews.

If you’re feeling envious, but you’re not sure if it’s malicious or benign,

business school professors Tanya Menon and Leigh Thompson

claim that you can turn it into benign envy by reflecting on your own accomplishments. Their studies show that those who reflect on their own accomplishments when faced with envy are more open to learning about a rival’s plan than those who don’t.

To explore strategies to turn envy into a motivating factor in the workplace consider consulting with a mental professional. For more information on relationship counseling at work, please feel free to reach out to me at

or at my website,