Facebook and the Upsides of Envy

Have you ever had a really rough day (or month), turned to perusing your friends’ Facebook status updates, and moments later, been filled with feelings of gratitude and appreciation for how great your life is?

Meh…probably not so much.

It’s easy to forget that what we see on Facebook is not a complete picture of our friends’ lives, but mostly just the cool bits. So even though we are happy for them, it can still trigger a twinge or two of envy to see everyone’s shiny new jobs, relationships, and ramen burgers while we sit alone on our couch, reflecting on an unsuccessful audition, eating instant cup ramen.

No wonder why much has been made of “Facebook depression.” (And check out this amusing, but incisive short film )

But is Facebook really all that bad for us? Or might there be something positive in there somewhere, that could prove beneficial to the development of our lives and careers?

Is Facebook depression real?

A recent study suggests that Facebook itself is not the problem. That on its own, Facebook can  be a perfectly healthy diversion and a fun way to stay connected to friends and family. The problem is when we start spending too much time on Facebook, using it as a social comparison tool – a way to gauge how well we are doing relative to others. Deliberately or not, when we are confronted with pictures, videos, and other indicators of others’ seemingly perfect lives and cats, it can lead to feelings of envy, which can in turn lead to feelings of depression.

Two sides of envy

Envy sounds like one of those negative emotions that slowly eats away at our soul and turns us into bitter, empty, self-loathing shells of our former selves – but wait! Envy may not always be bad.

Because there are two kinds of envy – a productive type (benign envy) in addition to the more familiar destructive variety (malicious envy).

Benign envy tends to be associated with actions that are centered around self-improvement, while malicious envy tends to be associated with actions geared towards tearing others down. Fittingly, we are more likely to experience benign envy when we see someone experience success that we feel is well-deserved. If we think someone’s success is undeserved, we are more likely to experience malicious envy.

Ok…so rebranding envy with a kinder, gentler name is interesting, but envy of any kind still comes with some emotional pain, which can’t be great, right?

What about admiration, for instance? That’s usually regarded as a much healthier and noble emotion than envy. And it’s supposed to be a powerful force that can inspire and motivate us to work harder and do better, right?

Researchers in the Netherlands decided to put admiration and the two types of envy to a 3-way deathmatch, and set up a series of studies to see which would come out on top.

Study #1: Motivation

The first study was simply designed to see if benign envy would lead to greater motivation to improve one’s grades than malicious envy or admiration.

Seventeen undergraduate students were asked to describe someone they knew well who was better at something than they were. Then, they rated how benignly envious, maliciously envious, or admiring they were of this person on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 7 (very much so).

Later, in what they were led to believe was a separate study, the students had to respond to the following question: “Compared to last semester, how many hours more or less do you plan to spend on your study in the upcoming semester?”

Only benign envy was related to an increase in the number of hours students planned on studying.

Benign envy with the early lead! 1-0-0

Study #2: Performance

In the next study, the researchers wanted to kick things up a notch and see if benign envy would lead to an actual change in behavior.

They took 86 participants and randomly assigned them to a benign envy group, malicious envy group, admiration group, and control group. Each was asked to recall an experience of benign envy, malicious envy, admiration, or nothing (for the control group), and then rate how positive or negative the memory felt (-3 for very negative to +3 for very positive).

A short time later, in the context of what they were led to believe was a different and unrelated study, they completed an 18-item test which was introduced to them as “an important instrument used to measure creativity and leadership.”

The admiration group felt much more positively towards the person in their recalled experience (1.82) than the benign envy (-.86) or malicious envy (-1.24) group. However, the benign envy group outperformed the other groups with an average score of 11.38 (out of 18) vs. 9.82 for the admiration group, 8.48 for the malicious envy group, and 9.33 for the control group.

Two in a row! Benign envy 2-0-0

Study #3: Persistence

The third study took the second study a step further, and found that participants in the benign envy group not only scored higher, but persisted longer in the task than those in the other groups. And even if you controlled for how much longer they spent on the task, they still scored higher than those in the other groups.

A shutout in the making. Benign envy 3-0-0…

Study #4: Growth vs. Fixed Mindset

The final study may be the most intriguing in some ways. Half of the participants were primed with the idea that change and improvement is easy (growth mindset), while the other half were primed with the idea that change is hard (fixed mindset). (Here’s a great read on the growth vs. fixed mindset, if this sounds unfamiliar)

Then, they read a newspaper article on a fictitious model student who performed well in a student competition, and were asked how much benign envy, malicious envy, or admiration they felt towards him.

Then, they were asked how much extra time they planned on studying in the upcoming semester.

The results suggest that when we have a growth mindset and come across someone who is more successful than us, we are more likely to experience benign envy than admiration (which then leads to greater motivation to do the work). If, on the other hand, we have a fixed mindset and believe that improvement is not possible, we are more likely to feel admiration and not experience greater motivation to do the work.

So why did envy trump admiration?

The authors quote the philosopher Kierkegaard, who once said that “Admiration is happy self-surrender; envy is unhappy self-assertion,” and suggest that while admiration feels more positive, the twinge of emotional pain that comes with benign envy, paired with the belief that we are capable of making changes makes us more likely to take action and work towards a brighter future.

Take action

So next time you feel a twinge of envy, don’t beat yourself up for feeling that way. It may not be the the most pleasant emotion, but if it’s of the benign variety, use it! Leverage that motivation to do the work and take a step forward.

The original paper is worth reading – there are some interesting nuances and things to consider in the discussion section. (Click here to download)

For more on growth vs. fixed mindsets, take the online mindset test, and check out the book.

photo credit: Jealousy via photopin (license)

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13 Responses

  1. This article was both helpful and not. I have a big problem with envy (of the benign kind – I certainly never wish anyone any harm). And yes, it does spur me on to work harder. The problem is that I began the serious study of classical singing when I was 54 (I am now 64 and singing better than ever) and the people I envy are, in one case, one third my age. No matter how well I sing and how hard I work, opportunities are almost nonexistent, which is compounded by the fact that I live around the corner from Lincoln Center (because that is where I found a rent regulated apartment decades ago, not because I chose to live there particularly). So this envy just sort of floats out there with nowhere I can escape to. Even the humblest of venues (the ones that don’t pay people) are filled with highly trained professionals or semi-pros who are much younger, went to conservatories, and have impressive CVs. And because more of them show up here every year, I always end up back at the bottom of the pile no matter how much progress I have made. So I am still looking for a lesson to take away from this. I suppose it’s that envy is not “bad” unless you wish to harm someone else?

    1. Did those same artists inspire you to become a classical vocalist in the first place? If so I’d say the benign envy has played its role in getting you to where you are now. With ten years of experience under your belt, I know the internal dialogue of, “OK, think I’m ready now!” starts to get louder and louder. Yet even so, it’s important to acknowledge, embrace and own the realities of starting at 54 vs. when the students 1/3 your age started. It will mean more frequently getting overlooked, it will mean being underestimated at times and I think if you go into your performances expecting this reality it will allow you to focus less on the outcome you want and more on the benefits you’re actually gaining (such as experience, proficiency, network connections, etc.). Opportunities will come but expecting them every time you perform will only hurt you more and thus create malicious envy as a way of rationalizing the pain. So what I’m trying to say is I think this is more an issue of setting realistic goals than it is an issue of benign v malicious envy. Just my two cents, hope that helps!

      1. Thank you Alex. Actually, I had sung off and on since childhood (I started out trying to imitate Julie Andrews). I even sang in a few amateur opera and operetta performances when I was in my mid 20s. (Back then those groups really were *for* amateurs.) Then I didn’t sing at all for almost 25 years. I began again because a Svengali-like figure “discovered” me singing from a hymnal in the back pew of a church and, by the way he treated me, he lit a fire under me (getting me to sing an aria from Samson et Dalila at one of their fundraisers played a big role, hence my blog name.). As for opportunities, I have been rejected by all the “community opera groups” that don’t pay people, because they are full of the spill-over of experienced singers who can’t get real work. I mostly produce things myself and have had some luck. It is less expensive than those pay-to-sing groups, which are also full of the foregoing types of singers. The problem, again, is finding an audience because it’s hard to find people wanting to go to a homemade concert based on Carmen when they can go to someone’s senior recital at a conservatory (this is something that actually happened; the events weren’t on the same day, but close enough that the recital siphoned off not only most of my social network, but all the subsequent “buzz”). I spend most of my time as an unpaid church soloist and choir member (this is fine; I do something else for a living and am not looking to make money singing, only for opportunities where I can get my own air time (not choral singing, other than in this choir, which is quite small). I am hoping to find something unique, something that other people are not doing.

        1. Well that’s great you’re back into singing, so important to keep making music. Live performing opportunities are certainly ever more difficult to come by, people just aren’t coming out to shows as much anymore (that’s across the board). Whereas it’s discouraging for you just imagine those young ones looking to actually do it for a living! That’s a depressing thought, and it’s one of the reasons I chose to teach for a living as opposed to trying to become a full-time performer. That being said, the internet is such a great place to stay sharp and find your audience. I suggest creating your own YouTube channel. With a small investment in some basic gear or maybe finding the right connections you can release weekly performances. As I’m sure you’ll do your best every time, if you stay consistent I guarantee you’ll find your audience! Feel free to email me if you’d like help setting things up too 🙂 [email protected]

  2. Interestingly, I actually created a blog (or rather a social network) in response to this exact issue. The idea that people only project the best parts of their lives – or in a musicians case, their career up on social networks can often leave you feeling like you’re “behind” others or that you’re never going to “make it”. Having been in the session world now for a number of years, I’ve seen first hand the 90% of lows that precede the 10% of highs. So as a somewhat tongue-in-cheek response I created Session Confessions – a place for musicians to shed light on the more real and less glamorous side of being a freelance musician. Hope people like it – it’s starting to get a little bit of interest, would love people to sign up and start posting – http://www.sessionconfessions.co.uk

  3. First of all, great blog. My 10 year old daughter is now learning classical piano and competing regularly. I also play and have been helping her along the way. We are always looking for ways to improve effectiveness of practice and improve performance in recitals and auditions. We are enjoying reading the tips you offer on your site, although we have just started looking around here. I’m sure there is much more we will learn as we continue to read. I know you don’t write specifically for the young student but it is helpful nonetheless. Haven’t been able to find much out there on the web for young students specifically who are playing at the competitive level. Anyway regarding facebook, I gave it up for lent and I am very happy! I don’t miss reading about all the bragging that goes on. I have found much better ways to spend free moments than to read about friend’s vacations or expensive restaurant outings on date nights with their fabulous husbands. My husband and I, we are just fine having pizza at home with the kids ;)!

  4. Envy : I’m wondering if images (that’s it : photos, drawings) on internet, in the social websites, on Youtube, make us depress. I found this interesting and tried to imagine my life with exactly the same things I would read but without the images. For example, how would it be if I had come accross the same things without seeing them on the internet ? I think images play akey role in our depression, and envy. Picture culture is terrible;

    Secondly, I decided to close my eyes during practice. Maybe images and sounds are too complicated for me to solve a technical puzzle so I’m wondering. I want to do the test. Continue reading the same stuff during two years every day but deleting the pictures thanks to the browser : what do I notice ? Do I spend less time on the websites? AT the end of the two years, did I have other interests? Do I read more ? Do I read more ? and books also? I also think images are attention span catchers.

  5. that+listening to recordings of masterpieces of people who played very well. I noticed that I could listen and watch someone play it until the end and procrastinate while just a recording would actually bore me and I wouldn’t actually like the music, instead of stopping listening to it and movng on other activities . Finally, I began practicing less, when I began listening to recordings and watching videos of other violinists.
    I want to go back to this “candideness” of the beginning even if it will be less candide. I did not do it for the success at all. I would not listen to recordings and I would have more technique, be stronger. -> I want to live, when I am at home, in a world of words or sounds (one at at a time) and to manage my span, I will have to decide before which documents will beexclusively around me during this time. “this time” because my first step is not to learn how to solve technical puzzles. For me for now, I have to learn how to spend time with the thing. I will think of other things (like improving my technique) later. And maybe, if I won’t have an excellent technique, my mood, my stress will lower!! I hope so.
    Seeing pictures should be a pasttime that we can actually plan in the day.

    By the way The BM is as funny or even funnier without the pictures!!
    And have a nice day!

    P.S.:Is a musician who tidied up hisher room a better technical puzzle solver?

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