A co-worker saunters down the hall with the LV bag you’ve been eyeing. Your sister gets sent to London for a six-week consulting stint. Your friend shows up at happy hour with her so-hot-he-should-be-illegal boyfriend. And no matter how good your own life is, you’re suddenly consumed with envy. But, hang on for a sec before you try to quash it. Yeah, that “I want that, too” emotion has gotten a bad rap. But, experts believe envy, rather than being a deadly sin, can actually be a force for good—if you know how to work it.
“Envy can be a powerful tool to help you figure out what you truly want in your life if you listen to what it’s trying to tell you,” says Julie Exline, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.
And according to new research, once it points you toward your goals, envy also gives you a kick in the butt to go after them. “Our studies found that your frustration over not having what another person has may motivate you to pursue it more aggressively,” explains Niels van de Ven, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. “It can even push you to take your skills to the next level: People performed better on an intelligence task after they recalled a time when they felt envious of someone.”
So, it’s time to stop fighting your envious feelings and instead learn to follow them...all the way to the place you want to be in.
Envy is like a flashing neon sign that reads “Hel-ler, Pay attention!” For instance, if you’re upset when a co-worker gets promoted, what does that tell you about your own career ambitions? “Envy points to your most fundamental intentions,” Exline says. “It’s a part of the emotional system that helps you identify what you ultimately want and attain it.”
Feelings of envy are particularly powerful when you’re at some kind of turning point in your life—even if you don’t realize it at the time. “Envy often crops up when there’s an aspect of your life you’ve outgrown or when you aren’t being true to yourself,” Exline says.
When you hear that your cousin is moving to the States, and instead of feeling happy for her, you get vaguely uptight and angry, it may mean you’re ready to explore some new territory yourself.
Feeling envious is actually a great weather vane for telling you that you’re a little stuck or trapped, whether in a dating rut, a career stall, or just a day-to-day routine that’s become stale.
READING ENVY’S MESSAGE
Okay, so envy’s a crucial tool...but how do you slip out of those negative “I want!” feelings and use it for good? Force yourself to pinpoint exactly what you’re coveting. Say your best friend got engaged and moved in with her fiancé. You drop by and find yourself getting annoyed by their obnoxious level of self-satisfaction.
“Break down what you’re feeling by asking yourself a series of questions to figure out what about the situation is triggering envy,” says Peter Salovey, PhD, author of The Psychology Of Jealousy And Envy. “Is it their relationship? Their house? Something else?”
Go through each possibility until one hits a nerve. If you don’t examine the feelings, you may assume you’re craving a nice place like hers, for instance, when the crux of the matter might actually be that you want to get engaged. So, take the other person out of the picture and look inward. Connect that envy back to something in your life you wish were different.
“We get envious only about things that really matter to us, so this gives insight into our true passions,” van de Ven says. Just be sure you’re not overidealizing the thing you covet. “It can start to seem like a magic key to happiness,” Exline cautions, so be realistic. For example, list the parts of the job you’re jonesing for that you wouldn’t enjoy, and make sure it’s worth it. After all, you can’t go after everything that sparks a twinge of jealousy.
PUTTING IT TO USE
So, you came, you saw, you envied...and you’ve homed in on what it is you want. Now, you’re ready for action. “When you actually see the thing you want or hear about it happening to someone, that goal begins to feel more real,” Exline says. “As a result, you’re increasingly driven to pursue it.” Simply dreaming of having an acting career is one thing. But should you witness someone you know doing that, it suddenly feels like it’s within your grasp too, which gives you the push to go get it.
Don’t be afraid to work the object of your envy for information about how to score what she has. “Look at how she achieved what you desire and what you can do to accomplish something similar,” says Penelope Lockwood, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. If possible, team up with her to watch her in action. If your co-worker is a pro at closing deals, stick by her side at a business soiree and observe how she operates. Want to do better in Spanish class? Plan a study date with the guy who aced the midterm and check out how he conjugates verbs so well.
And though it may feel counterintuitive to turn to the person you’re resenting, asking for advice helps, too. Tell a popular friend “You’re so confident when you walk into a party. What’s your secret?” Pump your brother for the deets on how he scored a fat raise. Ask your neighbor with the cut abs what she did to get so buff. Once you cop their tricks, soon you’ll be the one inspiring envy.