The Nature of Envy

Do not overrate what you have received, nor envy others. He who envies others does not obtain peace of mind.


Envy is an emotion that people generally don’t like to experience. Even when we do, we don’t like to admit we experience it. Books and wise men often tell us how bad it is. And yes the insidious envy that frustrates and builds resentment is bad indeed (Smith, Parrott, Ozer, & Moniz, 1994)

But it is important to know that there is another form of envy – called Benign Envy that is motivational in nature (Foster et al., 1972; Van de Ven et al., 2009). This kind of envy inspires us, makes us look up to the individual who has achieved things, and basically gets us going.

It isn’t possible for us to achieve everything we desire in one quick and easy step. There will always be people who are ahead and behind. If we just look up, we compare ourselves to people who are “ostensibly” better off, and this gives rise to envy. Too much of envy can be bad for us, interfering with our cognitive abilities (Hill, Delpriore, Vaughan, 2011)  even. So if it is not good for us, what recourse do we have? The actual challenge lies in transmuting the “malicious” envy into something positive – i.e. benign envy. Which motivates, inspires, and makes us want to be better people.


The Facebook Effect

As I sat completing my economics homework on game theory, I decided to take a break. The break resulted in me going on to Facebook to see what my friends were up to. Casual mentions of a VIP party,  decadent adventures in the Swiss Alps or the more tangible purchases of red convertibles accosted my senses. I logged off feeling miserable, and tried to get back to find the equilibrium. Yet that day, my equilibrium had been shaken. That was the day my thesis was born.

After many discussions, literature reviews and studies, since 2010-2011, we finally managed to get on to the big finding : Facebook reduced peoples well-being. This occurred as people viewed their “friends” self-enhancing updates, felt envious of course, and never being able to match up to collective display of ostentatiousness, kept falling short, and finally felt that their life pretty much sucked.

We did a bunch of experiments on Facebook to understand what exactly happens, and my advisor Dr. Dilney Goncalves at IE Business School, Madrid and I were finally able to come up with this neat explanation.

When you log into Facebook you might see some of this on your Home Page

Screen Shot 2013-10-01 at 1.46.07 AM

Now viewing this engages one in social comparison. Where in you compare yourself with others. On realizing that you are nowhere near achieving all of that,  you go green with envy (not literally, unless you are the girl in the picture below) 


That wrath of envy in turn makes you hate your life


The catch is that the more friends you have on Facebook the more likely you are to see stuff like this

Screen Shot 2013-10-01 at 1.46.07 AM

Since every time you refresh your Home Page or come back to Facebook someone or the other is going to talk about all the cool stuff they did. Moreover, people tend to share more self-enhancing stuff than self detracting stuff on Facebook (Manago, Graham, Greenfield, & Salimkhan, 2008), so it is likely you will see more of the above rather than stuff like this


Having said that, all the coolness can make you feel envious and make you feel that your life is actually not that cool, no matter what you may tell others. And voila! You have the Facebook Effect. Whereby the more friends you have, the more self-enhancing posts you see and the resultant envy reduces your life satisfaction and well-being. Now this is interesting since most researchers agree that having a large friend network can yield various benefits (Cohen, 1988; Pavot, Diener and Fujita, 1990; Nelson, 1988) however we find that in the case of Facebook, it might just be the opposite!

So a) when you have too many friends (more than 150 which is the average) then do know you might feel this way and b) since our research corroborates it, you can tell yourself to feel better – it is just the Facebook effect, and in reality, every ones life is pretty boring.


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