The Upside of Envy

Envy is ubiquitous and many people seem to think that this isn’t exactly a positive thing. Are they right? Perhaps. However, I do think that there is an upside to envy and I suspect that envy, both directly and indirectly, germinates beauty. I know, it sounds sort of strange, right? Allow me to explain why.

First of all, what is envy? After a quick Google search, I learned that the dictionary’s definition is as follows:

A feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else’s possessions, qualities, or luck.

Without the resentment, envy would just be desire. Our desires can certainly cause us to feel discontentment, without necessarily stirring up envy inside of us, so the crucial component of envy is the resentment factor. So what causes this resentment? There is a lot at play here, but, largely, I think it comes from a belief that others have something that we ourselves think we should have or are capable of attaining. Self delusion, of course, can cause envy, but blind luck that benefits others can cause it too. Sometimes the person who feels envious really is more talented than the person whom they envy. Alas, life is not entirely fair!

Envy, however, creates a drive in people to try and outdo their peers. A young Steve Jobs was likely envious of many of his peers and his envy, at least indirectly, helped him to be successful. I would argue that much of the economic progress and success in our modern economy, then, stems from individuals who were envious. People create all sorts of things (e.g., art, products, music) we find beautiful out of envy. I’m not sure these things would exist in a world without envy. What would drive people to create them?

Imagine two human males living at some random time during the Pleistocene who are about to go on hunt. Both are talented and capable hunters, but let’s suppose that one of them is more talented than the other. Furthermore, let’s suppose that on the hunt the lesser skilled hunter gets lucky and makes the heroic kill. He then gains all the prestige, status, and recognition that comes with being successful (like sex). Imagine if the more skilled hunter weren’t envious of the attention his peer garnered and didn’t try to find a way to get it himself. Imagine if he were merely content with his poor luck. To put it politely, he would quickly become an evolutionary cul-de-sac.

Our ancestors who felt envy (and acted on it), then, were more reproductively successful than were our ancestors who didn’t feel envy, at least in the zero-sum games that existed on the savannah. The modern economy, however, is not a zero-sum game. When others create wealth, we all benefit in absolute material terms, even if we feel envy towards the person who is making us better off.

Economist Bryan Caplan puts it bluntly, envy is hard-wired in us. His point, however, is that this is irrelevant. Many negative emotions are hardwired in us and we shouldn’t let them impede economic progress for that reason alone. Because inequality (even if it makes others envious) can make us all better off in absolute terms, I think we should focus on finding ways to cope with the envy.

So what would a world without envy look like? I’m not sure, but I don’t think we’d recognize it or necessarily want to live in it.


[1] Max Borders wrote a fantastic piece titled “The Origins of Envy“.

[2] Economist David Henderson explains how he fought envy.

[3] Jason Collins thinks envy has its benefits too.

Update: Josh Smith kindly informed me that there is an important distinction to make between two types of envy. According to Wikipedia, “psychologists have recently suggested that there may be two types of envy: malicious envy and benign envy – benign envy being proposed as a type of positive motivational force.” Aaron Haspel also informed me that Helmut Schoeck’s book Envy makes a distinction between envy (malicious envy) and jealousy (benign envy), that I agree with. Of course, in this post I’m referring to benign envy or jealousy.