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Two Sides of Envy - Choose Wisely!

Updated on January 20, 2016

The spirit of envy can destroy; it can never build. - Margaret Thatcher

The Seven Deadly Sins are those aberrations of human emotion and behavior that lead to degradation of the self and society. Envy is considered to be one of those seven sins. Envy is a very complex human emotion, which is very difficult to identify and manage. Many of us express on the outside that we do not feel envious of others but I believe all of us at some point in our life have experienced this emotion.

In the first chapter of the book “The Difficulty of Being Good”, Gurcharan Das starts the study of Dharma by discussing Duryodhana’s Envy. After reading the chapter, I am left with a lot of questions and in this post, I am trying to answer some and understand envy in a better way.

Duryodhana envies his elder cousin Yudhishthira for all the material gains and possessions his kingdom has, for the skills and the qualities that Arjuna has, and for the prosperity of the Pandava’s kingdom. King Dhritarashtra tells his son that he should not envy his brother and the emotions of envy and hatred will lead to unhappiness and grief. Duryodhana counters the statement by disguising envy with discontent and calls it the root of prosperity. And the more I think about this, I seem to agree with Duryodhana. Isn’t it true that once we are envious of someone in a subtle positive manner, it pushes us towards growth? In Duryodhana’s case, envy led to the game of Dice between the Pandavas’ and Sakuni, which acted as a trigger for one of the most brutal battles fought between mankind.

Envy is mostly a destructive emotion. It does not make you happy and neither does it motivate you to do better from the envied. It leads to either self-destruction or to the destruction of the objects of envy. Envy has health implications as well. But is there an opposing side to the coin? Can the energy derived from envy be directed for a positive growth in human beings?

The Science

Once I went into the details to find answers, I discovered that Psychologists have actually done extensive research on envy. In a study done by van de Ven et al., in 2009, they have suggested that there are two types of envy – Malicious and Benign envy.

In the case of Malicious Envy, which is a destructive form of envy, we feel that the success that others have acquired is undeserved and the thought makes us want to pull the other person down.

In case of Benign Envy, a more subtle form of envy that motivates us, we feel that the other person deserves the success and thus it inspires us to work harder and ‘push’ ourselves to perform better on measures of intelligence and creativity.

I am of the belief that every emotion has a constructive and a destructive side. For instance, anger is mostly considered a destructive emotion but if the energy produced from anger is diverted to the right cause it motivates us to achieve. I once read a quote outside a church here in Delhi – The one who angers you, conquers you! I completely agree with the essence of these words. Once you let the other party trigger the emotion of anger within you and the emotion leads to a change in behavior that is not constructive, then you let the other person take control of ‘you’.

One needs to manage ‘envy’ on the same lines. When you feel the emotion of Envy, it should make your behavior change in a constructive way. Envy should act as a trigger to bring about a change in your behavior and your actions. It should drive you to work harder towards your goals. Envy is not a sin, but if managed well can be a force to reckon with. Duryodhana’s counter argument to his father was appropriate. Envy does push you to achieve more. If you are content with what you have then you won’t strive for improvement.

I started off this write-up with a quote on Envy by Margaret Thatcher that describe envy to be a destructive force. But I am going to leave you with some wise words –

Don’t let Envy eat you from the inside like termite, But let it be the air beneath your wings and make you fly.

PS – This is an original quote on Constructive Envy by me!

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