A writer friend and I were talking the other day, and each admitted, with a certain degree of unease, to having been envious of one another, at different times.  There was unease – and perhaps even a smidgen of guilt – in the admission because of the connotation of envy, milder sibling to jealousy.  We hastened to assure each other that we would never wish bad things for the other, and that the other’s success had spurred our own motivation to do similarly well.

According to dictionary.com, “Envy and jealousy are very close in meaning. Envy denotes a longing to possess something awarded to or achieved by another: to feel envy when a friend inherits a fortune. Jealousy, on the other hand, denotes a feeling of resentment that another has gained something that one more rightfully deserves: to feel jealousy when a coworker receives a promotion. Jealousy also refers to anguish caused by fear of unfaithfulness. 4. resent. Envy, begrudge, covet refer to one’s attitude toward the possessions or attainments of others. To envy is to feel resentful and unhappy because someone else possesses, or has achieved, what one wishes oneself to possess, or to have achieved: to envy the wealthy, a woman’s beauty, an honest man’s reputation. To begrudge is to be unwilling that another should have the possessions, honors, or credit that person deserves: to begrudge a man a reward for heroism. To covet  is to long jealously to possess what someone else possesses: I covet your silverware.”

It started me thinking about envy, and how sometimes it can be negative, making us question our own self-worth, but how other times, it can be positive, spurring us on to success of our own.

It turns out, there’s some merit to that line of thinking.  A study conducted in the Netherlands in 2009 by Niels van de Ven concluded that there are two forms of envy:  benign, which people use as a self-motivator, and malicious, which motivates people to harm the object of their envy.  According to web site tilburguniversity.edu, “Both types of envy are frustrating feelings that arise when someone else does better, and the general aim is to level the difference with the superior other. This can be achieved either by pulling the other down (malicious envy) or by improving one’s own position (for benign envy).”

Interestingly, admiration does not similarly motivate us.  In fact, admiration begins life as envy, and only morphs into admiration if we consider the other’s achievement too difficult to accomplish ourselves.  “Admiration can therefore be regarded as a form of self-surrender; as resignation or acceptance of the fact that the other is so good that you yourself cannot attain the same level of performance,” according to tilburguniversity.edu.

I think this study is great news.  It relieves us of the useless burden of guilt for feeling an all but unavoidable human emotion.  To quote Professor Robert Bringle, “Envy can be a positive motivator. Let it inspire you to work harder for what you want.” 

I became slightly obsessed, however, with the fact that we do not have words to distinguish between benign and malicious envy.  We might use just “envy” to indicate benign, and “jealousy” for malicious, but I think that the waters around those two words have become too muddied to make such a distinction.  What we need is a word like that spectacular German word, “schadenfreude,” which means that small glee we feel when something bad happens to someone else.  A terrible word, for sure; a shame that we should need it – and it would be good for us, as a species, to aspire one day to transcend that word, so it becomes obsolete, an antiquity found in the pages of a dusty dictionary.  But human nature being what it is, there is a specific twisted emotion and the Germans were prescient enough to name it.

Well guess what?  It turns out that the good folk of the Netherlands had similar foresight, and came up with words to distinguish between benign and malicious envy.  Sadly, I have yet to come across those words.  Any Dutch speakers out there?  The English language needs to adopt some of your words…