I’ll Have What She’s Having: The Surprising Role Envy Plays In Inspiration & Success

Few of us would say that envy is a “good” emotion. Instead, we treat envy like a disease to be cured or exorcised – “the green-eyed monster.”

Evolutionary psychology, however, tells us that humans have evolved “bad” emotions like envy to achieve good results in the game of natural selection.

Remember 9th grade biology? Perhaps you were too busy envying Susie’s cute sweater (or even cuter boyfriend) to remember Darwin’s and Natural Selection (*yawn*)…. so here’s a quick refresher.

“Survival of the fittest” is the foundation of evolution. The genes that “work” make it through to the next generation. The better genes survive and reproduce more, and the not-so-good ones die out, leaving improved, adapted, more evolved species to continue on in the next generation.

Evolutionarily speaking, the purpose of life is simply and solely to pass along those genes to the next generation. Put crudely, human beings are genetic vessels designed to maximize the quantity and quality of their own successive generations.

Yikes! When you consider the above, it’s no wonder that nearly every “universal” human emotion (like lust, love and jealousy) could likely be re-framed in evolutionary terms. “Lust” leads to copulation that enables humans to reproduce. “Love” results in pair bonds that help the family unit survive and thrive. “Jealously” leads men and women to guard the family unit, thereby by preventing adultery and abandonment.

Back to envy. Envy, in its most basic form is simply “I want what he has” or “I want what she has.” That desire for the possessions or attributes of another actually led our human ancestors to go out and try new things and achieve more.

Imagine the first time a man saw another man bring home a woolly mammoth – if he felt no envy, he might continue to meander around chewing on leaves.* The envious man is instead moved to try his hand at hunting. True, he might die in the process, but if successful, he’d be far more attractive to potential mates and his progeny (with half his genes) would eat better and develop bigger brains… Voilá… Evolution!

Bringing it back to the here and now, it’s much the same. “Envy” is not bad… it’s neutral. It just is. What you do with it… well, that’s where things can get ugly.

When you see someone with something you wish you had, the feeling is only a “negative” if it leads to maladaptive behaviors (i.e., stealing, gossiping, backstabbing, depression, low self-esteem, or violence).

But if it inspires you to be more, do more and succeed more, then envy is actually inspiration.

Stop hiding. Go forth and be envious!

Ciao for now,

Michelle Villalobos (vee – ya – LOW – bos)

* (I realize this is a crude example, but it gets the point across)

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