Oct 11 / Simcha

ENVY: Sharpen the Mind, Deplete the Ego

Envy, detail from Table of the Seven Deadly Sins, c.1485, Hieronymus Bosch (click on image to view enlarged detail)

In today’s New York Times (Envy May Bear Fruit, but It Also Has an Aftertaste), John Tierney takes a look at Envy, seemingly “the most useless of the deadly sins: excruciating to experience, shameful to admit, bereft of immediate pleasure or long-term benefits.” After reviewing the research, he suggests that coveting may actually have an upside — alongside one new reason to uphold the commandment against it.

Envy has been defined by some psychological researchers as inherently malign. From the Latin word invidere (which means to look at with malice, or cast an “evil eye”), Envy is frequently assigned a malicious character, suggesting an attention paid to others one deems as superior, so as to find weaknesses that will lower them toward one’s own level.

Others researchers, however, are identifying Envy’s more benign and beneficial side. Psychologists conducting experiments with envious students at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth and the University of Texas concluded that Envy can actually sharpen the mind; when we focus more on and pay greater attention to the people we envy, we learn to emulate some of the strategies that yielded their success, and in so doing raise our own standing.

“With benign envy, the eyes are probably wide open and eager,” says Dr. Richard H. Smith, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky and the editor of Envy, a 2008 compendium of research on the subject. “With malicious envy, they are squinting and resentful.”

Although the research study demonstrated that Envy might sharpen the eye and improve memory, it also determined that the benefits come at a cost.  The envious  students in the study were victims of what psychologists call “ego depletion” — a state of mental fatigue and reduced energy levels that resulted in giving up more quickly on tasks that required mental effort.