Can Envy Be Good For You?

How do we respond when we encounter people who are more successful than we are? Often, we imagine two paths: admiration and envy. Admiration is seen as a noble sentiment—we admire people for admiring others, detecting, in their admiration, a suggestion of taste and humility. Envy, by contrast, is thought to be inherently bad—a “feeling of mortification and ill-will occasioned by the contemplation of superior advantages possessed by another,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. If he can, Bertrand Russell wrote, the envious person “deprives others of their advantages, which to him is as desirable as it would be to secure the same advantages himself. If this passion is allowed to run riot it becomes fatal to all excellence, and even to the most useful exercise of exceptional skill.”

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