Your Success is (Not) My Success

Jealousy and envy, often thought of as “ugly” emotions, can actually be traced back to the psychology of early humans, where they were crucial to survival. The extensive psychology of these complex emotions still hold very much true today.

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By Shayan Maybody

“Treat others the way you want to be treated.”

“Be kind, for everyone else is fighting a harder battle.”

“Your success is my success.”

Widely known expressions such as these are taught as mottos to live by when in reality they are quixotic. It’s one thing to feel happy for someone, but it’s another for their success to make you happy. Jealousy or envy doesn’t make you a bad person or friend—it is a natural psychological instinct that can be traced back to early humankind.

From an evolutionary standpoint, emotions are adaptive responses to environmental stimuli that will increase the chances of survival. Since higher success is often associated with a greater chance of survival, it makes sense that humans are constantly striving for a higher degree of accomplishment. Whether it is early hominids striving for more food or people today achieving higher levels of education, humans are always looking to move up. However, as opposed to what may seem logical, the trigger of envious emotions is not always correlated with the value of the reward. Rather, it seems that the obtainer of the reward and their relationship with you is more telling.

“Relevant social circle” is the idea that people tend to envy those who are most comparable to them. In this context, “comparable” can mean someone of similar age, background, education, or opportunities (say a classmate, sibling, or friend). For instance, if you were asked whether you would be more envious of a classmate who won a local competition or the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, the answer would almost always be your classmate. However easy this question is to answer, it does not make much sense logically—a Nobel Peace Prize is so much more of a greater accomplishment than winning some high school writing contest that the comparison is almost comical. This strange pattern then begs the question of why these emotions do not parallel the discrepancies between the rewards.

If a person is comparable to you in relevant areas but perhaps slightly better, there is more motivation to move closer to their standing because it seems more attainable. This idea can also be supported from an evolutionary perspective: it is a waste of time and energy to get on the same level as someone much higher than you because fewer resources are required to achieve a more realistic goal. Access to the achievements of someone comparable to you is something of a low-hanging fruit.

These emotions, which are triggered by the desire to gain resources, can be generally divided into two categories: jealousy and envy. Though they have two different meanings and connotations, both feelings are affiliated with reactions to someone else with desirable resources. Jealousy is about wanting to take someone else's resource for yourself and depriving them of it, such as taking someone’s doughnut out of their hand and eating it. Meanwhile, envy has a more positive connotation and is related to the desire of wanting to gain the same, or better, resources independently, which in this case will be going to Dunkin’ Donuts and buying your own doughnut.

Envy can be further divided into three categories: depressive envy, hostile envy, and benign envy. In depressive envy, you may feel that someone else’s success represents your own failure. For example, if your friend has an internship over the summer, it may make you think that you are not doing enough. In contrast, triggering anger rather than sadness, hostile envy is where you may be rooting for another person’s failure. In this mindset, you would prefer to be failing together rather than failing alone. Hostile envy may seem very aggressive, but it is entirely intrinsic in our minds. If you take an extremely difficult test, it feels better to know that everyone else had the same experience—it’s only natural. The final type is benign envy, which, as the name suggests, seems like the most positive type. In benign envy, people pay close attention to the accomplishments of those that they envy, with more of a “that’s so impressive” attitude. On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with this mindset, but in actuality, it is not constructive. By fixating and overhyping the successes of others, you tend to be ignorant of your own successes and areas to improve, constricting self-esteem and personal growth.

These emotions are evolutionary instincts and are almost inevitable, but there are many ways that you can channel them toward something more constructive. First of all, it is important to recognize, rather than block, any envy that you may feel. Identify the thoughts that you usually have after hearing about someone’s success, and modify them. For instance, you could change “they are a success, and I am a failure” to “their success doesn’t undermine my own.” Thinking about what you want to achieve in life and starting to take the steps toward them may help you feel more fulfilled and less sensitive to envious emotions.

Contemporarily, survival tends to not be the main focus of life. Despite however much we and the world around us have evolved, one thing remains steadfast: the human will to succeed. No matter which area of life this holds true to you, we are always trying to improve ourselves, often for the betterment of others, too. This could not be more relevant than at Stuyvesant, a school filled to the brim with ambitious people with incredible accomplishments. It’s important to recognize that everyone is fighting for the same thing and that everyone is a product of the same evolutionary fight. And that, ultimately, your success is everybody’s success.