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Mental Health Perspectives: Why Are Some People Jealous of The Wealthy?

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Mental Health Perspectives with Dr. John Huber & Kristin Sunata Walker

Poor envy. It has such a bad reputation.

Who among us enjoys looking miserable, mediocre, hostile — and petty, just because we see someone who has something that we desire?

Lately, envy is in the air, as our country struggles with how to react to the increasing concentration of wealth in a smaller percentage of the population.

In a recent opinion piece, Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute, offers a provocative take on envy’s role in our reactions.

His main points are that:

1. envy makes us unhappy and unhealthy;

2. it arises from believing that another’s advantage is unfair and beyond our control to change;

3. sadly for us, it is an increasingly prevalent reaction.

Cultural traditions and some empirical work support Brooks’ first point about the ill effects of envy on well being. But research by Dutch psychologists Niels van de Ven and others confirm a very important distinction between two types of envy: benign and malicious. They show that benign envy is not fun but it leads to a healthy, “moving-up motivation” while malicious envy is hostile and leads to an unhealthy“pulling-down motivation.” It is only the latter type that Brooks likely has in mind.

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