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By Eric Barker
January 5, 2016
IDEAS
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

Want to know how to be charming? Ask yourself: What do you want in any friend or partner?

Someone who is happy for you, wants the best for you and delights in your successes. Right?

And research agrees: Being happy for people during their good times is more important than how we deal with the bad:

Now psychology offers plenty of help with learning the things you can do to send signals that you’re thrilled for someone’s success.

But there’s one big problem: robotically following a list of behaviors can cause more issues than it solves.

When I spoke with charisma expert Olivia Fox Cabane, author of The Charisma Myth, she said that trying to manipulate little things like your body language often turns out to be a fool’s errand:

Consciously and deliberately sending off the right signals isn’t the same as genuinely feeling good for someone. When I asked her what the solution was she said:

So the best way to come off as really being happy about someone’s achievements is… to really be happy about their achievements. Well, that should be easy. You’re a good person, right?

(To learn how to get people to like you, from an FBI behavior expert, click here.)

But then why doesn’t the enthusiasm always leap out of you the way you want it to? Oh, there’s a reason. But you may not like it.

Because, young Jedi, you have a dark side…

Eric Barker: New Harvard Research Reveals A Fun Way To Be More Successful

Unpronounceable German Words Are the Enemy

Sometimes we aren’t as enthusiastic about others’ good fortune as we’d like to think. Don’t blame yourself. We’re wired that way.

There’s this thing called “schadenfreude.” No, I did not make that up. The dictionary definition is “pleasure derived from another person’s misfortune.”

Oh, come on, you know what I mean. Somebody, maybe even somebody you love, has something bad happen to them and you feel a slight bit of glee. Maybe you’re (quietly) competitive with them.

Humans are very concerned with status. We like to feel like we’re doing well. It helps self-esteem. But it can hurt relationships.

From The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature:

Often we’re unsure of how much we should be achieving or how hard we should be working.

So the best way to get an answer is to look around. When we see others not doing as well as we are, sadly, our brains can respond by saying, “That means we must be doing good!”

From The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature:

(To learn the four rituals neuroscience research says will make you happy, click here.)

Yow. Dark stuff. Don’t worry, there’s good news ahead. But first we need to know: where does this awfulness spring from?

Eric Barker: How To Get People To Like You: 7 Ways From An FBI Behavior Expert

The Ol’ Green Eyed Monster

Yup, envy. It’s one of the seven deadly sins for a reason. It’s in the 10 Commandments, too — “don’t covet” etc, etc. (Pretty impressive to make it into two of the most widely read listicles of all time, eh?)

I know what some of you are thinking: Well, I don’t do that. I’m not envious.

Sorry. Research shows envy is pretty much our default state. It takes self-control not to be envious.

Again, I hear the voices shouting: But I’m not envious. Really!

And the experts reply: you lie to yourself.

From The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature:

Why do we lie to ourselves about feeling envious? It’s simple. Humans are obsessed with status. We always want to know where we stand in the pecking order. If I admit I feel envy, I’m admitting to being lower in status.

That would make it hard to get to sleep at night. No, thanks. Gary, time to start up the rationalizing machine…

From The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature:

Neuroscience research shows that envy lights up the same areas as physical pain. What happens when you imagine the subject of your envy having problems? That lights up the reward centers of your grey matter.

From The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature:

Want to know how to make any joke funnier? Have something bad happen to someone who is rich.

From The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature:

More screams from the peanut gallery: Okay, okay, Mr. Science-Man, but I’m not like that with my friends.

You’re slightly better with your pals. But liking doesn’t overcome envy, sadly.

From The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature:

Okay, enough depressing stuff. (We’re going to get you back to the shire, Frodo, I swear.)

So if you’re feeling envy inside, little psychology relationship tips may come off as insincere because they’re inconsistent with the other signals you’re sending.

How do we beat envy and schadenfreude and actually feel happy for others so we can show people we care — and have them care back?

(To learn how to be loved by everyone, click here.)

Don’t sweat the green-eyed monster, folks. There are answers. Let’s look at 2 ways, both backed by research. One is quite new, the other is a few thousand years old…

 

1) Try “Benign Envy”

Not all envy is bad. As science writer Maria Konnikova explains, in many languages they have words for “good” and “bad” envy:

And research backs this up.

From The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature:

There are three distinctions we need to make:

  • Admiration is when somebody has something you want but they’re at a distance. I don’t envy LeBron James. I’m not seven-feet tall. I can’t relate to that. He’s a famous zillionaire? Good for him.
  • Bad envy is when you can relate. You feel frustrated and maybe even angry. And that leads to schadenfreude. And bad things.
  • Benign envy is like bad envy but we know we could get what they have if we tried. So it’s not threatening. It’s a matter of choice.

And here’s the fascinating part: while admiration doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t motivate us either.

I’m never going to be LeBron James. I’m not even going to try. And that’s okay. But research shows benign envy can give us the kick in the pants we need to get motivated.

So next time you should feel good for someone but really don’t, ask yourself: Is this something I could achieve too?

If it is, it might be a great motivator. And knowing you can get what they have kills the bad feelings.

(To learn the secrets to motivating yourself, click here.)

But what if benign envy doesn’t apply? How do you get rid of bad envy and feel good for those around you?

Eric Barker: New Neuroscience Reveals 4 Rituals That Will Make You Happy

2) Work That Compassion Muscle

Research shows compassion is contagious. When we feel it toward one person we’ll extend it to others around us even without realizing it.

This idea might be new to you and me but Buddhists have known it for over 2000 years. (I’m late to the party on a lot of stuff, frankly. Still not caught up on Mad Men, either.)

Buddhists call it “metta” (there’s actually some funky punctuation to it but there’s no way I’m gonna find that on my keyboard so just roll with me here). More commonly it goes by the name “loving-kindness meditation.” Buddhists use it to increase compassion.

Here’s the problem: LKM is pretty much the ground zero of self-help corniness. What does Buddhism say are some of the benefits of loving-kindness meditation?

Via Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness:

My first reaction? I think we’re done here. Thank you for calling.

But scientists have figured out something about LKM though: it actually works. Buddhists: 1, Skeptics: 0.

No, you’re not gonna be immune to fire and poison and, no, woodland elves will not build you a treehouse. But as for that compassion part? Yeah, it really does the job.

Via Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation:

And that’s far from one isolated piece of research. A 2012 Harvard study showed:

No, you don’t have to convert to Buddhism or believe in funky celestial beings. It’s an effective secular exercise for your compassion muscle. Now how do we do it? Like I said, the process comes off as way corny — but it makes sense.

How do you feel when you think about loved ones? Warm and fuzzy. Why keep pictures of your kids or your partner on your desk or in your wallet? Even more fuzzies.

That’s the goal here, really. We want to broaden the fuzzy. Fuzzy momentum, if you will. Extend the fuzzy feelings from those you already are compassionate toward to neutral and even to difficult people.

The best instructions I’ve found (that have no scientific jargon or mentions of woodland spirits) come from 10% Happier, the great book by Dan Harris:

Yes, it sounds silly but studies show it works. (And Dan has an iPhone app to help you learn to meditate here.)

Don’t get too worried about details. It’s not a magic spell and this ain’t Hogwarts. You can customize it. The important thing is wishing others well and expanding that feeling from those you feel strongly about to a wider and wider circle of people.

And Buddhists tweak LKM to produce the ultimate envy antidote. They call it Mudita. (Don’t worry, I don’t know how to pronounce it correctly either.) Instead of merely wishing people well, take the time to delight in their success.

(For my interview with Good Morning America anchor and meditation-skeptic-turned-believer Dan Harris, click here.)

Okay, let’s round this up and learn one last thing about envy and good relationships from the most unexpected source imaginable…

 

Sum Up

So what have we learned:

  • Celebrating someone’s good times is the key to connecting with them.
  • Little psychology tips are great but really feeling it can make all the difference.
  • We all get envious and it hurts relationships.
  • Benign envy is about knowing you can achieve what they did. (And it’s a great motivator.)
  • Meditation has been shown to help you be more compassionate and beat envy.

Computers are not known for being good at love, relationships or being charming (sorry, Siri). But they know about envy. And they know it’s not a good idea.

Computers were assigned strategies in the famous “prisoner’s dilemma” and for thousands of rounds they faced each other to see which method led to the most success. When they distilled the learnings from the exercise what was the first insight?

“Don’t be envious.”

So, for just a second, forget the little relationship tips and shortcuts. Instead, be the good, sincere person the tips are showing you how to be.

And take a little quiet time to wish people the best. It might be the best tip there is.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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