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.
In every minute we have hundreds of thousands of body language signals that are pouring out from us and broadcasting how we’re feeling and thinking to everyone around. So even when you manage to control your facial expression consciously, sooner or later what’s called a “micro-expression” is going to flash. And even if it’s as fast as 17 milliseconds, people will catch that because that is how fast people read each others’ facial expressions. So trying to control your facial expressions is not just impossible, it will even backfire. Since the micro-expressions will be incongruent with the main expression, they’ll give the impression that something is not quite right and you can end up seeming fake — which, of course, ruins trust and charisma.
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:
The same way that athletes get themselves “into the zone” you get yourself into a mental zone of whatever body language you want to emanate. And that way it will cascade through your body from whatever mindset that you wanted to get. So it really is mind over matter in the sense that whatever’s in your mind will come out through your body language.
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…
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.
The implications for understanding many instances of schadenfreude are important as well. Most of us are motivated to feel good about ourselves; we look for ways to maintain a positive sense of self. One reliable way to do this is to discover that we are better than others on valued attributes. When our self-esteem is shaky, comparing ourselves with someone inferior can help us feel better.
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!”
Economist Robert Frank notes an interesting benefit to relativistic thinking. He argues that the rule of thumb, “do the best you can,” leads to a quandary. When can you conclude that you have done enough? Frank suggests that the relativistic rule “do better than your nearest competitor” solves this problem in an efficient way. The adaptive goal is to be better than your competitor, not to keep on achieving ad infinitum. Having a natural focus on social comparisons should lead to efficient actions: stop striving when you have a clear relative advantage; this is the signal to get off the treadmill.
(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?
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.
…envy is frequently, as social and political theorist Jon Elster writes, “suppressed, preempted, or transmuted into some other emotion” because there are “strong psychic pressures to get rid of the feeling.” This means that many people are feeling envy, perhaps acting out of envy, but are unaware of it— even though others may label them as envious and motivated by the emotion.
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…
Who wants to admit inferiority, and who wants to admit this as a reason to hate others? The shame in this blend is a terrifying threat to one’s self-worth and, as so many scholars have pointed out, leads to all sorts of less than conscious defensive strategies to avoid both the public and private owning up to these feelings.
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.
Research using brain-scan technology also supports the links between envy and pleasure— if the envied person suffers. A Japanese team of researchers monitored the brain activity of people as they imagined themselves in scenarios in which another person was of either higher or lower status. Imagining envy activated the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), an area of the brain also associated with experiencing physical pain. The participants were then asked to picture this other person suffering various forms of misfortune, from financial trouble to physical illness. This produced greater brain activity in a different brain region, the striatum, a pleasure or reward center. This pattern of activation was particularly true for those participants who had reported the most envy at first.
Want to know how to make any joke funnier? Have something bad happen to someone who is rich.
Students reading about the Mercedes were much more likely to admit feeling happy when learning of the car’s mechanical failure than were those who read about the Ford…
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.
Naturally, the suffering of a liked person produces less schadenfreude than the suffering of a disliked person, as studies led by Israeli psychologist Shlomo Hareli confirm. And yet envy may not be so easily defeated… we were careful to make the interviewed students likeable, and equally so, in both the high- (superior student) and low-envy (average student) conditions. Nonetheless, in the high-envy condition compared with the low-envy condition, greater schadenfreude followed the misfortune… Likability, therefore, may be no sure antidote for defusing another person’s envy.
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:
In English, envy is envy. But in other languages, envy takes on a dual guise. In Polish, there is zazdrość and zawiść. In Thai, ìt-chia and rít-yaa. In Dutch, there’s benijden, from the root beniden (to be unable to bear something), and afgunst, from niet gunnen (to begrudge). Van de Ven translates this pair of Dutch words as “benign” and “malicious” envy, respectively.
And research backs this up.
Imagine the experience of noticing and wanting another person’s advantage, all the while knowing that one could easily obtain the advantage eventually. Perhaps there would be a brief feeling of discontent, but this would go away quickly when the path to acquiring the advantage was clear. This is a type of envy, but it is benign in 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?
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?
Devas [celestial beings] and animals will love you.
Devas will protect you.
External dangers [poisons, weapons, and fire] will not harm you.
You will be reborn in happy realms.
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.
The researchers also found that both meditating groups showed greater thickening of the insular cortex, a part of the brain associated with regulating emotions, and more activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that assesses the emotional content of incoming stimuli, than did the non-meditating control group. The investigators concluded that the practice of lovingkindness meditation trains the brain to make us more empathic and more capable of reading subtle emotional states.
And that’s far from one isolated piece of research. A 2012 Harvard study showed:
Overall, these results are consistent with the overarching hypothesis that meditation may result in enduring, beneficial changes in brain function, especially in the area of emotional processing.
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.
1. This practice involves picturing a series of people and sending them good vibes. Start with yourself. Generate as clear a mental image as possible.
2. Repeat the following phrases: May you be happy, May you be healthy, May you be safe, May you live with ease. Do this slowly. Let the sentiment land. You are not forcing your well-wishes on anyone; you’re just offering them up, just as you would a cool drink. Also, success is not measured by whether you generate any specific emotion. As Sharon says, you don’t need to feel “a surge of sentimental love accompanied by chirping birds.” The point is to try. Every time you do, you are exercising your compassion muscle. (By the way, if you don’t like the phrases above, you can make up your own.)
3. After you’ve sent the phrases to yourself, move on to: a benefactor (a teacher , mentor, relative), a close friend (can be a pet, too), a neutral person (someone you see often but don’t really ever notice), a difficult person, and, finally, “all beings.”
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…
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?
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.