The Monkey Experiment and Turning Envy to Positive

So, here’s another “better late than never” gem I stumbled upon that I think you’ll find absolutely captivating.

In 2013, Dutch primatologist and ethologist Frans de Waal took to the TED stage and shared the results of a fascinating experiment involving two monkeys.

As expected, it went viral.

Of course, I only discovered it now (I’m sure I’m not the only one!).

You can watch the clip below, but here’s a quick rundown of what happened:

The researchers took two friendly monkeys from their natural habitat and placed them in separate cages, side by side.

They trained the monkeys to perform a simple task: hand a stone over to the researcher standing in front of the cage.

Each time the monkeys completed the task, they were rewarded with cucumber slices, which they gladly accepted.

But then the researcher switched things up.

The Monkey Experiment and Inequality

Instead of cucumber slices, the second monkey received grapes as a reward (and let’s face it, monkeys prefer grapes to cucumbers).

Witnessing this, the first monkey, who had been content with the task and reward until that point, angrily chucked the cucumber back at the researcher!

This intriguing experiment reveals how our distant cousins react to inequality, much like us, with feelings of anger and frustration.

The first monkey throws a fit, visibly distressed and unhappy about the unfair treatment.

If monkeys, with lesser cognitive abilities than humans, display such an instinctive response to inequality, maybe it’s not so far-fetched to think that certain emotions and behaviours we humans experience are hardwired into our DNA.

Two Monkeys Were Paid Unequally: Excerpt from Frans de Waal's TED Talk

Understanding the Impact of Envy on Our Lives

This could explain why we care about how much our colleagues earn, what job titles they hold, what cars they drive, or even how many followers they have on Instagram.

Imagine you and four other colleagues start working at the same company.

You all start on the same day, in the same office, and in the same department.

It’s your dream job. You’re over the moon with your role, salary, responsibilities, working hours, coworkers—everything.

But then, six months into the job, you discover that the rest of your team earns more than you do. And they’ve been making more since day one.

Suddenly, your happiness bubble bursts.

Now you’re furious about the injustice.

If you really think about it, nothing has changed. You still have the same job—the one you believed was perfect for the past six months.

But the moment you learn about the unequal treatment compared to others, it becomes nearly impossible not to be affected by it.

Of course, this hypothetical situation has a fundamental inequality issue—not something you’d want to ignore once you’ve uncovered it.

And it makes me wonder about the quirks of the human mind.

Embracing Healthy Envy for Personal Growth

It seems like envy is a bad thing, like it’s morally wrong to let it take hold. After all, it’s one of the seven deadly sins.

But let’s get real.

Most level-headed people experience this inevitable emotion every now and then.

Even monkeys do. Instinctively.

It’s in our DNA.

So when you feel envious of your BFF, don’t be too hard on yourself or feel ashamed. You’re just being human.

It only becomes an issue if you become obsessed, stalk her Instagram around the clock, and start losing sleep over the shade of lipstick she’s wearing.

To better understand your feelings of envy and gain control over them, ask yourself these two questions:

  • How intensely do I feel it?
  • How do I respond to it?

By reflecting on these questions, you can gauge the extent of your envy and determine if it’s affecting your life negatively.

If it is, you can take steps to address it and refocus your energy on personal growth.

The Two Sides of Envy

At first glance, the solution to dealing with envy might seem simple: disconnect from the internet and become a hermit.

In doing so, you would no longer have anyone to compare yourself to, and the problem would be solved, right?


Whether we like it or not, we’re social creatures. And the benefits of social interactions far outweigh the occasional discomfort caused by envy.

So we have two options.

One: use envy as healthy motivation to improve ourselves. Or two: sulk, do nothing, and wait for it to explode with negative consequences.

But we’re not really interested in that second option, are we?

Surround Yourself with the Right People for Growth

Jim Rohn famously said,

You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.

Confucius shared a similar sentiment:

If you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room.

Take a moment to think about the five people closest to you and assess the group’s common qualities.

  • How do they carry themselves?
  • How do they talk?
  • What do they talk about?
  • What are their goals and aspirations?
  • How do they spend their time and money?

Do you feel envy toward them?

When you’re surrounded by the right people, their presence, energy, intelligence, and ambitions uplift you.

They become a source of inspiration and healthy envy that pushes you to continuously improve yourself.

All five individuals, including you, are humble, open-minded, and eager to grow, with just the right balance of competition and envy towards one another.

Remember the Less Fortunate

While building a strong network of people who challenge you in positive ways, don’t forget those who are less fortunate.

Believe me, they’re out there.

Think of the homeless enduring frigid nights; those who’ve lost everything due to natural disasters; or people diagnosed with cancer at the height of their careers.

Remind yourself that things can always be worse and start counting your blessings.

By doing so, you’ll avoid excessive envy, embrace a healthy dose of it, and use it as motivation.

Final Thoughts: Harnessing Envy Positively

Every human emotion has two sides, and envy is no exception.

Just like with food and drink, envy in moderation can provide the necessary drive to level up.

Be mindful of the people you surround yourself with and practice gratitude for all that you have.

With the right mindset, you can harness envy in a positive way to motivate yourself and enhance your life.

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