The Nature of Envy

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Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D. is a licensed Psychologist in the state of Ohio (License #6083). She received her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from ...Read More

Envy is a complex emotional response that arises when one perceives another individual as having an advantage, be it in terms of success, possessions, or desirable qualities, that one covets but lacks. Unlike jealousy, which involves a fear of losing something precious to a rival, envy is characterized by feelings of inferiority, longing, resentment, or ill-will towards the person who possesses what one desires. This distinction highlights the unique position of envy in the spectrum of human emotions, as it focuses exclusively on the desire for what others have, without necessarily involving a direct threat to one’s own possessions or relationships.

Dr. Richard Smith and Dr. Sun Hee Kim, from the University of Kentucky, recently published a comprehensive article describing the nature of envy as well as the negative effects it can have on our mental and physical health. Historically considered one of the seven deadly sins (and appearing in two of the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament), envy is a “state in which the desired advantage enjoyed by another person or group of people causes a person to feel a painful blend of inferiority, hostility, and resentment.” (Psychological Bulletin, 2007). As medieval theologian St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Charity rejoices in our neighbor’s good, while envy grieves over it.”


Dr. Smith and Dr. Kim’s research suggests the more common type of envy is when the person who has the desired advantage is relatively similar to you. In addition, envy is more likely when the domain of comparison is important to you.

Understanding Envy

Despite its generally negative connotations, envy can be understood as a natural emotion with deep evolutionary roots. It is believed that envy served as a social regulator, prompting individuals to assess their position within groups and motivating them to strive for betterment, thus ensuring a certain level of group cohesion and progress. However, when envy manifests in thoughts and behaviors, it can take on less constructive forms. It might lead to self-deprecation or, conversely, to a motivated zeal to diminish the gap between oneself and the object of envy, either through self-improvement or, less healthily, by undermining others.

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Envy vs. Jealousy

While the terms ‘envy’ and ‘jealousy’ are often used interchangeably in everyday language, their meanings diverge significantly. Envy, as described by Dr. Richard Smith and Dr. Sun Hee Kim, arises from wanting what someone else possesses—a talent, an achievement, or a material good. For instance, feeling envious when a colleague receives a promotion you were vying for illustrates envy as it focuses on the colleague’s newfound advantage. On the other hand, jealousy involves a triad of parties and revolves around the fear of losing something (or someone) valuable to a perceived rival. For example, feeling jealous when fearing that your best friend is becoming closer to someone else showcases jealousy, emphasizing the potential loss of a valued relationship.

This distinction holds psychological and social significance because understanding whether one is experiencing envy or jealousy can guide the management of these emotions. Recognizing envy can lead to personal growth opportunities, prompting reflection on one’s values and goals. Conversely, identifying feelings of jealousy can highlight the importance of securing valued relationships. Both emotions, therefore, play critical roles in guiding social behavior, even if their manifestations are potentially disruptive or harmful.

The Pitfalls of Envy

Envy can be a destructive emotion both mentally and physically. Envious people tend to feel hostile, resentful, angry and irritable. Such individuals are also less likely to feel grateful about their positive traits and their circumstances. Envy is also related to depression, anxiety, the development of prejudice, and personal unhappiness.

Not surprisingly, these negative mental states can impact physical health. Envious people can feel stressed and overwhelmed. In addition, most people don’t want to hang out with an envious person because they are unpleasant to be around. As a result, envious people have fewer friends overall, as well as fewer friends who will help out in times of need. Worse, when an envious person receives help, she or he tends to feel resentful that assistance was necessary in the first place.

Since envy is an unhealthy emotion, how can you prevent it from occurring? The first step is to recognize and label these feelings as envious. This may be harder than it sounds. Because envy is considered a socially unacceptable emotion, many of us deny having these feelings both publicly and privately.

Coping with Envy

Dr. Smith and Dr. Kim suggest that once you have recognized and labeled envy feelings, you can try to dismantle them with a variety of cognitive therapy techniques and strategies, including:

  1. Self-Reliance and Perseverance. To “perseverate” is to repeat an action over and over. In this instance, the term is used to suggest that you repeatedly examine your thoughts to determine whether they are envious. If you find that they are envious at any given moment, remind yourself of how these thoughts don’t help your life and can actually harm it. The more you can manage to catch and correct your thinking, the easier it will be to remain envy-free.
  2. Selective Ignoring and Distraction. When you find yourself thinking envious thoughts, quickly remind yourself that the other person’s advantage isn’t important in the grand scheme of things, and then focus on other thoughts (a pleasant memory, things that need to be done, etc) or engage in another activity. By distracting yourself with another absorbing thought or activity, you can stop your envious thoughts in their tracks.
  3. Self-Bolstering involves reminding yourself of your own positive qualities and advantages. This strategy doesn’t seem to reduce envy itself, but can make you feel less angry and depressed in the face of your envy.

If these strategies don’t work for you, or envious emotions seem to be significantly decreasing your quality of life or impacting your daily functioning, it’s important to seek help from a trained mental health therapist.

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