Envy refers to the often-painful emotion caused by an awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another person. It is a complex, socially repugnant emotion made up of a mix of inferiority feelings, hostility, and resentment. Envy is different from admiration, which is delight and approval inspired by another person. Admiration can foster a desire to emulate another person’s success, whereas envy breeds a competitive desire to outdo and even bring the envied person down in some cases. Envy may seem like greed, but greed involves an insatiable desire for more and more of something, rather than a desire for a particular thing possessed by a particular person. Envy is also different from jealousy. Envy involves two people and occurs when one lacks something enjoyed by another. Jealousy typically involves three people and occurs when one fears losing someone, usually a romantic partner, to a rival. Thus, we say that Cassius envied Caesar’s power and prestige, whereas Othello was jealous because Desdemona appeared interested in Cassio.
Whom and What Do People Envy?
Envy is a universal emotion, but it is not the inevitable response to another person’s superiority. People envy those who are similar to themselves on attributes such as gender, age, experience, and social background. These similarities enable people to imagine what it would be like if they had the envied person’s advantage. However, envy results when, in fact, the chances of having the desired attribute seem slim, despite this similarity. Also, people envy those whose advantages are on self-relevant domains. If Salieri envied Mozart, it was because Salieri’s self-worth was linked to doing well as a composer, and Mozart’s superior musical talent diminished Salieri’s own abilities on a domain that mattered dearly to him.
Hostile Nature of Envy
Advantages enjoyed by other people can have powerful consequences for the self. Other people’s superiority grants them better access to culturally valued resources in school, the workplace, and in romantic relationships or, indeed, in any domain where the best outcomes are determined by competition. Therefore, when another person enjoys a relative advantage in an important domain of life, a blend of negative feelings characteristic of envy often naturally follows. A major part of these feelings is hostile because hostility can serve as a necessary spur for self-assertion. In the long run, submissive reactions probably lead to losing out in the game of life.
It is important to recognize the hostile nature of envy. This hostility explains why envy is associated with so many historical cases of aggression (such as the horrific bloodletting between the Tutsi and Hutus in Rwanda), as well as innumerable literary and biblical accounts of murder and sabotage (such as the assassination of Caesar in Shakespeare’s play and the slaying of Abel by Cain). Laboratory studies show this link as well. Envy, for example, has been shown to create the conditions ripe for malicious joy, or Schadenfreude, if the envied person suffers a misfortune.
Suppression of Envy and Its Transmutations
People resist confessing their envy, perhaps more so than any other emotion. After all, envy is one of the seven deadly sins. People are taught to rejoice in the good fortunes of others. To admit to envy is to announce that one is feeling both inferior and hostile, which is shameful. Envy is also extremely threatening to the self, which means that people often fail to acknowledge it privately as well. Consequently, envy is likely to be suppressed or transmuted into other more socially acceptable emotions, tricking both observers and the self alike. Although the first pangs of the emotion may be recognizable as envy, because of the threat to the self that is inherent in the emotion, people feeling envy may give it a different label for public and private consumption. They usually find ways to justify their hostility by perceiving the advantage as unfair or the envied person as morally flawed. What begins as envy can then become transformed into indignation and outrage. Over time, even the desired attribute itself may become devalued, as an attitude of sour grapes takes over. Because people feeling envy sense that open hostility violates social norms, they usually avoid acting on their hostility in direct ways. They tend to take the route of backbiting and gossiping and are primed for secret pleasure if misfortune befalls the envied person. Sometimes, their behavior will suggest the opposite of their feelings (such as effusive compliments), so that observers (and perhaps the envying people themselves) will not attribute their actions to envy.
Envy and Unhappiness
Envy is thought to be a potent cause of unhappiness. Part of the reason is that feeling envy means that one is determining self-worth by how one compares with others. This is a likely road to discontent, because for most people, there will always be others who compare better. Ultimately, envy can poison a person’s capacity to enjoy the good things in life and snuff out feelings of gratitude for life’s many gifts. People who are envious by disposition appear especially likely to perceive an unflattering comparison as showcasing their inferiority and may become especially bitter and resentful. Such tendencies are hardly conducive to happiness and smooth interactions with others. Physical as well as mental health may suffer. Thus, people are well advised to find ways to curtail their envy by focusing on reasons for feeling grateful and, in general, avoiding judging themselves using standards derived from social comparisons.
- Parrott, W. G. (1991). The emotional experiences of envy and jealousy. In P. Salovey (Ed.), The psychology of jealousy and envy (pp. 3-30). New York: Guilford Press.
- Smith, R. H. (2004). Envy and its transmutations. In L. Z. Tiedens & C. W. Leach (Eds.), The social life of emotions (pp. 43-63). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.