Jefferson M Fish Ph.D.

Looking in the Cultural Mirror


Ways of Understanding Envy and Jealousy

Envy and jealousy occur in different social contexts.

Posted Jun 11, 2013

Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
Jacques Callot, Envy, from The Seven Deadly Sins (1620)
Source: Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

People often use the words envy and jealousy interchangeably, but there are important differences between them. Attempts to understand these two emotions usually focus on the ways they are experienced, but there is another way of looking at them that leads to unexpected insights.

Discussions of envy and jealousy, such as Hara Marano’s Psychology Today piece, compare how they are experienced. For example, as Marano writes, “Jealousy exposes fear of loss; envy hinges on feeling inferior.”

Descriptions of the subjective experience of emotions are useful because they help to clarify our understanding. Often, the reason we find such descriptions helpful is that we believe they allow us to understand ourselves and others better. There is an unstated assumption that emotions are best viewed as causes—for example, people who experience X emotion will do Y.

This kind of thinking leads to the idea that if people want to stop feeling and acting envious or jealous, then they will have to learn to deal differently with their subjective experience of those emotions—for example, by changing the thoughts that lead to them.

However, there is another equally useful way to look at emotions—as the effects of particular social circumstances. That is, people involved in certain types of interpersonal interactions, W, will experience X emotion, and may also do Y.

This kind of thinking leads to the idea that if someone wants to stop feeling and/or acting envious or jealous, then that person will have to change the patterns of interaction that produce those emotions.

Is there a difference between the social interactions that produce envy and jealousy? Yes—a quite striking difference. Envy is a two-person emotion, and jealousy is a three-person emotion. A is envious of something B has, but A is jealous of B’s relationship with C. For example, Mary is envious of her co-worker’s higher salary, but Mary’s husband John is jealous of all the time she spends with her assistant.

Note that the interpersonal view of emotions (two versus three people) is not inconsistent with the intrapersonal view—Mary’s envy is related to feelings of inferiority, and John’s jealousy involves a fear of loss. But when it comes to grappling with these feelings, there is a difference between focusing inward (for example, by changing the thoughts that lead to the feelings) and focusing outward (for example, by changing the relationships that lead to the feelings).