In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s terms are jealousy and envy.
The terms jealousy and envy are often used synonymously, but they actually refer to two separate, although related, concepts.
Envy comes from a sense of personal lacking compared to another person’s abilities, achievements, or possessions. It may serve as a defence mechanism to counter shame. Envy can be malignant or benign, with benign envy potentially being a useful source of motivation. Envy may have played a useful role in evolutionary survival drives. It can involve feelings of inferiority, longing for the object of the envy, resentment, and a desire to possess the qualities of the other person. There may also be feelings of guilt over feeling envious.
The concept of schadenfreude, which involves taking pleasure in others’ misfortunes, is related to envy but with a twist; instead of taking displeasure at another person’s happiness, it’s feel good about things going badly for them.
According to Wikipedia, jealousy “generally refers to the thoughts or feelings of insecurity, fear, and concern over a relative lack of possessions.” A sense of threat to a relationship is perceived, with a third person who represents that threat to a 2-person relationship. There may be a fear of loss, mistrust, anxiety, anger, or concern about betrayal. In extreme cases, jealousy can contribute to spousal homicide.
So envy is a sort of “I want your…” while jealousy is “don’t take my…”
How jealousy and envy manifest
Both envy and jealousy make an appearance in religion as well. Envy is one of Catholicism’s seven deadly sins, while the Book of Exodus states “I the LORD your God am a jealous God.” According to Islam Q&A, the Islamic Hadith makes reference to Allah’s protective jealousy (gheerah) which is provoked when followers do things that Allah has prohibited.
Envy and jealousy can first show up at an early age, and a common example of both occurs when a younger sibling is born. One study found that dogs can also display jealous behaviour related to competition for the owner’s attention.
Building self-esteem is an important way of managing both envy and jealousy. Benign envy can be useful in goal-setting. With jealousy, attachment issues and problems within the relationship can be explored in therapy.
I think envy is more of an issue for me than jealousy, mostly because I don’t really have many relationships and I don’t really have anything that people might threaten to take. But who doesn’t get caught up in a bit of envy now and again? To me it just seems like a very basic part of human existence, and it only really causes problems if a) you can’t call yourself out on it, and b) you get stuck in it and can’t let it go. As for jealousy, if it’s good enough for the God of the Abrahamic religions then it should be okay sometimes for the rest of us too. As long as we don’t go killing our partners because of it. That’s taking things a smidge too far (heavy on the sarcasm).
Do envy or jealousy play a prominent role in your life?
- PsychCentral: How insecurity leads to envy, jealousy, and shame
- Psychology Today: What’s really behind jealousy, and what to do about it
- Wikipedia: Envy
- Wikipedia: Jealousy
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.