Envy and jealousy are generally unpleasant emotions that we often use to describe that feeling of ‘wanting something another person has’. Psychologists, however, use the two terms differently. Envy is an emotion we feel when we desire what another person has – it can be something tangible, like material possessions, wealth, status, as well as skills and qualities. Jealousy, conversely, is an emotion felt when we find that a valued relationship is being threatened by another. Think about the time you were a student. Say you are an academically bright student. You get good grades, are respected by your friends, and recognized by your teachers. You are also fabulously good-looking, and have the prettiest girl (or best looking guy) as your boy/girlfriend. However, a transfer student comes along, and, in addition to being academically gifted, (more so that you, unfortunately), is him/herself a drop-dead gorgeous and exotic (also more so than you – ouch). Your new rival draws the attention of your friends, as well as the teachers in your school. You realize as of late that the transfer student has also been flirting with your partner. Your partner, in turn, appears to enjoy your rival’s advances and company. This short vignette – typical of most high school dramas, has elements of both envy and jealousy in them. You would likely feel envy towards your rival’s looks and scholarly smarts, but, that emotion you feel when you see your rival flirt with your partner? That’s jealousy. Jealousy is felt when we perceive a threat to the relationships we value .
Psychologists categorize both envy and jealousy as self-conscious emotions. Envy, in particular, is felt when you recognize deficiencies and limits, relative to someone else, in an area that is personally important to you. With the above example, if it matters that you are seen as someone smart and good looking, having a rival challenge you on those areas is likely to rouse envy. Not all envy, however, is destructive. Some research has indicated that there may even be good forms of envy. Dutch psychologists, for example, found that when people experience ‘benign’ envy, they are likely to see their rivals as examples that they can emulate to better themselves. It’s not quite that you see your rivals as role models, but benign envy does elicit some sense of admiration, motivating us to do better ourselves and in at least one study, has been shown to be a better motivator than admiration in encouraging self-improvement . The envy we most often think of as being negative is malicious envy – the kind that triggers resentment and may even motivate hostile actions towards our rivals . This is the form of envy that elicits aggressive, hostile actions intended to put the other person down.
What about jealousy? Psychologists suggest that jealousy is an emotion that helps enhance our vigilance towards relationships that matter to us. Imagine what it would be like if we never felt jealousy – we would lose valued, important relationships to rivals. The negative side of jealousy – morbid, or excessive jealousy, is linked with abuse, violent behaviours and even homicide . Some degree of jealousy, however, brings to our attention the need to strengthen a valued relationship. The behaviours that jealousy triggers can actually enhance relationships. Deliberately inducing jealousy in your partner, for example, may actually lead to an overall improvement in the relationship. If your partner takes the hint, he/she might actually work harder in strengthening the relationship . The researchers suggest that sometimes ‘tickling the monster’ that is jealousy may be helpful in improving relations between partners. The next time you experience either of these emotions consider how you can actually make them work for your benefit. Listen to your self-conscious emotions – they are telling you how you might better improve your situation, or your relationships.