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What is the Difference Between Jealousy and Envy?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 16, 2024
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Many people use the words jealousy and envy interchangeably to describe the same emotional response, a general feeling of resentment towards a perceived rival. While these emotions do tend to overlap in some respects, there are some fundamental differences between the two. Jealousy, for example, is almost exclusively a negative emotion, while envy can has some positive effects, such as a renewed interest in self-improvement.

One difference between jealousy and envy involves the relationship between the jealous or envious person and his or her rival. An envious co-worker may develop a personal resentment towards a promoted co-worker because the position represents a higher salary and more responsibility. The true source of this envy is rarely the co-worker himself, but the perceived value of the position. The co-worker may very well deserve the advancement because of his superior skills or education, but an envious person might become angry at himself for not possessing those qualities.

Jealousy, on the other hand, focuses on the rival himself, not necessarily the object or "good" at the center of the conflict. This feeling implies a closer relationship between the jealous person and his rival. Instead of a promotion, the co-worker may start a romantic relationship with the jealous person's secret office crush. Because this rivalry is personal in nature, the target of the jealous person's resentment and anger is not necessarily the unattainable romantic partner, but the more attractive rival who now stands between them.

Another difference between jealousy and envy is the depth of emotion. Envy is considered to be one of the 7 deadly sins, but in general, the moral danger lies with becoming covetous of another person's possessions or status. In one sense, it is at the root of criminal acts such as burglary or fraud. The criminal develops irrational envy about the people he or she perceives as more fortunate in life, so the theft of a victim's property somehow balances the scales of fairness. In its rawest form, this emotion represents an irrational desire for material satisfaction, not necessarily ill will towards those who have it.

Jealousy, however, is largely focused on the perceived character of the rival himself or herself. It's not that a more attractive rival managed to "steal" a potential romantic partner, it's the unfairness that an undeserving rival can use his or her skills to take what rightfully belongs to the jealous person. These feelings often go deeper than those of envy, and can lead to physical confrontations with the rival or even criminal acts of violence.

Feelings of jealousy are almost always negative, since the jealous person may continue to build up resentment towards his or her rival until the situation becomes untenable or volatile. Many cases can only be defused if at least one side of the triangle is taken completely out of the equation. If the object of the jealous person's romantic interest begins dating a third party, for example, the tension between rivals should lessen considerably. Without a focal point for passionate emotions, they generally lose their fuel.

Envy, on the other hand, can actually have some positive benefits, albeit after the fact. An envious person may be motivated to take the steps necessary to attain what his rival already has. Instead of developing irrational feelings of resentment towards a successful co-worker, for example, an envious person might pursue the same educational track as his rival or take other steps to improve his own chances for a similar promotion. Resolving such feelings does not necessitate the removal of a rival or the "good" that he now possesses, but it could require an attitude adjustment on the part of the envious one.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon968151 — On Sep 01, 2014

What a load of crap. You are jealous of what is yours because you possess it. You are envious of what is not yours, and you desire to possess it. It is also called covetousness.

By anon948683 — On May 01, 2014

Jealousy involves three parties, so usually, it's the fear of losing something you share between the two with a third party. Jealousy often describes relationships where you are afraid that you'll lose your partner's love to some other person in the mix, so you are afraid of losing something. So the key difference is number and sense of loss.

Envy is between two people and can range on a spectrum, but envy is simply a discrepancy between what you have and what this other person has and you want what this other person has. At the same time, you feel inferior because you don’t have it and you feel some hostile emotions like anger or a bit of resentment that this person has it and you don’t. So it can range from something as benign as admiration which there is nothing wrong with, to very malicious envy where you want what the other person has and you are willing to destroy what this other person has if you cannot enjoy it.

By anon340176 — On Jun 30, 2013

@anon303726: You are incorrect. Jealousy is the fear of losing something you have, while envy is wanting what someone else has and being resentful towards them.

By anon303726 — On Nov 16, 2012

I think you have nailed the distinction perfectly. Well done. I think anon213131 is incorrect.

By anon266309 — On May 05, 2012

Jealousy is the fear of displacement of affection.

By anon265175 — On May 01, 2012

Envy is treacherous, and includes ill-will. An envious person will harm you because they feel what you have is depriving them of having it.

By anon213131 — On Sep 09, 2011

You have it reversed in this article. Envy is concerned with the rival and the good could be any number of things/situations. Jealousy is concerned with the good itself and the rival could be anyone.

For example: It would be jealousy if I am in love with person A and am upset to find out he is dating someone else, it doesn't matter who the other person (rival) is. It would be envy if I am upset or wish ill upon a certain friend/enemy anytime anything happens that I perceive to be a threat to my own "higher status", it matters not what that good or situation is (dating person A, a higher promotion, a better grade, prettier hairdo, etc.) Of the two, it could be argued that envy is worse than jealousy, having no valid justification at all because it is merely concerned with how one feels/looks compared to someone else. Jealousy could be justified in that I have a right to be jealous if my spouse is flirting with other people, etc.

By anon165411 — On Apr 04, 2011

jealousy is when you think you should have something and someone else shouldn't. envy is when you are happy that someone has something but you wish you could have it too.

By anon133179 — On Dec 09, 2010

@Shriya: Please go look in a dictionary, or at least read the article. Your definition of envy and jealousy is incorrect.

By anon93425 — On Jul 03, 2010

anon35849 I agree with you but I disagree with this article. Envy is when you are jealous of someone and do something to that person that makes them fail, while jealousy is something none of us can help. For instance, if there's someone wearing a really pretty dress I would say, "Oh, I wish I could wear that!" Envy is evil not jealousy- we can't help wishful thinking. Shriya

By anon90493 — On Jun 16, 2010

Yes, the Bible does say that God is a jealous God. The biggest difference between God's jealousy and ours is that God has the right as Creator of the universe to be jealous. He has the right to desire our attention and affection.

Any moment we give to something other than Him then He has the right to ask it of us. To be jealous. God would never envy us because he is owner of everything (He did create everything). Do we have the right to demand attention or affection? If we do, are we placing ourselves at the same level as God?

Where were we when God created the universe? He should be jealous of my attention and is the only one with the right to be jealous.

By anon77049 — On Apr 13, 2010

This article misses an important point.

Envy is the desire for something that one believes she/he does not possess.

Jealousy is the fear of losing something one believes she/he does possess.

By anon60526 — On Jan 14, 2010

Doesn't it say in the bible that God is a "Jealous" God?

By anon42881 — On Aug 24, 2009

I thought this was a very well thought out, insightful article and helped clear things up for me as well. Brilliant.

By anon35849 — On Jul 08, 2009

Envy is wanting/ wishing that one had what another person has; jealously is thinking that one *should* have what another has. Envy is, "I wish I had that;" jealously is, "That should be mine, and if the other has it there is less for me to have."

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range...
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