Two children sit next to a stack of presents. Both hold gifts on their heads. The younger child eyes the older child's larger gift. Envy is an emotion that occurs when one person wants something another person has, whether that thing is a material possession or perceived success or stature. Notable for its status as one of the seven deadly sins, envy has been studied extensively in the fields of philosophy and psychology, among others.

Understanding Envy

A complex emotional experience, envy can consist of many elements: longing, feelings of inferiority, ill will toward the envied person, resentment, and guilt. When a person becomes envious, it is often due to some degree of dissatisfaction with the self. In other words, envy occurs when a person believes that having what another person has would increase their own happiness. Envy might also involve some degree of wishing that the other person did not have the envied object or quality.

Envy and jealousy are distinct concepts within the field of psychology, although the terms are often used interchangeably. Like envy, jealousy is a complex emotion with multiple facets, but jealousy typically exists within the context of relationships. More specifically, jealousy occurs when an individual fears losing an important relationship to someone else: it is the fear of losing what they already have and want to keep. Envy, on the other hand, typically occurs when the achievement, status, or possessions of another is desired: the emotion focuses on what a person does not have.

How Does Envy Develop?

Envy develops when individuals compare themselves to others and find themselves to be inferior. This process is a natural one, although comparing the self with others may lead to the development of envy and other emotions that can cause pain. This type of comparison can often be seen in sibling relationships, for example. It is fairly typical for children to compare their treatment with the treatment of their siblings and point out any differences—real or perceived—to their parents.

Envy results from internal factors rather than external ones. Individuals may be more likely to experience envy if they have lower self-esteem or believe that they are lacking in some way, regardless of what they actually possess. An individual is also more likely to envy people who are similar in ways such as gender, age, class, education, or occupation. A person’s age may also affect whether that person is likely to experience envy. One study found that teens and young adults are more likely to be envious than are middle-aged and older adults.

The popularity of social media has also played a role in the experience of envy. People who see the achievements and positive life experiences of their peers on platforms such as Facebook and Instagram may start to feel envious and wonder why they have not experienced the same degree of success or happiness. Research has found that this experience of envy may lead to increased feelings of depression.

Can Envy Cause Harm?

Envy has often been written about in negative terms, with focus placed on its ability to prevent people from appreciating what they have or celebrating the successes of others. In fact, the experience of envy is likely to be a shameful one. Many people are reluctant to admit their envy of others because the emotion may be seen as socially unacceptable. But like all emotions, envy is a natural and common experience. Many people are reluctant to admit their envy of others because the emotion may be seen as socially unacceptable. But like all emotions, envy is a natural and common experience.

Research on envy makes an important distinction between malicious (invidious) envy and benign envy. Malicious envy focuses on the person who has the envied thing and involves an active wish for that person to not have that thing. Those who experience malicious envy may have negative intentions toward the other person and want to deprive them of the desired object. Benign envy, on the other hand, is more general in that it tends to focus on obtaining the desired object or achieving the desired status, without the presence of any ill will toward another person.

Although envy is typically considered to be a negative—and in the case of malicious envy, potentially harmful—emotion, it can actually have some positive consequences. The experience of envy can be motivating, for example. If envy drives an individual to achieve and obtain more, it can be useful in the pursuit of career or educational success. Similarly, researchers believe envy may have an evolutionary purpose, as it makes people want and ultimately strive to obtain necessary resources.

Addressing Envy in Therapy

Addressing envy in therapy can be helpful for many reasons. When individuals realize that feelings of envy are becoming overwhelming or causing problems in life, they may find exploring these feelings with a therapist to be beneficial, as a therapist may be able to help them understand and effectively manage them. In order to deal with feelings of envy, it can also be helpful to explore self-esteem, as in many cases feelings of envy may be related to feelings of inadequacy or negative beliefs about the self.

Exploring envy in therapy can also useful because it may provide some guidance about what an individual really wants in life. The specific things a person envies can help illustrate that individual’s desires and goals. An individual who envies a friend a very artistic may wish they were also artistically inclined, for example. Therapy may be beneficial because therapists can often help people identify their own areas of talent and encourage them to explore and develop these abilities. In this way, therapists can often support individuals through the process of transforming feelings of envy into positive goals.


  1. Angier, N. (2009, February 16). In pain and joy of envy, the brain may play a role. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/17/science/17angi.html?_r=1
  2. Beaumont, L. R. (2009). Envy: You want what they have. Retrieved from http://www.emotionalcompetency.com/envy.htm
  3. D’Arms, J. (2009, January 22). Envy. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/envy
  4. Parrott, W. G., & Smith, R. H. (1993). Distinguishing the experiences of envy and jealousy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(6), 906-920.
  5. Thorpe, J. R. (2016). Why do we envy others? 7 things to know about the psychology of feeling green. Bustle. Retrieved from http://www.bustle.com/articles/174232-why-do-we-envy-others-7-things-to-know-about-the-psychology-of-feeling-green

Last Updated: 10-11-2016

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  • Ken

    July 21st, 2017 at 6:55 PM

    It would not be so bad if so many people were not malicious in their envy; how can one even socialize without stirring some envy in someone or other if one is simply to share themselves through expression? If someone tells you of the positive experiences in their life, you may very well enjoy it. Sometimes, though, it will inflate their ego, and they will attempt to view everything which is good as belonging to themselves and everything which is bad as adhering to you! Try to set them straight with experiences of your own, and then they will resent you out of envy!

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