What is envy? Why do we envy others? According to Buddha “He who envies does not obtain piece of mind”. People envy others due to different factors such as wealth, relationships, success, and attractiveness. Let’s analyze what envy is? What are the causes and consequences of envy?

What is Envy?

“Envy” is derived from the Latin term invidere, which means to “look at another with malice”. This indicates that envy is accompanied by negative attitude and behaviors towards the envied.

Envy has been defined as “an unpleasant and often painful blend of feelings characterized by inferiority, hostility, and resentment caused by a comparison with a person or group of persons who possess something we desire”.

“Envy arises when a person lacks another’s superior quality, achievements, or possessions and either desires it or wishes that the other lacked it”.

Envy can be episodic, situational or dispositional. Episodic envy occurs due to a specific negative social comparison. It is an unpleasant emotion arises from a specific negative social comparison involving specific referent or comparator. It has two components: comparison and feeling. Situational envy is a general envy of others in an environment. Situational envy involves multiple referents or comparators. Dispositional envy is general tendency or propensity of individuals to be envious. It comprises of two principal affective components: hostility and depression.

Why do we envy others?

Individuals have a strong inclination to compare themselves with the similar others in their social circle. If this comparison instigates feelings of inferiority or shortcoming then it leads to envy. These feelings of diminished self-worth and well-being can serve as a motivation to strive harder and achieve goals. Therefore, it can be argued that these feelings of envy are innate to keep us striving for better and thrive. Moreover, according to equity theory when people perceive unfairness with respect to their inputs and rewards in comparison with similar others, the feelings of envy triggers. Therefore, it can be argued that people try to restore equity either by putting more effort or by sabotaging the envied.

Envy and jealousy

Envy and jealousy are often confused with each other and used interchangeably but there is clear distinction. Envy stems from the desire to acquire something possessed by another person. It is a desire arises from social comparison for something which someone has. Whereas, jealousy stems from the fear of losing something which is already possessed. It is a fear arises from personal rivalry to retain or regain what we think is ours.

Benign and malicious envy

Envy can be categorized as benign or malicious. Benign envy does not involve hostility and ill-will towards the envied person, instead it is based on the admiration for the envied person. This admiration can transform into inspiration and motivation for the envious person which can result in attention shift and effort exertion to achieve desired possession or status. Malicious envy on the other hand involve hostility, resentment and ill-will towards the envied person. Malicious envy entails the desire to not only attain the envied possession but also damage and disparage the envied person.

Causes of envy

Social Comparison

According to social comparison theory people tend to compare themselves with similar others. If this comparison is perceived unfavorable and threatens ones self-esteem then envious feelings arises. If the compared person is perceived more successful on same self-defined dimension then feelings of resentment and frustration are provoked which leads to envy.

Self-evaluation maintenance

People strive to maintain positive self-affirmations. If a similar other is perceived successful in a relevant area then it triggers a comparison which results in lower self-evaluations. If the similar other is perceived successful in less relevant area then it triggers self-reflection which results in high self-evaluation. When self-evaluations are threatened, it leads to envious feelings.

Perception of Fairness (Equity theory)

People have a tendency to compare their contribution (inputs) and rewards received (outputs) ratios with respect to other people. If this comparison results in the feeling that they are under-reward or similar others are over-rewarded, envious feelings arises.

Consequences of envy

The consequences of envy can both be positive or negative depending on the channelization of feelings of envy. If the envy is benign envy and the channelization is positive it results in positive outcomes such as, increased admiration and inspiration, increased effort, self-improvement, enhanced work motivation and job performance. If envy is malicious envy and the channelization is negative it results in negative outcomes such as, uncooperative behavior, social undermining, poor mental health, unhappiness, decreased life satisfaction, aggression, schadenfreude, distress, low self-esteem, low job satisfaction, low organizational commitment, withdrawal, turnover intentions and absenteeism.

Coping/Avoiding Envy

There are different strategies which can be utilized to cope with envy.

Emotional Awareness

Awareness of feelings of envy is important for coping. To take measures, it is important to realize when someone is affected by envy. Meditation is a useful tool to enhance emotional awareness.

Admiration and inspiration

If envious feelings can be transformed into admiration and inspiration then these feelings can be productive rather than counterproductive and can go a long way in achieving desired possession or status.

Motivation and Hard work

Envious feelings can also be transformed as a motivational force which can lead to increased effort and hard work. This motivation and hard work can lead to positive consequences.

Social conditioning/Perspective

Envious feelings mostly arise due to social comparisons. By defining success individually and not driven by socially conditioned definition of success and changing perspective by looking at things from different viewpoint can help reduce envious feelings.


Being grateful for the things we have rather than being envious for things we don’t have can also help reducing feelings of envy.


By realizing the harmful effects of envy on well-being can also help avoiding envy.


Relationships are always important in getting rid of negative feelings such as envy. Therefore, by sharing and getting advice from close ones can also help.