An Exploration Into The Psychology Of Envy

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Shakespeare got it wrong — envy, not jealousy, is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.

These two words, envy and jealousy, are often used interchangeably. They are not, however, synonymous.

Envy is the tendency to perceive with displeasure the good of others¹, while jealousy is the fear that something you have (be it a person or a possession) will be taken away from you by someone else.

Envy, in other words, is a reaction to lacking something, whereas jealousy is a reaction to the threat of losing something.

Stretching back to antiquity, countless philosophers have contemplated the nature of envy. And all of them, from Aristotle to Nietzsche, have come to a similar conclusion: That envy is a destructive and diseased state of mind that acts like poison in the veins of not only the envier, but also the envied and, society as a whole.

Why Is Envy So Evil?

  • To the envier, envy is evil because the envious (aka ‘enviers’) view those superior to them as enemies and, rather than focusing on improving themselves, they instead focus on the failure of others. They (i.e. the envious) believe that their own happiness will increase only if the happiness of those whom they envy decreases. By enabling them to think of themselves as victims this fundamental misbelief works like a funnel to drain the life, passion and energy from the envious. Further, envy is so harmful to the envious because it encourages them to believe that what they lack in comparison to others accounts for their relative unhappiness. It, envy, puts happiness outside of the control of the individual which — unfortunately for the envious — makes it unreachable. Carlos Ruiz Zafón was right when he wrote that “Envy is the religion of the mediocre. It comforts them, it soothes their worries, and finally it rots their souls, allowing them to justify their meanness and their greed until they believe these to be virtues.”
  • To the envied, envy is evil for more obvious reasons. Namely, that it can damage their reputations, confidence and well being. Excessively criticized successful people will, like anyone else, begin to question themselves and start to modify their behaviors in, sometimes, detrimental ways in order to avoid said criticism. This is not to infer that all criticism is the result of envy. Sometimes the successful need to be criticized and, sometimes, they need to change the way they act. That being said, a lot of the negative feedback coming from the general public, a lot of it, is in fact the result of envy. People will never admit their criticisms are the fruits of envy and, sometimes, they may not even be aware of it themselves — yet, even so, it’s true.
  • To society, envy is evil because a desire to see others brought down does not promote prosperity. On the contrary, it hinders it. Those consumed by envy are less likely to become the great writers, painters, athletes, entrepreneurs, and scientists who help and contribute to the world at large.

How Should Those Afflicted By Envy Cure Themselves Of It?

First, it’s necessary to realize that one can choose not to be envious. There are alternatives . Emulation, for example.

Emulation occurs when the recognition of one’s inferiorities leads them to view the superior not as enemies, but as examples.

Instead of the desire to lower others, emulation inspires people to lift themselves up and to reach the heights of those they look up to.

Kierkegaard noted that “envy is concealed admiration,” and thus emulation can be seen as the positive reaction of what drives other, weaker individuals, to envy.

Reacting to one’s shortcomings with acceptance and a desire to improve is good not only for the individual, but for everybody. It means that more and more people will strive for the creation of the new and the better rather than hoping for the destruction of the successful.

If, however, our society continues to move down the path of envy we will eventually reach a critical point where the unhappy and the unsuccessful will become so resentful that all of the happy and successful among us will be forced to question whether or not they even have a right to their happiness and their success. This, if ever it came to pass, would indeed be a terrible thing.


1: This is Immanuel Kant’s definition of envy.




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