The Emotion Nobody Wants To Talk About: Envy

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There has been a lot of discussion about the impact of social media and its potential for unwanted, negative effects. Many of these negative effects are derived from our feelings of envy. It can sometimes feel that everyone has more fun than we do, has a better life than we do, are more successful, better looking, and have more friends than we do.

Most psychologists define envy as the emotion that arises when a person lacks another’s superior quality, achievement, or possessions and desires it or wishes the other person didn’t have it (Parrot & Smith, 1993). Envy is not the pain that arises when others do well, but arises when we perceive that the person has what we lack.

In our culture, envy is banned by our norms of social behavior, norms that tell us to be well-mannered and happy for the success of others. It’s even an emotion that is prohibited by most religions (Milic. 2019). Since envy arises from social comparison, it is more important than ever to address this rarely discussed emotion. Our society of winners and losers may make us believe that we are all fighting for the same scarce resources. It may even lead us to believe that the definition of success is the same for all of us. But these feelings can have a huge impact on us. For example, a recent study of 18,000 people over the years from 2005, 2009, and 2013 found that a higher level of envy today will result in lower mental well-being in the future (Mujcic & Oswald, 2018).

Unmanaged envy is very harmful to individuals and organizations. Envy at work has been found at all organizational levels and in most cultures (Menon & Thompson, 2010; Smith et al., 1999). Often this emotion is the result of competition for scarce resources, lack of time, or promotions (Gonalalez-Navarro et al., 2018). These factors have implications for interpersonal relationships, reduced friendship bonds, and employees’ exchange of knowledge. More specifically, envy can result in backbiting, personal attacks, social undermining, and sabotage. Envy may also result in more passive attitudes, such as withdrawal from others, reduced work engagement, and lower levels of collaboration (Perini, 2018).

While there has been more interest in addressing emotions in the workplace, envy is still something that is taboo for discussion. This is largely due to the lack of willingness for people to admit they are feeling envious, because it’s considered a morally wrong emotion and requires that the individual confesses to feeling inferior (Perini, 2018). It’s also difficult for the envied to admit it, because it may mean facing another person’s hostility and perhaps being blamed for provoking it (Perini, 2018).

So, what is the solution?

One of the most effective ways we can deal with the rising rate of envy is through the practice of gratitude. Gratitude has been considered a foundational emotion — that is one that can result in a wide range of positive benefits including an improvement in our overall well-being. Next time, you start to feel that forbidden emotion of envy, allow yourself to experience it without denial and don’t push it away. Then, once you’ve acknowledged it without judgment and with acceptance, make an intentional choice to consider all the things you are grateful for. By doing this, you’ll begin to see how unique you are and how rich your life is, with countless blessings that will lessen the impact of envy on how you see the world. To help you get started or to re-energize your gratitude practice, we have included one of our many micro-lessons to help you build your gratitude practice.    


González-Navarro, P., Zurriaga-Llorens, R., Tosin Olateju, A., & Llinares-Insa, L. (2018). Envy and counterproductive work behavior: The moderation role of leadership in public and private organizations. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 15(7), 1455.

Menon, T. and Thomson, L. Envy at work. Harv. Bus. Rev. 2010, 88, 74–79.

Milic, A. (2019). Envy–an Unwanted, yet Unavoidable and Necessary Emotion. Psihologijske teme, 28(2), 355-375.

Mujcic, R., & Oswald, A. J. (2018). Is envy harmful to a society's psychological health and wellbeing? A longitudinal study of 18,000 adults. Social Science & Medicine, 198, 103-111.

Parrott, W. G. (1991). The emotional experiences of envy and jealousy. In P. Salovey (Ed.), The Psychology of Jealousy and Envy (pp. 3‐30). New York: Guilford Press. 

Smith, R.H.; Parrott, W.G.; Diener, E.F.; Hoyle, R.H.; Kim, S.H. Dispositional Envy. Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bull. 1999, 25, 1007–1020.