Jealousy and Envy

A friend recently asked me how I would characterize the difference between jealousy and envy. Here’s how I see it: jealousy is when I want to gain something you have, and envy is when I want you to lose something you have. If I’m jealous of your new Tesla, I want a Tesla too. If I’m envious of the superyacht that Jeff Bezos is building, I don’t want him to have that yacht even if I’ll never be able to have such a thing.

There’s a murky zone involving “rivalrous goods” that only one of us can possess. The classic case is love: if both you and I want to be married to the same person, in most cultures only one of us can win. The same could be true of promotions at work, political appointments, and the like. One way to look at these cases is to say that jealousy and envy overlap or that I’m feeling both jealousy and envy.

Because jealousy has a positive component (I want X) whereas envy seems purely negative (I don’t want you to have Y), it strikes me that the remedies differ. When I feel jealousy, I can educate and temper my acquisitive desires to not want X (do I really “need” that shiny new Tesla?). When I feel envy, I can do a better job of accepting the good fortune of other people – even if it is excessive or undeserved (naturally, this can be especially hard to swallow!).

I’ll end with my translation of a quote from Epicurus (Vatican Sayings #53):

Envy no one. For good people do not deserve envy, and the more that wicked people succeed the more they ruin things for themselves.

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