Although most people think of them as synonymous, jealousy and envy are actually very different. “Envy has to do with wanting what somebody else has,” says psychotherapist Nathalie C. Theodore. “For example, you may feel envious of a friend who just landed their dream job. Jealousy, on the other hand, is the fear of losing what you already have. You might feel jealous when your boss starts giving better assignments to your new co-worker, and you worry that your own job is in jeopardy.”
Understanding jealousy and envy on a neurological level.
Jealousy and envy can be difficult emotions to unravel. We can feel unpleasant feelings toward an acquaintance who lands our dream job, for example, and claim at the time it’s because that person is boastful and only realize they’re feelings of envy later.
As for what inspires feelings of envy and jealousy, neurologist Ilene Ruhoy says it comes down to how our brains are wired. “It all depends on how the amygdala connects with areas of our brain that establish our values and our motivations,” she explains. “We understand more of where sadness, anger, and fear originate in the brain, but jealousy and envy are complex in that the interplay between biochemistry, anatomy, and our environment within which we develop can dictate to what extent we feel either jealously or envy.”
How negative emotions play a role in a happy life.
According to happiness expert Gretchen Rubin, playing close attention to feelings of envy can be a helpful way to truly understand what you want out of life. “Negative emotions play a very important role in a happy life because they warn us that something needs to change,” she writes. “When we envy someone, it’s a sign that that person has something that we wish we had for ourselves. And that’s useful to know. When I was considering switching from law to writing, I noticed that when I read in my college magazine about people who had great law careers, I felt a mild interest; when I read about people who had great writing careers, I felt sick with envy. That was an important clue.”
Theodore adds that the best thing you can do with feelings of jealousy and envy is use them as motivation. “It’s normal for people to feel both envy and jealousy from time to time,” she says. “But use them as motivation. Seeing your friend land their dream job might be the push you need to start your own job search. Feeling threatened by a rock-star new co-worker might motivate you to look for more opportunities to stand out at work.”
What to do when you can’t channel your emotions in a positive way.
If you can’t find a way to turn feelings of jealousy and envy into motivation, it can be detrimental to emotional and physical health. “Both envy and jealousy can lead to feelings of depression if we continuously compare ourselves to others without pushing ourselves to achieve our own goals,” says Theodore. If you find yourself in this camp, it might be worth investing in a beautiful gratitude journal or simply meditating on things you’re grateful for. While striving for more is key to personal growth, being thankful for what you have is just as important.