Jealousy vs. Envy: What’s the Difference?

Is this cat jealous or envious?
Is this cat jealous or envious? / Nils Jacobi/iStock via Getty Images

When your partner tells you their ex, whom they haven’t seen in years, is coming to town, you graciously offer to host them for dinner. After hours of witnessing their obvious chemistry on full display, you start to feel a little ill at ease—which you’d most likely describe as jealousy, rather than envy.

As Merriam-Webster explains, that’s because we usually use the word jealousy to describe the worry that someone is coming for what’s yours. Envy, on the other hand, refers to the opposite scenario: when you want something that belongs to someone else.

But it’s not quite that simple. For one thing, jealousy can also function as a synonym for envy. If your neighbor owns an extremely valuable Beanie Baby collection, and you famously love Beanie Babies (or money), you might say you’re envious of your neighbor—or, you might say you’re jealous.

Furthermore, as Psychology Today points out, jealousy is often accompanied by envy. Or rather, it’s envy that sometimes causes you to become jealous. Say, for example, your recently engaged best friend asks you to be her maid-of-honor. Over the course of several wedding-related events, you realize that your best friend seems to be favoring one of her bridesmaids—an exceptionally glamorous, wealthy, thoughtful, and seemingly perfect newer friend—over you. So you start to feel jealous. The reason for your jealousy, however, is because you envy this woman’s qualities, and you envy the attention she’s getting from your best friend. (And yes, we’re describing the plot of 2011’s Bridesmaids).

In other words, jealousy is more readily associated with territoriality, rivalry, and/or betrayal than envy is. But if you unpack the situation a little, you might find envy there, too.

[h/t Merriam-Webster]

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