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How much we envy others — and what we envy — changes with age, study finds

"As one of the seven deadly sins in the Christian tradition, envy has been proposed to motivate the acts of people ranging from evil stepmothers in folk stories to Occupy Wall Street protestors in modern times."

The types of things we envy in others changes as we age, and older adults tend to be less envious than younger ones. We also tend to envy people of the same gender and age as us.

All these findings come from a fascinating study published recently in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology.

As the study’s co-authors, University of California, San Diego psychologist Christine Harris and graduate student Nicole Henniger, point out, envy is a powerful emotion.

“As one of the seven deadly sins in the Christian tradition,” they write, “envy has been proposed to motivate the acts of people ranging from evil stepmothers in folk stories to Occupy Wall Street protestors in modern times. This subjectively negative emotion arises in response to the superiority of another person in some domain. However, every objectively superior person is not envied. Who do people envy and about what?”

To find that out — particularly, to find it out in people of various age groups (most previous studies on envy have been conducted with college students) — Harris and Henniger conducted two separate survey studies. One study asked more than 900 people aged 18 to 80 about any feelings of envy they may have had within the previous 12 months. The other asked a separate group of about 800 similarly aged people to recall a time when someone had envied them. This second study was done because, as the researchers point out, envy is commonly thought of as a “malicious, shameful emotion,” which means it may have been underreported by the people in the first study.

The findings from both studies were remarkably similar. “Given that we assessed envy in two different samples using two different perspectives, it seems fairly likely that such effects are real (at least for the primarily American samples examined here),” Harris and Henniger conclude.

Key findings

What were those effects?

First, the research revealed that envy is a remarkably common experience. More than three-fourths of the people in the first study (79 percent of women and 74 percent of men) reported envying someone within the previous year.

Envy was reported in both distant relationships and in relationships with close friends and relatives.

But older people reported less envy, proportionally, than younger ones. About 80 percent of people younger than 30 said they had experienced envy within the previous year, compared to 69 percent of people aged 50 and older.

That finding is consistent with other research that has found that negative emotions in general tend to decrease with age, say Harris and Henniger.

The two researchers also found that the people, regardless of age, are most likely to envy — or report being envied by — their peers: people of a similar age (within about five years) and of the same gender. That last finding surprised the researchers a bit. 

“Even in domains like financial and occupational success, where you can imagine that a woman might envy a man his better pay or status, that wasn’t usually the case,” Harris notes in a released statement.

Domains of envy

As for what people envy in others, that appears to change with age, according to this study.

Younger people were more likely to be envious about scholastic success, social success, romantic success and looks. For example, 40 percent of the participants in the first study reported envying the romantic success of someone else, compared to less than 15 percent of those older than 50. (Of course, that may have been because 63 percent of the participants in that older group were married compared to 21 percent in the younger group.)

Although envy of both monetary success and occupational success were common across all age groups, older adults were most likely to report such feelings.

In fact, envy of occupational success had “a curvilinear relationship with age,” note Harris and Henniger. Occupational envy rose from 22 percent among young adults in their 20s to 43 percent among those in their 40s. It then dropped down to 36 percent among adults aged 50 and older.

“These changes may demonstrate that, although career success is important throughout adulthood, its importance peaks at midlife and then perhaps declines as people retire or look ahead toward retirement,” say Harris and Henniger.

Or, they add, it could be that “the importance of career success may have changed across generations.”

Interestingly, occupational success was one of the few domains of envy that showed a clear difference between men and women. Men were much more likely than women to report envying others for their occupational success: 41.4 percent versus 24.5 percent. 

On the other hand, women were much more likely than men to report envying looks: 23.8 percent versus 13.5 percent, although this difference was driven mainly by women younger than age 40.

Inconsistent findings

Women also were more likely than men to report being envied by others for their romantic successes (26.4 percent versus 16.7 percent). But romantic success was actually a domain more often envied by men, not women.

Why this disconnect? “One potential explanation is that women may perceive themselves as envied in this domain more often than they actually are envied,” write Harris and Henniger.

Money was another domain with inconsistent findings. Many more people said that they envied others’ wealth (from 28 percent of people in the 20s to 39 percent of people aged 50-plus) than reported being envied for their own monetary success (from 14 percent of people in their 20s to 24 percent of people aged 50-plus). 

“This difference may reflect many people wanting money (as examined in Study 1) but a smaller number of people actually possessing enviable amounts of money (as examined in Study 2),” write Harris and Henniger. “Envy of monetary success also may be difficult to detect, or may be perceived as envy of occupational success or an overall better life.”

You can read the study in full on the Basic and Applied Social Psychology website.

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