Jealousy and envy aren’t quite the same thing, though both are negative feelings that relate to how we feel when somebody else seems to be getting something we want. Are you jealous or envious of your friend’s flawless hair, your co-worker’s promotion, or your spouse’s new friendship with someone who is just a little more attractive than you?
Envy is about something you want but don’t have
Envy is the simpler concept, so let’s start there. It refers to something pretty specific: a situation where somebody else has a thing that you don’t.
In this case, your focus is on the thing they have, not on how you feel about them personally. You can be jealous of somebody’s personal attributes or their possessions: maybe their confidence, their style, their car, their high-paying job that lets them take lots of vacations while you’re toiling away at home.
Your feelings about this can be complex. Maybe you feel bitter that you don’t have what they have; maybe you were happy with your situation until you saw that they were in a better place. But at its core, envy is all about wanting something you don’t have.
Jealousy describes a perceived threat
When you’re jealous, in the purest sense of the word, there’s more going on than a simple desire for something you don’t have. Often you do have the thing you want, but now you’re feeling threatened or betrayed.
This concept comes up in relationships: You are happy with your partner, but now someone else is flirting with them. What if your partner likes this new guy better? The core emotion here is a feeling that your position is under threat. You might lose your partner.
It’s sometimes said that jealousy takes three people, while envy only involves two. That’s not exactly true, because you could feel threatened or betrayed in a relationship that’s not romantic. If you have a rival at work, and maybe you’re doing a better job even though they’ve been there longer, they might be worried that you’ll get a promotion or an assignment they think they deserve. That’s still jealousy.
It’s also worth noting jealousy can be a personality trait, and in that case, it’s a red flag for an abusive relationship. If your boyfriend is always suspicious of the people you hang out with, checks up on you to the point of being intrusive, and stops you from having normal relationships without him, that’s not ok. Somebody who has a healthy attitude toward a relationship won’t be so insecure or possessive.
Getting back to the language to describe this, though: You can actually be jealous and envious at the same time. The singer in “Jolene” is jealous because she is worried Jolene will take her man, but she also seems to be envious of Jolene’s auburn hair and eyes of emerald green.
“Jealous of” can actually mean “envious of”
To add a layer of confusion — sorry — we often say that we are “jealous of” something that we envy. If somebody tells you that they had a good meal, or a good vacation, or a good night’s sleep, and you casually reply “I’m so jealous,” you’re talking about being envious (as described above). This is a historically common usage of the word jealous, so it’s not wrong exactly — but now you know “envious” is the word that more precisely says what you mean.
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