While both men and women mostly envy those of their own gender and age, overall, young adults are more likely to feel envy than older adults, say two UC San Diego researchers. Yet, the results of their new study do not reveal whether older people are less jealous due to personal changes over time or some essential difference between the generations.

"Either finding is interesting, but only future longitudinal research can distinguish between these two options," wrote the researchers.

While previous experiments indicate older adults may have more control over negative emotions than younger adults, no research has examined the effects of age on just one trait: envy. And so UC San Diego Psychology Professor Christine Harris and her graduate student, Nicole Henniger, investigated this single emotion across the lifespan. Their analysis included data from two separate studies. The first surveyed 987 participants, between the ages of 18 and 80 and mostly American, about their experiences of feeling envy, while the second surveyed 843 participants about being envy’s target.

Unsurprisingly, their first conclusion was envy is as common as dirt.

Moving Target

More than three quarters of participants said they’d felt envious in the last year, with slightly more women (79.4 percent) than men (74.1 percent) reporting such feelings. Overall, this experience decreased with age. About 80 percent of people younger than 30 said they’d felt envious in the last year, yet, by age 50, that figure decreased to less than 70 percent.

Consistently, people envied others of their own gender — even in career matters. Most often, people directed their envy at people within five years of their own age.

Interestingly, it appears young people have more opportunities for envy. They reported envy of others' looks, romantic partnerships, school achievement, and social success. A full 40 percent of the under 30 participants, for instance, envied another's sexual success, yet fewer than 15 percent of those over 50 said the same. And, while all age groups envied financial and occupational success, commonly, older people envied these slightly more.

Men and Women

Women were more free-ranging in their envy, selecting "other" more often than men. Mostly, though, the envy targets of both men and women were the same and had the same frequency. Still, the men envied career achievements more often than the women: 41.4 percent compared to 24.5 percent.

Beauty was another point of difference. Just under a quarter of the women said they envied another woman’s looks compared to 13.5 percent of men. Surprisingly, women seemed to lose their jealousy of another's beauty over time. The researchers said younger women’s feelings contributed more to the higher proportion of envy.


Overall, people’s reports of being the target of envy lined up with feelings of envy except in one area: money. Many more people said money provoked their envy while far fewer people said they felt envied for their wealth. People may not always understand it is their money that is the object of envy, the authors speculate, or perhaps it is only the most wealthy, the so-called 1 percent, that are envied for their wealth. (Doubt it!)

Feeling the heat from friends occurred three times as often as feeling envied by relatives, participants of the study reported. However, this may be a "frenemies" effect. When the psychologists lumped best friends and romantic partners in with siblings and relatives, they found fewer incidents of envy among those considered "family" compared to acquaintances.

Happily, the success of those we love appears to be more a cause for pride than envy... at every age.

Source: Henniger N, Harris C. Envy Across Adulthood: The What and the Who. Basic and Applied Social Psychology. 2015.