Happy moment of bonding between old woman and young girl
(Credit: iStock)

If you weren’t in the so-called popular crowd in high school, you may remember glancing longingly at their table in the cafeteria wishing you could be so cool and confident, instead of so awkward and unsure.

When we’re young, we often measure ourselves against our peers. Our internal monologue is a running stream of wishing we were as attractive, as skinny, as smart, as athletic, as well-liked as others. Our self-worth can hinge on how we perceive we stack up.

The envy we feel doesn’t completely extinguish with age, but a new study released this week shows that the older we get, the less we experience it. And the breadth of what we envy narrows.

“One possibility is that as you get older you come to accept your status, what you do or do not have,” said co-author of the study, Christine Harris, a psychology professor at the University of California, San Diego.

[Related: How to use envy to achieve your dreams]

Other research has backed up theories that our emotional well-being improves with time and perspective — that with age comes a better control over negative feelings.

Harris’ latest findings, published in the Journal of Basic and Applied Social Psychology, reinforces that. Envy is considered an unhealthy and destructive emotion, so much so that it is one of the seven deadly sins. But as author Joseph Epstein writes in his 2003 book, Envy, it’s the one sin that is no fun. And coveting neighbors’ things, a sister emotion to envy, rounds out the 10 Commandments.

Participants were asked if they’d felt envious at any point in the last year. Among the youngest cohort, 18 to 29-year-olds, 80 percent reported feeling envy. It dropped slightly with each decade: 79 percent of those in their 30s, 73 percent in their 40s and 69 percent in their 50s or older.

It was little surprise that the study also found that people most often envy those of their same gender and age. Envy is often born out of making direct comparisons with similar others. “It tells us what might be possible for us and what we can best,” Harris said. But what we specifically envy in others changes significantly with age.

Twenty-somethings envy their peers across a wide spectrum. They envy others’ successes in romance, academics, social status, attractiveness, wealth and jobs. By the 30s and 40s, concern with others’ appearance, friendships and education drops off the list of reasons to be envious. In their 50s and beyond, when people do envy, it’s aimed at others’ occupational and financial success.

In all the age groups, at least one in five described feeling envious of someone else’s luck, which isn’t defined, so it could relate to anything from winning the lottery to finding a soulmate.

What surprised Harris most is that only the youngest group envied others’ social lives. But it makes sense. While 20-somethings are probably more social – going to parties, happy hours and on dates – when people get older they narrow their friend circle and form steady relationships that provide more reliable companionship and support.

Even though older people envy less, it’s still a common human reaction to others’ good fortune. Harris suggests two ways to control it based on the situation.

If you’re envious about an occupational achievement, channel that emotion and figure out specific changes you can make to improve your own situation. Try to emulate the things the other person does to be so successful at work.

If what you are envious of isn’t readily changeable, like your attractiveness, Harris suggests reappraising the weight you give that one thing.  Zero in on the things you are good at and the traits you have that others might envy. Realize even the person you’re envying is not perfect — because there’s no such thing.


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