How Envy Changes As You Get Older

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Sister Pouting Over Her Twin Sister's Crown and Magic Wand
Photo: Heide Benser/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

The things driving you mad with envy today are not, thankfully, the things that you will care about ten years from now. Ten years from now you will notice new and different things others have that you do not, according to a pretty interesting new study of 2,000 adults — ages 18 to 80 — on envy. 

The youngest adults surveyed, those younger than 30, were more likely to experience jealousy than those in their 30s, 40s, 50s, or older. But what people are envious of changes across adulthood, argue Nicole E. Henniger and Christine R. Harris of the University of California–San Diego, who co-authored the paper, recently published in Basic and Applied Social Psychology. Speaking generally, the young people Henniger and Harris surveyed tended to be jealous of their peers’ looks, their social status, and their happy relationships. More specifically, about 40 percent of those younger than 30 said they’d experienced jealousy over someone else’s romantic success.

This starts to fade in the 30s, however; just 24 percent of the 30-somethings surveyed said they were still experiencing jealousy over others’ romantic relationships, and by the 40s, that had dropped to 16 percent. Thirty- and 40-somethings were also less likely to be jealous of people’s looks and social status than the younger adults. “It may be that once people have reached their 30s, their ability to obtain and maintain friendships has stabilized and they have come to accept their social status,” Henniger and Harris write. By your 30s, in other words, you have finally learned to accept the fact that you will never be a popular kid.

In contrast, in the 30s and 40s, jealousy about money and career begins to increase, both of which concerned the 20-somethings considerably less than they cared about others’ romantic statuses. Jealousy over money, in fact, was the only thing that consistently increased throughout the lifespan: About 28 percent of the youngest survey respondents were envious of other people’s wealth, compared to nearly 40 percent of those in their 50s. Good to know there will always be something new to envy.