The Science Behind Jealousy And Envy

Medically reviewed by Audrey Kelly, LMFT
Updated July 18, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Do you find certain situations trigger your jealousy?

You may have heard of jealousy referred to as the "green-eyed monster." Jealousy and envy are shown in various TV shows, movies, and popular media. As one of the many emotions we can feel, it can be natural to feel jealous or envious at times, especially when witnessing someone else's success.

Shakespeare was the first to associate the color green with jealousy. In Othello, Iago warns the title character to beware of the signs of jealousy, the "green-eyed monster" that "mocks the meat it feasts on." Shakespeare used other references to "green with envy" and meat, perhaps as a metaphor for the pain jealousy brings.

This usage may reference the prevalence of illness due to meat spoilage, as meat can turn green when spoiled, which makes it unfit for consumption. When jealousy and envy consume us, our behaviors may wreak havoc on our friendships and other relationships. In the world of social media, it's easy to focus on others' achievements and lose perspective on our own life, intensifying feelings of jealousy.

Jealousy: Romantic or not?

To some people, it might seem romantic when a significant other expresses jealousy over real or imagined attention given by another. However, if urges that can accompany feeling jealous are not easily managed, it may be time to feel genuine concern.

It can be normal to experience jealousy over a romantic competition or even feel an inferiority complex. However, if a significant other is feeling jealous of others in all work or social relationships in their partner's life, this may cause concern. If someone wants to know the who, when, and where of every moment of their partner's day, that person may have crossed a line beyond jealousy into possessiveness.


Possessiveness may seem like jealousy in the early stages of romantic relationships but may progress into harmful behaviors. When a person exhibits this kind of control over another, it can be dangerous and hinder their partner's ability to achieve success and happiness in his or her life. It can be helpful to understand how this emotion affects the brain and learn how to handle a jealous person that you’re in a relationship with.

Why do we feel jealous of others? Common reasons for envy

Envy can manifest across a number of different contexts, and can be an exceedingly uncomfortable experience, shining a light on our own insecurities. There are a few reasons we may experience feelings of jealousy towards others:

Perceived injustice

Sometimes, envy can be rooted in the feeling that a person does not deserve their success, possessions, or status. For instance, a person who got a job due to a family connection may be viewed as undeserving by others who believe they have worked harder or possess more merit. This perception of unfair advantage can fuel feelings of malicious envy.

Low self-esteem

Low self-esteem is a common cause for feelings of envy. Our own worth and capabilities may seem inadequate when juxtaposed with others' accomplishments, leading to feelings of resentment. Sometimes, we may not even be aware that our antipathy towards another is rooted in envy, making it crucial to address confidence issues as they arise.

Unfulfilled desires

When personal aspirations remain unachieved, witnessing others attain similar goals can ignite feelings of injustice and longing, prompting envy towards those who have realized what one still yearns for. 

Comparison culture

Social media and societal pressures to measure success in terms of material wealth or status can exacerbate feelings of envy. The constant exposure to curated highlights of others' lives creates unrealistic benchmarks for success, wealth, and happiness, which can manifest as feelings of inadequacy and subsequent envy.


Feeling disconnected or undervalued in social or professional settings can amplify envious feelings towards those perceived as more connected or valued. This sense of alienation can intensify envious feelings towards those perceived to be more successful or integrated.

Scarcity mindset

A scarcity mindset contributes to envy by promoting a belief that success and resources are finite. This can lead to a zero-sum perspective, where we perceive one person's gain as another's loss. 

Envy vs. entitlement

Envy is an emotion that may cause you to feel that you want or need what someone else has, and sometimes jealousy stems from it. It may be first experienced in childhood. For example, a child may desire a toy belonging to another child.

If the child in the example throws a tantrum until their parents rush out to purchase the same toy that someone else has, they may be learning a sense of entitlement. The message given to the child is that if they want something belonging to another, they have a right to have it.

Children can be taught that it is common to want what others have but that they do not always get something just because they want it. Adults may also learn to manage envy by processing emotions, identifying negative thought patterns and behaviors, or trying therapy. By gaining perspective and focusing on their own life, they can work to create happiness and achieve success without being overly influenced by the achievements of others.

Discomfort of jealousy

While feelings of jealousy can be common, the emotion itself may feel uncomfortable and can lead to unhealthy behaviors. Finally realizing that jealousy is affecting one's life can prompt a change. Over time, jealousy leading to the compulsion to take something or irrational thoughts regarding the fidelity of a partner may interfere with functioning and relationships.

Jealousy and the brain

Jealousy may lead to increased personal aggression, with research showing that jealousy is associated with changes in the brain. Specifically, greater activation in the basal ganglia and frontal lobe has been observed when individuals feel jealous.

There are a number of theories on the reasons why people experience jealousy. Whether it’s over what other people have that we don’t or have accomplished by means of resources, privilege, opportunity, or hard work, it seems like jealousy has always been a part of being human. One theory is that jealousy was how our early ancestors defended themselves from infidelity, according to evolutionary psychology. Today, we’ve taken theory and applied it to more rigorous scientific study.

In one study, researchers induced jealousy by stimulating the left frontal cortex, which contains the frontal lobe. Researchers have long studied the frontal lobe and found it essential for controlling emotions. While neuroimaging studies of the human brain and jealousy are relatively new, evidence shows that jealousy has a lasting impact on the brain. 

These studies may explain some of the challenges that come with jealousy. It may also mean that you are not alone in experiencing the feelings and physiological changes accompanying this emotion.

Getty/Xavier Lorenzo
Do you find certain situations trigger your jealousy?

Getting help to resolve jealousy

There’s a difference between envious vs jealous, it may be a normal reaction but when it becomes pathological, it can turn into a delusional disorder. If feelings of envy or jealousy do not dissipate or resolve due to reality-based feedback, you may decide to seek therapeutic intervention. If you're experiencing anxiety related to your jealousy or your partner's jealousy, online therapy has been proven effective for anxiety and depression.

Realize that talking with friends can provide some relief, but in some cases, it might be necessary to consult a professional. In today's fast-paced world, where people often spend long hours at their job, online therapy has become an available and convenient option for addressing jealousy and other mental health concerns. Don't hesitate to seek help when needed, and strive to achieve a successful and balanced emotional state.

The online treatment modality can allow you to receive therapy from home, which may be more comfortable if you're experiencing jealousy-related anxiety. Online therapy is a beneficial way to explore feelings of jealousy with a professional and move forward healthily. With online platforms like BetterHelp, you can look to a database of professionals with experience in various topics, including jealousy and envy. 

Read below for counselor reviews from users who have sought support online. 

Counselor reviews 

"Danielle has been absolutely amazing. I've struggled with grief, depression, and having healthy relationships. And she is able to get me to open up and relate to me in a way that other therapists haven't been able to. She is so kind and understanding and just honestly a beautiful person. I am so beyond happy I matched with her and can't wait to continue our sessions together!!"

"Dayna has helped me with so much from family problems, relationships, self-development and so much more! I'm so glad to have gotten paired with her!"


If you're trying to manage jealousy or envy, know that you are not alone. Many individuals experience these feelings in life. Whether you're experiencing jealousy or trying to manage your partner's jealousy, professional therapists are experienced in helping people navigate these emotions.

If you're ready to take the first step, consider reaching out to an online therapist to learn to move forward with a positive outlook. Sometimes, all it takes is an honest talk to uncover the truth behind your feelings. Don't be afraid to voice out your thoughts and wonder about possible solutions with your therapist, as their words of wisdom can guide you toward improving your mental health.

Seeking to improve your mental health?
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started