The Grass is Always Greener

Here’s good news for getting older: A recent UC San Diego study shows that young adults are more envious than their elders—and about more things. This was the major finding of a paper published by psychology professor Christine Harris, Warren ’87, M.A. ’95, Ph.D. ’98, and graduate student Nicole Henniger, M.A. ’11.

The pair found that envy was a common experience, with more than three-fourths of all study participants having experienced the emotion in the last year. Though slightly more women reported feeling envious than men, the experience saw a marked decline as the respondents’ age increased. Where 80 percent of people under 30 reported feeling envious, only 69 percent of those aged 50 and over did.

What people envied also varied with age. Young people reported more frequently feeling envious over physical looks and romantic prowess, as well as achievement at school and social success. For example, 40 percent of participants under 30 said they envied others for their success in romance while fewer than 15 percent of those over 50 said the same.

“Envy of monetary success and occupational success was common across all age groups,” report Harris and Henniger, “but these two domains were unique in being more often envied by older people.”

Overwhelmingly, people envied others of approximately their own age—and of their own gender. Men envied other men and women envied women.

“It surprised us,” says Harris. “Even in domains like financial and occupational success, where you can imagine that a woman might envy a man over his better pay or status, that wasn’t usually the case.”

What about differences in what men and women envy? In most areas there weren’t any differences, though men were seen to covet occupational success more often than women (41 percent to 24 percent), while women envied looks more often than men (23.8 percent to 13.5 percent), with the difference in the latter fueled by the younger cohort.

The paper is unable to suss out whether the differences observed with age are due to psychological changes over the lifespan or differences between generations. “Either finding is interesting,” Henniger and Harris write in their paper, “but only future longitudinal research can distinguish between these two options.”

However, Harris has a gut feeling that we can all look forward to less envy in our later years. “My hunch is that the hold envy has on people diminishes with time. My guess is that it’s good news about aging.”