Robert Augustus Masters

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Schadenfreude: Finding Joy in the Misfortune of Others

  • September 3, 2017
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There’s a very common emotion for which there’s no word in English, an emotion that is all about deriving pleasure from others’ misfortune or suffering, especially when we think that they deserve it. This may not be the kind of emotion that we readily admit to having, but who among us hasn’t felt it to at least some degree?


When people who have done us harm or committed a crime are obviously suffering—having been “brought to justice”—we may feel justified in taking pleasure at their downfall and might even do so publicly. At other times, however, we may feel the same kind of pleasure over the suffering of others who have done absolutely nothing to disturb or harm us, nor committed any sort of crime. In this case, we’re not inclined to show our pleasure publicly or privately—or even to admit it to ourselves.


German has a word for this emotion: schadenfreude. This translates as “harm-joy.” Many other languages have a word for it, but not English. We have phrases that hover around or hint at it, phrases that convey some of the feeling of it but usually without the overt pleasure—as if we’re embarrassed to admit that we actually feel it and that it can feel good.


For example, we may say, “He had it coming” or “I hope she suffers” or “It was just a matter of time before he fell.” These phrases hint at a certain moral satisfaction we might feel upon seeing someone take a spill or go downhill. However, these statements usually do not come very close to indicating any real pleasure. But schadenfreude with a stiff upper lip or impassive countenance is still schadenfreude.


If we think someone deserves to take a fall, we’ll not only approve when it happens, but we’re likely to take some pleasure in it. This could be called justified schadenfreude. There’s no malice in it, no sadism, no overt cruelty—just a kind of righteously moral pleasure. We are not shouting for blood, but when it appears, we look on with undeniable satisfaction. As such, schadenfreude is passive; we are in no way trying to bring misfortune to those we deem to be deserving of it. And we might even say that our pleasure is not so much based on the suffering incurred by the “deserving” other as it is on justice being served.


Unjustifie schadenfreude may be our most ubiquitous guilty pleasure, often springing—unlike justified schadenfreude—from envy. Such envy pleasantly dissipates when we witness or hear of the demise of the envied other, leaving only a dark stain in the back corners of our psyche. Put another way, schadenfreude takes the suffering out of envy, leaving us in a place of undeniable satisfaction.


Schadenfreude as a Vicarious Shame-Fest

The more we consider schadenfreude, the more we realize how common it is, both personally and collectively. The tabloids on sale at most checkout counters provide an instant schadenfreude high: movie stars without any makeup, movie stars messing up royally, movie stars down in the dump. Their travails and photos invite us to look upon these celebrities in a state where they’re not only just like us, they’re worse. Their fall is our rise, leavening us with tiny bursts of satisfaction, like a sweet milk-chocolate bar downed in the midafternoon whilst watching a soap opera. It’s a vicarious shame-fest—we’re close to their shame but not that close, so we can see it and feel it without having it contract or shrink or expose us. The enormous coverage given to celebrity failings—including by major news networks—is largely fed by a powerfully pervasive cultural schadenfreude.


How quietly yet pointedly delicious it can feel to be on the other side of the glass. Someone else’s fall amplifies the fact that we have not yet fallen; thus does schadenfreude give us a little hit of immunity, which in itself provides a small but noticeable shot of pleasure. And this is often accompanied by the relief we can feel when we hear of problems we don’t have.


Schadenfreude as Armchair Judge

Much of schadenfreude’s ancestry lies in the triumph we felt—and this goes back a long way—when the overcoming or downfall of others improved our lives in some way. The better this felt, the more fully we’d participate in it. This can also be seen developmentally, when young children display pleasure over getting something that another child clearly wants. Being higher up on the food chain can be a thrill, despite the cost.


As we get older and more cognitively sophisticated, our capacity for schadenfreude deepens. Although we may still be driven by competitiveness and a corresponding envy—along with our own sense of justice—now we can bring in finer and finer distinctions as to what constitutes a fall in others. We also may drag into the mix such potent ingredients as the ability to shame others. And if we ourselves can be shamed relatively easily, we may seek to offset this not only through being aggressive with others, but also through honing our capacity for schadenfreude.


Our sense of justice and our schadenfreude leanings are directly related. If we feel that others have behaved unjustly, we’re more likely to feel some schadenfreude toward them than if we knew they had not thus behaved. In schadenfreude, we play armchair judge; the others’ misfortune is their sentence, which pleases us because our value system is being upheld by the powers that be. Sometimes we might ask another “Would you rather be right or happy?”—perhaps forgetting that there are times when being right (or apparently being right) is quite pleasurable.


Schadenfreude’s Lack of Compassion

There are many shades of schadenfreude, ranging from the malicious to the contemptuous, but all involve an absence of compassion, coupled with an us-versus-them mentality. As such, schadenfreude works against mercy and forgiveness, and how could it not, given how it dehumanizes the offending or fallen other?


Just think of the ancient Romans packed into the amphitheater for a day of rousingly entertaining bloodshed—schadenfreude as a spectator sport in the voyeuristic extreme. Whatever its scale, schadenfreude keeps us emotionally separate from the downfall or misfortune that’s providing us with pleasure. Thus does it disconnect us, even as it connects us to others who are also enjoying observing the same downfall or misfortune.


Schadenfreude can be brought into clearer focus by examining its opposite, mudita (a Pali and Sanskrit Buddhist term), which basically means sympathetic/appreciative joy—the pleasure we take in others’ successes and achievements. Many of us know this emotion in its purest form through the joy we feel over our children’s breakthroughs and triumphs. Mudita has an open heart; schadenfreude does not. Mudita does not lose touch with the humanity of others; schadenfreude does.


So what can we do about our schadenfreude? First, become sufficiently aware of it so that you can name it as soon as it arises in you. Then bring your full attention into the actual feeling of your schadenfreude, without making it wrong. What catalyzes schadenfreude in us says much about where we stand morally—which may contradict where we claim to be morally. So to explore our schadenfreude is to explore our morality, clarifying what constitutes justice to us.


Practice: Working with Schadenfreude

Recall a time when you clearly felt schadenfreude, and do your best to recollect the details and actual feeling of it. Feel into the pleasure of your schadenfreude. Notice the limit of its expansiveness. What feels contracted in you in the midst of it? And where do you sense this contractedness in your body?


Now imagine feeling an extra strong sense of schadenfreude—as if just finding out that someone who has hurt many people (without any legal consequences) is now down and out—and notice what happens to your mouth, lips, and chin. Exaggerate it. Stay with this for a minute, then imagine facing this person who has fallen, shorn of his or her adornments. Feel your judgment of this one, and hold it steady for a minute or so. Then look more deeply, relaxing your face and torso. Breathe into your heart. What do you now see? What do you now feel? Stay with this for a few minutes, keeping your attention on your heart and the other’s eyes. Make no effort to shed your schadenfreude; let it coexist with your deliberate humanizing of the other.


Instead of merely judging or dissociating from your schadenfreude, have compassion for the you who tends to indulge in it. Everyone has some schadenfreude; all we need to do is see it for what it is, and not allow it to sit in the driver’s seat. Don’t worry about getting rid of it; rather, let it sit in the back seat, and give it some quality playtime with mudita.