Schadenfreude: The Joy at Another’s Misfortune

The Japanese have a saying: “The misfortune of others tastes like honey.” The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer called schadenfreude “an infallible sign of a thoroughly bad heart and profound moral worthlessness”, the worst trait in human nature.

We all feel happy when our favourite team wins and gloat at the other team. In an India-Pakistan cricket match, when India wins, you usually get to hear and see crackers burst with loats of gloating and I am sure it is pretty much the same on the other side when India loses a match.

There is a word for this feeling – a German word, schadenfreude which literally translates to harm-joy and is the experience of pleasure, joy, or self-satisfaction that comes from learning of or witnessing the troubles, failures, or humiliation of another. Schadenfreude is a complex emotion where, rather than feeling sympathy, one takes pleasure from watching someone’s misfortune. This emotion is displayed more in children than adults, but adults also experience schadenfreude, although generally we are able to conceal it.

I read about this word and was absolutely fascinated by it. So I decided to read up more about and the meaning behind the word.

As human beings, we know how to enjoy failures. Enjoying other people’s misfortunes might sound simple – a mere glint of malice, a flick of spite. But look closer and you’ll glimpse some of the most hidden yet important parts of our lives. We feel a sense of glee at someone’s incompetence, a self-righteous satisfaction when hypocrites are exposed and the inner triumph of seeing a rival falter. Sometimes it is easy to share our delight, but far harder to acknowledge are those spasms of relief which accompany the bad news of our successful friends and relatives. They come involuntarily, these confusing bursts of pleasure, swirled through with shame. And they worry us – not just because we fear that our lack of compassion says something terrible about us – because they point so clearly to our envy and inferiority, and how we clutch at the disappointments of others in order to feel better about our own.

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Researchers have found that there are three driving forces behind schadenfreude: aggression, rivalry, and social justice. Self-esteem has a negative relationship with the frequency and intensity of schadenfreude experienced by an individual; individuals with less self-esteem tend to experience schadenfreude more frequently and intensely. The reverse also holds true—those with higher self-esteem experience schadenfreude less frequently or with less emotional intensity. It is hypothesised that this inverse relationship is mediated through the human psychological inclination to define and protect their self – and in-group identity or self-conception.

Specifically, for someone with high self-esteem, seeing another person fail may still bring them a small, but effectively negligible surge of confidence because the observer’s high self-esteem significantly lowers the threat they believe the visibly-failing human poses to their status or identity. Since this confident individual perceives that, regardless of circumstances, the successes and failures of the other person will have little impact on their own status or well-being, they have very little emotional investment in how the other person fares, be it positive or negative. Conversely, for someone with low self-esteem, someone who is more successful poses a threat to their sense of self, and seeing this mighty person fall can be a source of comfort because they perceive a relative improvement in their internal or in-group standing.

Aggression-based schadenfreude primarily involves group identity. The joy of observing the suffering of others comes from the observer’s feeling that the other’s failure represents an improvement or validation of their own group’s (in-group) status in relation to external (out-groups) groups. This is, essentially, schadenfreude based on group versus group status. Rivalry-based schadenfreude is individualistic and related to interpersonal competition and arises from a desire to stand out from and out-perform one’s peers. This is schadenfreude based on another person’s misfortune eliciting pleasure because the observer now feels better about their personal identity and self-worth, instead of their group identity. Justice-based schadenfreude comes from seeing that behavior seen as immoral or bad is punished. It is the pleasure associated with seeing a bad person being harmed or receiving retribution and schadenfreude is experienced because it makes people feel that fairness has been restored for a previously un-punished wrong.

Today schadenfreude is all around us. It’s there in the way we do and view politics, how we treat celebrities, in online fail videos. Today it is probably easily felt and shared compared to earlier times. Most of us have a sense of unease while experiencing schadenfreude, but we squash it down firmly while enjoying yet another article or video about the failure of someone else, and if it is someone we don’t know, like a politician or celebrity, it somehow makes it ok. And if the suffering is because of something they said or did and is a comeuppance, it makes us feel justified as if they deserved whatever happened to them. But what about when we misjudge people? Those are the times our schadenfreude leaves feeling ackward and slightly upset at ourselves.

There has been an explosion of research. Before 2000, barely any academic articles were published with the word schadenfreude in their title, but now even a cursory search throws up hundreds, from neuroscience to philosophy to management studies. What is driving all this interest? No doubt it is partly motivated by our attempts to understand life in the internet age, where sniggering at other people, once often socially inappropriate, now comes with less risk. But could it also be that we are becoming more empathic? The capacity to attune ourselves to other people’s suffering is highly prized today, and rightly so. Putting ourselves in another’s shoes impacts on our ability to lead others, to parent, to be a decent partner and friend. And the more important empathy becomes, the more obnoxious schadenfreude seems. Schadenfreude has been called empathy’s shadow, casting the two as fundamentally incompatible. According to psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, psychopaths are not only detached from other people’s suffering but even enjoy it. Yet schadenfreude has its benefits – a quick win which alleviates inferiority or envy; a way of bonding over the failure of a smug colleague. But it is also a testament to our capacity for emotional flexibility, our ability to hold apparently contradictory thoughts and feelings in mind simultaneously.

Living in an age of schadenfreude, we fear that this emotion can lead us astray and we really need to think with a different perspective about what this much-maligned emotion does for us, and what it tells us about our relationships with ourselves and each other.

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Exquisite, evocative and judgemental, schadenfreude is an inherent flaw in the human psyche, but it is a flaw we all must face up to and learn to live with if we truly want to understand life in the modern world.

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