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Saturday, April 14, 2012


There’s an emotion, a very common emotion, for which there’s no word in English (other than perhaps the extremely obscure epicaricacy), an emotion that is all about taking pleasure in others’ misfortune or suffering.

This may not be the kind of emotion that we readily admit to having, but who among us hasn’t felt it, and sometimes also acted as if they were not feeling it?

When those who have done us harm or committed a crime are clearly suffering, we may feel justified in taking pleasure at their downfall and might even do so publicly, but at other times we may feel the same kind of pleasure when certain suffering others clearly have done nothing disturbing or harmful to us, in which case we ordinarily are not inclined to show our pleasure publicly or even 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 without the overt pleasure, as if we’re embarrassed to admit that it actually feels 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 all perhaps hinting at a certain satisfaction we might feel upon seeing someone take a spill or go downhill, but not coming very close to indicating any real pleasure.

But Schadenfreude with a stiff upper lip or impassive countenance is still Schadenfreude. 

Emotional Literacy

Unjustified Schadenfreude may be our most ubiquitous guilty pleasure, more often than not springing (unlike arguably justified Schadenfreude) from envy, an envy that pleasantly dissipates (leaving only a dark stain in the backcorners of our psyche) when we spot the fall or demise of the envied other.

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 inviting us to look upon them where they are not just like us, but worse. Their fall is our rise, leavening us with tiny bursts of satisfaction and secret yumminess, like a chocolate bar downed in the mid-afternoon
whilst watching a soap opera. It’s a vicarious shamefest; we’re close to the shame, but not that close, so that we can see it and feel it without having it contract or shrink or expose us.

How quietly yet pointedly delicious it is to be on the other side of the glass. Someone else’s fall amplifies the fact that we have not yet thus fallen; thus does Schadenfreude give us a little hit of immunity, which in itself provides a small but noticeable shot of pleasure. A cheap and easily accessible buzz.

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 (and the better this felt, the more fully we’d participate in it). This can also be seen developmentally, when young children exult over getting something that another child clearly wants.

Being higher up on the food chain can be a high, despite the cost. As we get older and more cognitively sophisticated, our capacity for Schadenfreude deepens. Although we may still be driven by a certain core competitiveness and a corresponding envy, now we can bring in finer and finer distinctions as to what constitutes a fall in others, as well as dragging into the mix such potent ingredients as the ability to shame others. And if we ourselves can be shamed relatively easily, we may seek ROBERT AUGUSTUS  MASTERS to escape the raw feeling of such shame not only through attacking others — or ourselves — 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 Schadendfreude toward them than if we knew they had not thus behaved. The enormous coverage given celebrity failings is largely fed by a powerfully pervasive cultural Schadenfreude. In this, major “news” networks are simply the Jerry Springer Show in polite drag, pandering as they do to the very same appetites of “less civilized” broadcasts.

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

Also, in the sense that it is a spectator sport — just think of Romans packed into the amphitheater for a day of rousingly entertaining bloodshed — Schadenfreude keeps us psychoemotionally separate from the downfall 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.

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, so long as we are not caught in living through their successes (which of course often means overemphasizing their doing well, thereby bringing unnecessary and often injurious pressure to them). Mudita has an open heart; Emotional Literacy.

Schadenfreude does not. Mudita does not lose touch with the humanity of others; Schadenfreude does. So what can we do about our Schadenfreude? First of all, 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.

Notice the contraction in its expansiveness; notice its overlap with other emotions; notice its texture, color, directionality, depth, intensity, and so on. Study it closely, getting intimate with it to the point where its arising
is just one more opportunity to deepen both your self-knowledge and your relationship with others. Instead of merely judging or dissociating from your Schadenfreude, have compassion for it and for the you who tends to indulge in it.

Everyone has some Schadenfreude; all we need 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 backseat, giving it some quality playtime with mudita.

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