Schadenfreude : Isn’t it unwise, and potentially dangerous, to enjoy the misfortunes of others?


English may be a robust language but it is a work in progress and so is forever changing. Often times, we find it difficult to exactly express how we are feeling. This is because sometimes there are feelings that do not have an exact English term. At such times, we may refer to a word from another language that the English language missed. Such is the case with this particular and interesting emotional sentiment known by the German name “Schadenfreude”.

I came across this word through a series, Boston Legal to be exact. So what happened in this particular episode of Boston Legal is that a lady who is thought to have married an old man for his money gets charged for the murder of her husband, the old man. She is a famous personality but is seemingly cold, materialistic, and unlikable. So, everyone including the media and the public is completely against her even though her crime isn’t proved beyond a reasonable doubt. And the protagonist states and I quote, “The only possible route to a guilty verdict here is Schadenfreude.”

Schadenfreude comes from the German words ‘Schaden’ and ‘Freude’ which means damage and joy respectively. It is the experience of pleasure, joy, or self-satisfaction that comes from learning or witnessing the troubles, failures, or humiliation of others. Sounds like a nasty side of human nature, doesn’t it?

We have all tried to dismiss and conceal such emotions thinking how much of a bad person we are for feeling that way. But let’s be real, we have all felt that. I mean, I am guilty as charged. But is it just an ugly side of human nature or is there more to that?

A Stanford professor captured schadenfreude on a brain scan. So, it’s a physiological medical phenomenon. When we see others fail, it sometimes causes a chemical to be released in the dorsal striatum of the brain which actually causes us to feel pleasure. This is quite similar to what happens when we enjoy good food or win a contest.

Schadenfreude is hence a complex human emotion which according to the researchers are driven by three forces, i.e. aggression, rivalry, and justice. These driving forces focus on group identity, individual competition, and behaviors perceived as immoral respectively. All in all, a person feels pleasure because other’s failure provides them or their group or their perception with a sense of superiority.

Studies have provided evidence that self-esteem has a negative relationship with the frequency and intensity of schadenfreude experienced by an individual. For someone with low self-esteem, seeing someone who is more successful poses a threat to their sense of self. So, seeing such a person fail can be a source of comfort because they perceive a relative improvement in their internal or in-group standing.

As we might experience, we are more likely to experience schadenfreude when the misfortune happens to someone we envy or dislike. A recent study showed that we get pleasure when someone we see as a rival, such as a co-worker with whom we have a competitive relationship, fails. This should pretty much explain the feelings the Indian series antagonists felt.

Surely, feelings as such do seem nasty but we shouldn’t judge ourselves too harshly for experiencing schadenfreude. As one review noted, “it seems almost inherent to social being.” If we expect ourselves to never experience schadenfreude toward a disliked person, it’s a standard we’re bound to fail to meet.

At the same time, we should try to recognize that while social comparisons are natural, they’re not particularly healthy. As eminent psychologist Susan Fiske noted, “Comparison emotions can corrupt the comparer.” Perhaps we can’t avoid some comparisons to our coworkers or friends, but we can control how much we do it. Schadenfreude can keep us from empathizing not only with one individual but with those experiencing misfortune more generally.

Arthur Schopenhauer stated that savoring schadenfreude is devilish. So, know when to draw a line but don’t beat yourself up for feeling that way.