The joys of schaden­freude Why we take plea­sure in the mis­for­tune of oth­ers

Schaden­freude gives us glee­ful mo­ments of guilty plea­sure. But it’s also an emo­tion that plays a cru­cial part in bind­ing so­ci­ety to­gether

The Observer Magazine - - News -


Re­cently I went to my corner shop to buy some milk. I found my­self paus­ing by the celebrity gos­sip mag­a­zines. My first in­stinct, just in case some­one was lis­ten­ing in on my thoughts, was to think: “Ugh, who buys these ter­ri­ble mag­a­zines?” Then I picked one up. There was the cel­lulite, the weight gained and lost, the bingo wings cir­cled in red. My favourite story was an in­ter­view with a pop star, or per­haps a model, who lived in a lux­ury man­sion. I’m the sort of per­son who usu­ally cur­dles with envy on hear­ing about some­one’s lux­ury man­sion. But this was dif­fer­ent. The story was about how she was lonely. Trag­i­cally lonely fol­low­ing a break-up.

I looked about and took the magazine to the till. There was a warm sen­sa­tion work­ing its way across my chest. I felt lucky. No, that’s not it. I felt smug. This is a con­fes­sion. I love day­time TV. I smoke, even though I of­fi­cially gave up years ago. I’m of­ten late, and usu­ally lie about why. And some­times I feel good when oth­ers feel bad.

The Ja­panese have a say­ing: “The mis­for­tune of oth­ers tastes like honey.” The French speak of joie ma­ligne, a di­a­bol­i­cal de­light in other peo­ple’s suf­fer­ing. In Dan­ish it is skade­fryd; in He­brew, sim­cha la-ed ; in Man­darin, xìng-zāilè-huò ; in Rus­sian, zlo­rad­stvo; and for the Me­lane­sians who live on the re­mote Nis­san Atoll in Pa­pua New Guinea, it is ban­banam. Two mil­len­nia ago, the Ro­mans spoke of malev­o­len­tia. Ear­lier still, the Greeks de­scribed epichairekakia (lit­er­ally epi, over, chairo, re­joice, kakia, dis­grace). A study in Würzburg in Ger­many car­ried out in 2015 found that foot­ball fans smiled more quickly and broadly when their ri­val team missed a penalty, than when their own team scored. “To see oth­ers suf­fer does one good,” wrote the philoso­pher Friedrich Ni­et­zsche. “This is a hard say­ing, but a mighty, hu­man, all-too-hu­man prin­ci­ple.”

There has never re­ally been a word for these grubby de­lights in English. In the 1500s, some­one at­tempted to in­tro­duce “epi­car­i­cacy” from the an­cient Greek, but it didn’t catch on. There could only be one con­clu­sion: as a jour­nal­ist in the Spec­ta­tor as­serted in 1926, “There is no English word for schaden­freude be­cause there is no such feel­ing here.” He was wrong, of course.

I’m Bri­tish, and en­joy­ing other peo­ple’s mishaps and mis­ery feels as much part of my cul­ture as teabags and talk­ing about the weather. “For what do we live but to make sport for our neigh­bours, and laugh at them in our turn?” pro­claims Mr Ben­net in that most quintessen­tially English of nov­els, Pride and Prej­u­dice. Noth­ing unites us more strongly in self-right­eous joy than an MP caught cook­ing the books. We’re even not averse to schaden­freude at our own ex­pense: as George Or­well once re­marked, the English are unique for cel­e­brat­ing not mil­i­tary tri­umphs, but dis­as­ters (“Into the val­ley of death rode the 600...”). ‹

‹ We know how to en­joy fail­ures. But ask us to name this en­joy­ment, and our lan­guage falls into a hyp­o­crit­i­cal si­lence. It averts its gaze and squirms. And so we adopted the Ger­man word. From schaden, mean­ing dam­age or harm, and freude, mean­ing joy or plea­sure: dam­age-joy.

No one likes to think about their flaws, but in them so much of what makes us hu­man is re­vealed. En­joy­ing other peo­ple’s mis­for­tunes might sound sim­ple – a 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.

When I pay at­ten­tion to the plea­sures I might feel in oth­ers’ dis­as­ters, I am struck by the va­ri­ety of tastes and tex­tures in­volved. There is the glee at in­com­pe­tence – not just of skiers face­plant­ing in the snow, but at screwups of im­plau­si­ble mag­ni­tude: when Nasa lost a $125m Mars or­biter be­cause half the team were us­ing im­pe­rial mea­sure­ments and the other, met­ric. Then there is the sel­f­righ­teous sat­is­fac­tion I get when hypocrites are ex­posed: a politi­cian ac­ci­den­tally tweets a pic­ture of his erec­tion (he meant to send it di­rectly to his in­tern). And of course, there is the in­ner tri­umph of see­ing a ri­val fal­ter. The other day, in the cof­fee shop, a col­league asked if I’d got the pro­mo­tion I’d gone for. No, I said. And I no­ticed, at the corner of his mouth, the barely per­cep­ti­ble twitch of a grin be­fore the tum­ble of com­mis­er­a­tions. Oh bad luck. Ah, their loss, the id­iots. And I was tempted to ask: “Did you just smile?” But I didn’t. Be­cause when he loses out – as he some­times does – I know I ex­pe­ri­ence a happy twinge, too.

Some­times it is easy to share our de­light, re­post­ing memes of a dis­graced politi­cian’s res­ig­na­tion speech. 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.

To­day schaden­freude is all around us. It’s there in the way we do pol­i­tics, how we treat celebri­ties, in on­line fail videos. But these heady plea­sures are shot through with un­ease. Mo­ral­ists have long de­spised schaden­freude. The philoso­pher Arthur Schopen­hauer called it “an in­fal­li­ble sign of a thor­oughly bad heart and pro­found moral worth­less­ness”, the worst trait in hu­man na­ture. (He also said that any­one caught en­joy­ing the suf­fer­ing of oth­ers should be shunned from hu­man so­ci­ety. Which made me sweat a bit.)

I have come to be­lieve that Schopen­hauer was wrong. When the word schaden­freude first ap­peared in English writ­ing in 1853, it caused great ex­cite­ment. This was prob­a­bly not the in­ten­tion of RC Trench, the arch­bishop of Dublin, who first men­tioned it in On the Study of Words. For Trench, the mere ex­is­tence of the word was un­holy and fear­ful, a “mourn­ful record of the strange wicked­nesses which the ge­nius of man has in­vented”.

His fel­low Vic­to­ri­ans adopted the word for a range of plea­sures, from hi­lar­ity to self-right­eous vin­di­ca­tion, from tri­umph to relief. In the 1890s, an­i­mal-rights cam­paigner Frances Power Cobbe wrote a man­i­festo en­ti­tled Schaden­freude , iden­ti­fy­ing the emo­tion with the blood­lust of boys tor­tur­ing stray cats for fun.

We still as­so­ci­ate many dif­fer­ent plea­sures with this word, un­clear per­haps ex­actly what it means in the orig­i­nal, or where its perime­ters lie. But look­ing at how the word has been used in English it is pos­si­ble to iden­tify re­peated themes. Schaden­freude is usu­ally thought of as a spec­ta­tor sport – op­por­tunis­ti­cally en­joy­ing some­one’s mis­for­tune rather than gloat­ing at pain you’ve caused your­self. We usu­ally think of it as a furtive emo­tion, and no won­der. We might be wor­ried not just about look­ing ma­li­cious, but

‘We rel­ish our moral su­pe­ri­or­ity, but only at a safe dis­tance’

that our schaden­freude ex­poses our other flaws, too – our pet­ti­ness, our envy, our feel­ings of in­ad­e­quacy.

An­other fea­ture of schaden­freude is that we of­ten feel en­ti­tled to it when the suf­fer­ing can be con­strued as a come­up­pance – a de­served pun­ish­ment for be­ing smug or hyp­o­crit­i­cal, or break­ing the law. So we rel­ish our moral su­pe­ri­or­ity (usu­ally only at a safe dis­tance). In 2015, US pas­tor Tony Perkins said that floods were sent by God to pun­ish abor­tion and gay mar­riage. And then his own house flooded and he had to es­cape in a ca­noe. Even the ev­er­im­par­tial BBC en­joyed this story, pos­ing ae­rial pic­tures of the flooded house next to his con­tro­ver­sial “God is try­ing to send us a mes­sage” in­ter­view.

Schaden­freude is usu­ally thought of as glee at dis­com­forts and gaffes rather than at tragedies and deaths. But this rule isn’t hard and fast, and con­text mat­ters. We are will­ing to see celebri­ties, or peo­ple from the re­mote past, en­dure hor­rors that would dis­may us if they were hap­pen­ing now or to our friends. All emo­tions are what psy­chol­o­gists call “cog­ni­tive” – in other words, not sim­ply re­flex re­ac­tions to ex­ter­nal trig­gers, but com­plex pro­cesses re­quir­ing us to ap­praise and judge our re­la­tion­ship with the world around us and tai­lor our re­sponses ac­cord­ingly.

Some­times we judge wrongly, and our schaden­freude leaves us feel­ing morally awk­ward. There is an episode of The Simp­sons in which Homer’s in­fu­ri­at­ingly per­fect neigh­bour Ned Flan­ders opens a shop, The Lefto­rium. Given the chance to imag­ine three wishes, Homer fan­ta­sises that Ned’s busi­ness col­lapses. First, he sees the shop empty of cus­tomers, then Flan­ders turn­ing out his pock­ets, then Flan­ders beg­ging the bailiffs. It is only when Homer imag­ines Flan­ders’s grave, Flan­ders’s chil­dren weep­ing be­side it, that he stops him­self. “Too far,” he says, and quickly rewinds to the im­age of the bank­rupt shop.

These ques­tions about how and why we en­joy the pain of oth­ers – what is ac­cept­able, what is “too far” – have fea­tured in some of the great­est works of phi­los­o­phy and lit­er­a­ture for over 2,000 years. But ar­guably the ur­gency to un­der­stand schaden­freude has never been so great as to­day.

In De­cem­ber 2008, a reader of the New York Times lamented that we are liv­ing in a “golden age of schaden­freude”. Sim­i­lar phrases have ap­peared since on blogs and in op-eds. Truth­fully, we can’t ever know whether we are ac­tu­ally ex­pe­ri­enc­ing more schaden­freude than be­fore. It cer­tainly seems a more ob­vi­ous fea­ture of our col­lec­tive lives, since what used to be hid­den or else com­mu­ni­cated in fleet­ing snig­gers by the wa­ter cooler is now pre­served for­ever in “likes” and “shares” in the dig­i­tal as­pic.

There has been an ex­plo­sion of re­search. Be­fore 2000, barely any aca­demic ar­ti­cles were pub­lished with the word “schaden­freude” in the ti­tle. 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. Just as im­por­tant, in my view, is our grow­ing com­mit­ment to em­pa­thy. 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.

It is not just Vic­to­rian mo­ral­ists who re­coil from it. To­day’s hu­man­ists find it awk­ward, too. Schaden­freude has been called “em­pa­thy’s shadow”, cast­ing the two as fun­da­men­tally in­com­pat­i­ble. Psy­chol­o­gist Si­mon BaronCo­hen has pointed out that psy­chopaths are not only de­tached from other peo­ple’s suf­fer­ing but even en­joy it: “The Ger­mans have a word for this,” writes Baron-Co­hen. With all this swirling around, it’s lit­tle won­der that even when schaden­freude feels right, it also feels very wrong.

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. Dos­toyevsky knew that schaden­freude and sym­pa­thy are not ei­ther/or re­sponses, but can be felt all at once. When, in Crime and Pun­ish­ment, Marme­ladov is brought, blood­ied and un­con­scious, into the St Peters­burg ten­e­ment where he lives fol­low­ing an ac­ci­dent, all the res­i­dents crowd round. They ex­pe­ri­ence, wrote Dos­toyevsky, “that strange sense of in­ner sat­is­fac­tion that al­ways man­i­fests it­self, even among the vic­tim’s near­est and dear­est, when some­one is af­flicted by a sud­den catas­tro­phe; a sen­sa­tion that not a sin­gle one of us is proof against, how­ever sin­cere our feel­ings of pity and sym­pa­thy”.

We may well be liv­ing in an age of schaden­freude, and fear that this emo­tion is lead­ing us astray. But as with all emo­tions, con­demn­ing it only gets you so far. What we re­ally need is to think afresh about the work this much­ma­ligned emo­tion does for us, and what it tells us about our re­la­tion­ships with our­selves and each other.

Schaden­freude may ap­pear an­ti­so­cial. Yet it is a fea­ture of many of our most cher­ished com­mu­nal rit­u­als, from sports to gos­sip. It may seem mis­an­thropic, yet it is en­meshed in so much of what is dis­tinctly hu­man about how we live: the in­stinct for jus­tice and fair­ness; a need for hi­er­ar­chies and the quest for sta­tus within them; the de­sire to be­long to and pro­tect the groups that keep us safe. It may seem su­pe­rior and de­mean­ing, yet it also speaks of our need to ap­pre­ci­ate the ab­sur­dity of our at­tempts to ap­pear in con­trol in a world for­ever slip­ping out of our grasp. It might seem iso­lat­ing and di­vi­sive, but it tes­ti­fies to our need to not feel alone in our dis­ap­point­ments, but to seek the con­so­la­tions of be­ing part of a com­mu­nity of the failed.

Schaden­freude, ex­quis­ite and ut­terly shabby, is a flaw. But it is a flaw we must all face up to if we truly want to un­der­stand life in the mod­ern world. ■

Schaden­freude: the Joy of An­other’s Mis­for­tune by Tif­fany Watt Smith is pub­lished by Pro­file Books and the Well­come Col­lec­tion on 18 Oc­to­ber at £9.99. To or­der a copy for £8.59, go to guardian­book­

‘It’s part of many of our cher­ished com­mu­nal rit­u­als, from sports to gos­sip’

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