Why is it sometimes so much fun to witness another’s distress? Schadenfreude – enjoying the pain and failures of others – has often been seen as a ‘bad’ emotion, something to feel guilty about. In this extract from ‘Schadenfreude’ Tiffany Watt Smith offers five ways to make peace with this much-maligned emotion.
I had hoped for a happy ending. Something like (clears throat): In writing this book, I have been on a voyage of discovery. I have tamed my Schadenfreude. I feel appropriate empathy for the suffering of pop stars/models/politicians. I have stopped watching fail videos. And when my friends do something better than me, and it doesn’t quite come off in the way they hoped, I no longer detect a faint echo of relief. I am, in short, a better person.
But you know already that’s not true.
If anything, the opposite has happened. Studying this emotion has made me more attuned to it. I have a little twinge of excitement at someone else’s misery, and I try to catch it like a spider under a glass to peer at it more closely. I have become something of a connoisseur of Schadenfreude, with a fine nose for its subtle, ever-changing palate, savouring its movements from glee to triumph, from quiet satisfaction to smugness and contempt – before settling, inevitably, into that familiar sour aftertaste of self-disgust.
Perhaps you are also feeling a little queasy at realising just how large a role enjoying other people’s misfortunes plays in all our lives. Perhaps you are feeling a bit exposed too, and unsure. You’d very much like me to offer you some consoling thoughts. What, if anything, ought one to do with all this Schadenfreude?
Of course, I’m not a psychologist or a moralist, and I’m certainly not a self-help guru. But truth is, in the time I’ve spent thinking about this most ethically ambiguous of emotions, I have, more or less, made my peace with it. And so here I’ve tried to break down my new relationship with Schadenfreude into a few basic principles; some Rules of Engagement, if you like:
1. Schadenfreude helps
Do you instinctively think Schadenfreude is a ‘bad’ emotion, something pinched and sly, something to feel a little guilty about?
I don’t think Schadenfreude is either ‘good’ or ‘evil’: sometimes it stirs up problems, but mostly it’s harmless fun. But let’s focus on its benefits, and there are many: it makes you feel good when you are feeling inferior; it is a way of celebrating the fact that everyone fails; it helps us see the absurdity in life; it can spark a rebellious streak, or provide the little jolt of superiority that might give us the boldness to push ourselves forward; it can even help change conversations at a political level. Schadenfreude might seem a negative, mean-spirited and self-defeating emotion, and while it can be all of those things, it can be rather useful too.
2. Schadenfreude won’t define you
Do you worry that a shiver of pleasure at a friend’s bad news somehow wipes out the compassion you also feel? Do you fear that you might be that worst of all things: a hypocrite?
Most people who have spent time thinking about Schadenfreude agree that it is possible to feel an unexpected twinge of pleasure at the same time as experiencing very genuine feelings of concern and sympathy. It is perfectly possible to find yourself suppressing a sudden desire to laugh at the same time as wanting to console. Or to feel a surge of relief while also experiencing an echo of the loss our friend feels. This is our extraordinary capacity as humans, a level of emotional flexibility which is so much more interesting than moral rigidity – and more truthful too. It is something to be proud of.
3. Schadenfreude tells you things you don’t want to know
Could you spot your Schadenfreude at twenty paces? Would you be able to identify the subtle differences between its tastes and textures? Being able to recognise the fine differences in our emotional weather is an important part of emotional intelligence, and particularly valuable when it comes to those feelings we habitually ignore because they make us feel ashamed of ourselves.
Do you envy the person whose suffering you are enjoying? Were they making you feel inadequate or vulnerable?
Schadenfreude happens for a reason. And when we are willing to look it in the eye, it’s easier to ask what prompted it in the first place. Did you think the person deserved a comeuppance? Why? Was your pleasure more about winning? And if so, against whom? Do you envy the person whose suffering you are enjoying? Were they making you feel inadequate or vulnerable? Betrayed? Misrepresented? Angry?
Noticing our Schadenfreude and understanding why it feels so deliciously satisfying can help us face up to the more excruciating feelings underneath.
4. Own up to your Schadenfreude (sometimes)
This seems a ludicrously risky strategy, but bear with me. It’s unlikely to go brilliantly if you admit your Schadenfreude to your boss, or to your paranoid cousin. And no one likes people who go around openly smirking at other people’s bad news. (At least have the grace to try to hide it!)
Every so often, though, we all feel a moment of Schadenfreude that jars, and makes us uncomfortable. And when this happens – and the person in question is someone you trust – the best option may be to find a way to tell them.
Philippa Perry suggested opening the conversation with something like this: “I noticed I felt superior when you didn’t get that new job… I thought that was inappropriate, and I wonder if you have similar feelings, for instance when I couldn’t afford a new car but you could?”
I tried something like this at home. While I was writing this book, my husband was also writing one, which he finished before me. And to make matters worse, he got an admiring and congratulatory email from his editor, on the same day I received yet another “So, er, where is it?” email from mine.
So when my husband came home that night, a little bit of me really wanted to hear that between the lines of the email he’d received was a big list of problems with the book. And how it would take my husband many months to slog through them all. And how demoralised he felt. Actually, what happened is that he pootled off to make himself a celebratory cup of tea and then we had a big fight about whose job it had been to pay the council tax. (I still maintain it was his.) Later on, when the dust had settled, I confessed that alongside feeling pleased about the email, I had also felt rise up in me a desire for it to have gone less well – and now I was feeling pretty ashamed.
Since my husband is a very kind person, he laughed. And then we bonded over how much we both hate this horribly successful writer whose sneery review we’d just read in the paper.
And so, despite all expectations, confessing did make me feel better.
5. Schadenfreude goes both ways
Last, and most importantly: what should we do when we see someone attempting to suppress a delicious twinge of satisfaction at our own great failure? Well, obviously, that is outrageous, and you should revoke your friendship with them immediately. But failing that, what else could you do?
First, don’t point it out; that’s just mean. It’s one thing acknowledging your own shabby Schadenfreude, quite another to embarrass other people.
But admit yours straight back if they’ve been brave enough to admit theirs.
Finally, feel smug (but not too smug). If you are the victim of someone else’s Schadenfreude, you are seen as a worthy opponent. You have – or had, but don’t worry, you’ll get it again – something they want. Think back to those times when you’ve enjoyed their losses. Unless you very much deserve your misery (in which case, take a long hard look at yourself), their glee will tell you a lot about how inadequate you’ve made them feel. And this is a kind of gift, a moment of solace amid your moment of terrible angst and failure.
It can sometimes feel as if we live in a world bent on chasing perfection, a world where our faults are something to be disciplined and ideally eradicated all together. Looking more closely at Schadenfreude tells a different story, of the joy and relief that can be found in other people’s mistakes – as well as our own.
Schadenfreude might seem malicious, but when we look more closely, a far more complex emotional landscape emerges. A superior smirk is revealed as a sign of vulnerability. What might seem a sort of hate may really be a conflicted kind of love and a desire to belong. What perks us up when we hear news of someone else’s misfortune is the discovery that we are not alone in our disappointments, but are part of a community of the failed.
Schadenfreude might be a flaw, granted. But we need it. It is probably not too much to call it a salvation.
About the author
Tiffany Watt Smith
Tiffany Watt Smith is a cultural historian and author of ‘The Book of Human Emotions’. Her TED talk ‘The History of Human Emotions’ has been viewed by more than four million people. She regularly appears as an expert contributor on BBC radio and her writing has appeared in the Guardian, the New Scientist and BBC News Magazine, among others. She is Reader in Cultural History at Queen Mary University of London, where she is also Director of the Centre for the History of Emotions. In 2018 she was awarded the Philip Leverhulme Prize for her research.