On Schadenfreude

Imagine, if you will, a cold, blustery day in the city. With the wind howling and the rain coming down in horizontal sheets, the interior of the bus seems positively luxurious. From your vantage point on the plush red seats, you watch as a bedraggled young man runs towards the bus stop, arms flailing and suitcase flying. Just as he reaches it however, the bus takes off, and he is left on the sidewalk; a profoundly disappointed and sopping figure. What’s that you feel; compassion? Empathy? No; instead, schadenfreude, that deliciously guilty, almost inhuman sense of glee at someone else’s misfortune.

          Schadenfreude is a loanword from German. Its literal translation being ‘Harm-Joy’, schadenfreude encapsulates perfectly that slight sense of elation one feels watching lost tourists reading maps, or stressed waitresses dropping warm soup into the lap of restaurant patrons. Tumbling ice-skaters, Kim Kardashian’s weight gain and news anchor gaffes are other instances in which one savours a gratifying sense of amusement. Schadenfreude differs from loathing or true malice in that it is not malevolent but rather mischievous in nature.  An expression with a similar meaning is Roman Holiday, derived from Lord Byron’s poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Here, an atmosphere of debauchery and sadistic delight is created when a gladiator in Ancient Rome expects to be ‘butchered to make a Roman holiday’.

According to the medieval church, ‘morose delectation’ (the Latin equivalent of schadenfreude) was a grave sin, and indeed the Book of Proverbs warns us: “Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth.” Why then are we thus inclined? A number of scientific studies of schadenfreude are based on the social comparison theory proposed by Leon Festinger, which claims that when those around us encounter bad luck, we appear better to ourselves. In keeping with this theory, it has been found that people with low self-esteem are more likely to feel schadenfreude than people with high self-esteem are.

         Schadenfreude, like every emotion, has the tendency to range in intensity from the benign to the outrageous. Perhaps the most harmless example of schadenfreude is the tendency to giggle when someone slips on ice. Personally, while I like to think of myself as being generally above evil intentions and pure malice, I do savour the slight amusement derived from watching my brother walk into a glass door. Far more chilling however are the more serious examples of schadenfreude: the insatiable curiosity we have for bad news in the media. Events such as fraud, embezzlement, shootings, earthquakes and tsunamis evoke within us an avid fascination, and perhaps a sense of relief that we’re not the ones suffering. While an admirable few might turn away, many watch the sad exploitation of others’ suffering from the happy comfort of their living room, unthinking, uncaring.

Although the English language does not have a word for it, schadenfreude is undoubtedly an emotion we recognise. While schadenfreude is deeply repressed within our culture for its primitive and often cruel nature, one might argue that increased awareness of schadenfreude will help us to be more compassionate and sensitive. According to the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, “To feel envy is human, to savour schadenfreude is devilish.” In the case of a cream-pie to the face, devilishly satisfying, perhaps.

Image source: http://www.legionofweirdos.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/SCHANDF0.jpg

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