2 Aug 2022

Beware Schadenfreude

As the nation celebrates the Lionesses’ victory, we have been musing about schadenfreude – appropriately a German word for harm (Schaden) and joy (Freude), which denotes the delight we take in other people’s downfall.

On a par with emotions such as envy and spite, schadenfreude undoubtedly gives us a gleeful moment of guilty pleasure. It can come in several, subtly different, forms. It can be a group experience, when a community of people bond over the failure or downfall of people outside their group – this is manifestly the case when a much-resented sports team is finally defeated. It can also be driven by social comparison ­– you might feel resentful of your neighbour’s flamboyant, and expensive, new car; you might also feel a thrill of guilty pleasure when it is hit by a falling tree in a storm, and his social aspirations are, literally, crushed. On a less murky level, it is quite possible to feel unalloyed joy when somebody is brought to book – a conman is caught, a corrupt politician is ousted, a hypocritical preacher is caught stealing the church funds. You are still taking pleasure in their downfall, but you feel that justice is on your side.

Group schadenfreude is, naturally enough, a publicly shared emotion, which is intensified when it is shared and over-hyped. It is bonding to be part of an excited, emotional group who are all participating in the joy of victory. Such celebrations are to be expected ­­ – they are, after all, what competition is all about. But when they tip into gloating, or into jubilant delight in the defeated side’s dismay, they can turn nasty. That is why we are all taught from an early age to hide these socially undesirable feelings, and to be gracious to the vanquished. Theatrical triumphalism is nowhere near as impressive as humble winners and graceful losers.

When individuals experience schadenfreude based on social rivalry and competitiveness about status and success, they would do well to keep this shabby emotion to themselves. Social media has opened up a boastful world of super-wealth, celebrity and worldly success, which many of us can only gape at enviously. It is scarcely surprising that we have all enjoyed the spectacle of the super-arrogant and super-complacent getting their come-uppance at one time or another, but revealing our delight looks small-minded and embittered. Concealing our negative feelings behind a veneer of good manners and positivity is an important part of the socialisation process. This is particularly true when we experience these emotions about people who are close to us – friends who are more successful than ourselves, work rivals and so on. Any sign of schadenfreude reveals a petty lack of generosity that can be very destructive.

Feeling pleasure when offenders get their just deserts is another matter altogether. It can be very bonding to agree with each other over examples of reprehensible behaviour, and to enjoy the spectacle of justice being meted out. But you need to remember the primary reason for the downfall, and not allow yourself to get carried away by the unseemly display of degradation and humiliation and your own feelings of self-righteousness.

There’s no denying that humans are deeply competitive, and are always comparing themselves with each other. It is quite natural for us to want to see people who are more successful than ourselves taken down a peg or two, but this unsavoury emotion should be kept in check. If you feel yourself being drawn into a mood of relentless schadenfreude, try and locate your sense of empathy. This will allow you to attune yourself to other people’s suffering, rather than simply revelling in it. The more you are able to put yourself in other people’s shoes and feel their pain or discomfort, the less likely you are to revel in their failures.

Good manners are based on a sense of empathy, the notion that you always treat people in the way that you would want to be treated.  So if you feel an urge to exult in other people’s misfortune, protect yourself behind a carapace of civility – and commiserate instead.

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