We humans

Do you secretly feel good when others stumble? 5 ways to make peace with this very human emotion

Nov 29, 2018 /

If you’ve ever experienced pleasure from people’s failures, well, join the rest of us. Here’s how to manage and make the most of your schadenfreude, says cultural historian Tiffany Watt Smith.

I have a confession. Okay, several. I love daytime TV. I smoke, even though I officially gave it up years ago. I’m often late, and I usually lie about why. And sometimes I feel good when others feel bad.

There’s no word for this grubby delight in English, so we use the German word schadenfreude (pronounced SHAH-den-froy-da) — schaden means damage or harm, and freude means joy or pleasure. Damage-joy.

Today schadenfreude is all around us. It’s in the way we do politics, treat celebrities, even in YouTube fail videos. I’m a cultural historian who focuses on emotions, and studying schadenfreude has made me realize how large a role it plays in our lives. I’ve become so much more attuned to it now. When I feel twinge of excitement at someone else’s misery, I try to catch it like a spider under a glass to peer at it more closely before I settle, inevitably, into that familiar sour aftertaste of self-disgust.

What, if anything, ought one to do with schadenfreude? I’m not a psychologist or a moralist, and I’m certainly not a self-help guru. But after spending so much time reflecting on it, I’ve — more or less — made my peace. Here is how you can reframe your understanding of schadenfreude.

Schadenfreude can provide the little jolt of superiority that might give us the boldness to push ourselves forward.

1. Schadenfreude can help.

Do you think of it as a “bad” emotion, something pinched and sly, something to feel a little guilty about? I don’t think schadenfreude is either “good” or “evil”: it can stir up problems, but mostly it’s harmless fun.

Let’s focus on its benefits: 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.

2. Schadenfreude won’t define you. 

Do you worry that your shiver of pleasure at a friend’s bad news wipes out the compassion you also feel for them? Do you fear you might be that worst of all things: a hypocrite?

Most people who’ve looked into schadenfreude agree that it’s possible to feel a twinge of pleasure at the exact same time as you are experiencing very genuine concern and sympathy for a friend. As humans, we possess a level of emotional flexibility which is so much more interesting than moral rigidity — and much more truthful, too.

Schadenfreude happens for a reason, so ask yourself what prompted it in the first place.

3. Schadenfreude tells you things you don’t know. 

Can you identify the subtle tastes and textures of the many forms that schadenfreude takes in your life? Recognizing the fine differences in our emotional weather is an important part of emotional intelligence, and it’s valuable when it comes to those feelings we ignore because they make us feel ashamed of ourselves.

Schadenfreude happens for a reason. When we are willing to look it in the eye, we can ask ourselves what prompted it in the first place. Did you think the person deserved a comeuppance? Why? Do you envy the person whose suffering you are enjoying? Or were they making you feel inadequate or vulnerable? Betrayed? Misrepresented? Angry?

Noticing our schadenfreude and understanding why it feels satisfying can help us face the more excruciating feelings underneath.

4. Own up to your own schadenfreude (sometimes).

This may seem a ludicrously risky strategy, but bear with me. It’s unlikely to go well 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.

But every so often, though, we all feel a moment of schadenfreude that jars us and makes us uncomfortable. And when this happens and the person in question is someone you trust, the best option may be to tell them.

Psychotherapist Philippa Perry suggests saying 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’ve had similar feelings, for instance, when I couldn’t afford a new car but you could?”

5. Schadenfreude goes both ways. 

Last, and most important: What should we do when we see someone suppressing a delicious twinge of satisfaction at our own great failure? Well, that is outrageous, and you should revoke your friendship immediately. But failing that, what else can you do?

Don’t point it out; that’s mean. It’s one thing to acknowledge your own shabby schadenfreude; it’s quite another to embarrass other people. But if they are brave enough to admit theirs, you can admit yours straight back.

Schadenfreude may seem malicious, but when we look more closely at it, a more complex emotional landscape emerges.

Then, feel smug (but not too smug). Consider this: 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 the 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 how inadequate you’ve made them feel. This is a kind of gift, a moment of solace amid your 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 eradicated altogether. 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 may 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 can be a conflicted kind of love and a desire to belong.

What ultimately perks us up when we hear news of someone else’s misfortune is the discovery that we are not alone in our disappointments, but that we’re part of a community of the failed. Schadenfreude might still be a flaw, granted. But we need it. It is probably not too much to call it a salvation.

Excerpted from the new book Schadenfreude: The Joy of Another’s Misfortune by Tiffany Watt Smith. Reprinted with permission from Little, Brown Spark, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc. Copyright © 2018 by Tiffany Watt Smith.


Watch Tiffany Watt Smith’s TED talk here: