I bet you’ve probably experienced a bit of joy at the hardship or failure of another person (oftentimes someone you don’t like or who brings out feelings of jealousy in you) at least once in your life just as someone has experienced joy at your negative expense as well.
Think back to when someone you didn’t care for much tripped and spilled coffee on themselves, or when a politician experienced a particularly humiliating fall from grace or when someone of whom you’ve always been envious got fired. It felt a little good, right?
So, why does it sometimes make us feel good when we hear bad news about people we know? Why does it feel strangely satisfying? And does it make us a bad person?
There’s a German word that perfectly sums up this feeling called schadenfreude, which according to the online definitions I found means “the experience of pleasure, joy or self-satisfaction that comes from learning of or witnessing the troubles, failures, misfortunes or humiliation of someone else.” Another easy definition – it’s when we laugh at someone else’s misfortune. The word schadenfreude comes from “schaden,” which translates to “damage or harm,” and “freude,” which means “joy or pleasure,” so the compound word literally means “damage-joy.”
It’s a complicated emotion to momentarily relish in someone’s mishaps and misery. And according to Psychology Today, it’s actually human nature for our brains to be “turned on” at someone else’s expense.
It’s easier I think to share feelings of delight of the bad news of someone you don’t know (or know well), such as a celebrity, a politician and industry figure or even an acquaintance. But when it hits close to home, such as the bad news of our successful friends and relatives, it can be very complicated, and stir up feelings of shame and our own inferiority and jealousy.
Aren’t we supposed to be sad when those we care about experience bad news or disappointment? Then why do they sometimes make us feel better about ourselves?
The thing about this “feel better” satisfying feeling of relishing in someone’s bad news is that the “high” goes away fast and it’s quite fleeting. And then all you’re left with is the guilt that you took part in the mean girl/guy behavior in the first place, unless you are a really mean, sadistic person, that is, which I hope you aren’t.
Plenty of very good, kind people experience schadenfreude, and I think it’s because life can be so topsy turvy and unpredictable. One minute you’re on top of the world experiencing great highs and the next, your world can be turned upside down for the worse. I know firsthand about this, I’ve been there quite recently with a major professional failure followed by a personal one. Some people seemed to enjoy seeing me fail. It was so incredibly hurtful having being on the receiving end of this, but as hard as it is, I get it as it is human nature to enjoy seeing someone fail.
At the end of the day, all of this behavior is something of which we all need to rise up above and steer clear. Don’t feel bad for feeling a little schadenfreude every now and again – you’re human after all – but be careful of not doing it too often and the degree to which you take part. Think about if you were the subject of this behavior – it’s an adult form of mean girl/guy behavior and it’s not healthy, productive or right.
Instead, channel that energy into being kinder, supporting those around you and having the backs of those you care about (as well as those you see who are being bullied). Don’t participate in gossip, and instead of focusing negative attention on others, redirect your time and effort on doing positive things in your life that will bring about the desired professional and personal outcomes that you want.
And the next time you sense the feeling of schadenfreude coming on, how about making a pact to consciously go out of your way to support someone else and do something positive for them? Now’s that’s time much better spent than being a trottel (I hear that’s German for jerk)!