Have you ever watched one of those videos of skateboarders falling as they try to complete a trick? Or let out a loud “ohhhhhhh” when you heard a server drop a dish at a restaurant? Or maybe just quietly smiled to yourself when that obnoxious kid at the grocery store finally got yelled at by his mom. If any of these examples sound familiar- the feeling of satisfaction when something bad happens to someone else- you’ve experienced the feeling of Schadenfreude. Schadenfreude is defined as the enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others. And as the above examples suggest, it’s a pretty common feeling that a lot of people experience throughout their lives. Typically, it’s a harmless aspect of the human condition, but this feeling can sometimes hide deeper underlying issues.
This word is of German origin and is a compound of 2 words; Schaden meaning ‘damage or harm’ and Freude meaning ‘joy’. The word first appeared in English texts in the mid-1800’s and is still used to explain this complicated emotion today. There are few if any English equivalents to this word; the term sadist is somewhat similar but deals more with the desire to personally hurt others, and the seldom-used epicaricacy is a direct translation from Greek.
Many scientists believe that this emotion is based on the social comparison theory. This is the idea that when someone around us has bad luck, it makes us look and feel better in comparison. This emotion may also be driven by envy. If a person is envious of another, they’ll derive pleasure in that person’s misfortune. Numerous studies over the years have used functional magnetic resistance imaging (fMRI) machines to study the brains of those experiencing Schadenfreude. All studies point to an activation of the pleasure centers of the brain when this emotion is experienced. Most studies were conducted on sports fans to help showcase the persistence of and reason for many longtime sports rivalries.
So the big question still begs to be answered: is this emotion healthy? Or is it problematic and indicative of a deeper issue? It’s vastly recognized, extensively studied and often perceived to be light and harmless. But is it an appropriate feeling to have? The answer is about as hard to determine as Schadenfreude is to pronounce. Generally, this emotion isn’t harmful, but the underlying cause may be. If your Schadenfreude is due to jealousy, anger, pain, or the desire to see people hurt there are underlying emotions that need to be dealt with so you can see life in a more positive light. If you do believe that a lot of your feelings related to this emotion are coming from past pain or the desire to see people hurt, then this is a serious concern that you should bring to your therapist. A therapist can help you get to the bottom of your painful feelings which can help you become more positive overall and allow you to shed the feelings of Schadenfreude.
Dr. Dimitra Takos is a Newport Beach Psychologist specializing in the treatment of adolescents and adults suffering from depression, anxiety, and trauma-and stressor-related disorders.