Why it’s OK to feel pleasure at someone else’s misfortune

What do you feel when…

Your boss calls himself “Head of Pubic Services” on an important letter?

A vegan celebrity is caught in the cheese aisle.

Synchronized swimmers get confused, swivel the wrong way, and then have to swivel back really quickly, hopping no one noticed.

It’s that flicker of glee we get out of someone else’s misfortunes and failures. We didn’t really have a name for it. Until now.

Cultural historian Tiffany Watt Smith calls it “schadenfreude.” Schadenfreude is a German word used to describe that small pang of relief we get when we hear our coworker didn’t get the promotion or the overwhelming sense of pride we feel when our favorite team scores a point for slamming their opponent to the ground.

Schadenfreude is the reason why we go home and watch comedic ‘fail’ videos online when we’re having a bad day.

“Enjoying other people’s misfortunes might sound simple — a mere glint of malice, a flick of spite. But look closer, and you’ll glimpse some of the most hidden yet important parts of our lives,” Watt Smith says.

And it’s true. Schadenfreude is all around us.


By closely examining this hidden emotion, we can free ourselves from shame and secrecy, and discover more of who we truly are.

Here are some tips from Watt Smith’s book, “Schadenfreude: The Joy of Another’s Misfortune,” to help you be okay with feeling pleasure at others’ misfortunes:

“Do you worry that a shiver of pleasure at a friend’s bad news somehow wipes out the compassion you also feel? Do you fear that you might be that worst of all things: a hypocrite? It is perfectly possible to find yourself suppressing a sudden desire to laugh at the same time as wanting to console. Or to feel a surge of relief while also experiencing an echo of the loss our friend feels. This is our extraordinary capacity as humans, a level of emotional flexibility which is so much more interesting than moral rigidity— and more truthful too. It is something to be proud of.”

“Let’s focus on its benefits, and there are many: 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.”

“Do you envy the person whose suffering you are enjoying? Were they making you feel inadequate or vulnerable? Betrayed? Misrepresented? Angry? Noticing our Schadenfreude and understanding why it feels so deliciously satisfying can help us face up to the more excruciating feelings underneath.”

“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 those 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 a lot about how inadequate you’ve made them feel. And this is a kind of gift, a moment of solace amid your moment of terrible angst and failure.”

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