The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016
The unexpected thrill we feel at another’s misfortune is a deliciously clandestine human pleasure. Sure, we put on our best sad face when our infuriatingly attractive friend gets dumped. But behind the commiserations, there’s just a little pulse of excitement, making our eyes gleam and the corners of our mouths twitch. Admitting that they too could occasionally feel a stab of pleasure on hearing of other people’s suffering, the Greeks called it epichairekakia (literally, rejoicing over evil), and the Romans, malevolentia, giving our own word “malevolence”. Today, schadenfreude—from the German Schaden (harm) and Freude (pleasure)—is most widely used. It refers to an illicit enjoyment of another’s bad luck, as opposed to the more forthright scorn or gloating.
The Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius believed our delight in another’s struggle was not a sign of moral bankruptcy. We enjoy standing safely on the shore watching a boat tossed about on a stormy sea, he wrote, not because we inherently enjoy the spectacle of another’s misery, but because “it is sweet to perceive from what misfortunes you yourself are free.” Other people’s bad news—divorce, a layoff—can leave us feeling relieved it’s not happening to us. It’s the sort of high we get with a narrow escape of the “there but for the grace of God go I” variety. As Iris Murdoch recognized, even the death of a distant acquaintance could produce feelings close to EUPHORIA, a burst of enthusiasm for one’s own aliveness, “a glow of excitement and pleasure… a not yet diagnosed sense of all being exceptionally well with the world” (see also: RELIEF).
But in truth, we hungrily devour other people’s misery for a ragbag of reasons. RIVALRY is one. And then there’s ENVY, RESENTMENT, amusement, distraction.… Many of us would admit to feeling an ignoble rush of delight when our effortlessly successful work colleague is scolded by the boss. Seeing our competitors fall flat on their faces is gratifying because we think, probably wrongly, that our own stock goes up when that of others goes down. We love to read about celebrity gaffes for similar reasons. If the sales of magazines are anything to go by, it seems we relish the bodily imperfections of the rich and famous, their cellulite and collapsed nostrils, their man boobs and thick ankles. And we can barely contain our GLEE when pompous politicians are caught with their trousers down—oh, how the mighty fall!—because, for once, the tables are turned and it is we who feel superior. It’s not just that we’re jealous and covet their power and success. We’re also resentful of the importance we’ve given them; part of us wants to see them punished, so our own status can be restored.
Schadenfreude might be seen as the opposite of EMPATHY, but even feeling vicarious sadness for another’s misfortune can slide imperceptibly into the pleasures of PITY or even SMUGNESS. And we all know people who just love a good catastrophe, so long as it’s not happening to them (often they’re the ones who end up being most helpful in a crisis, because they’re not paralyzed by awkwardness or an excess of COMPASSION). All that excited, gossipy drama, the endless phone calls, the boxes of wine and tissues, and the opportunity to rummage around in someone else’s dirty laundry, which distracts them from looking too closely at their own. Misery, as the old saying goes, loves company. It’s reassuring. Few of us care to admit it, but we get a kick out of hearing about other people’s bad decisions and errant spouses and ungrateful children. It reminds us that it’s not only our own hopes that get dashed. Everybody else’s do too.
See also: CURIOSITY; MORBID CURIOSITY.