This is the latest article in Health's column, But Why? Here, experts decipher the psychological reasons behind the most puzzling human behavior mysteries.
It’s part of being a human 101: When someone is hurt, sick, or grappling with misfortune, you should feel bad for them. But of course, not everything in life happens the way it’s supposed to.
Sometimes, people get some level of pleasure from the pain of others. It’s a phenomenon known as “schadenfreude.” Merriam-Webster defines it simply as, “enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others.” The term comes from the German words “schaden,” which means damage, and “freude” which means joy. It was first used in 1868, according to Merriam-Webster. (By the way, it’s pronounced, “shaa-dun-froy-duh,” JIC you were wondering.)
“Schadenfreude is fueled by negative emotions and thoughts about that other person,” clinical psychologist John Mayer, PhD, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, tells Health. “These negative thoughts can range from hate to envy. You can ‘love’ your neighbor, friend, or relative, but your feelings of joy at their misfortune can be spurned on by jealousy.”
Searches for the term shot up a whopping 30,500% on Merriam-Webster’s website on Friday after President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly downplayed COVID-19 in public, revealed that he had tested positive for the virus, the company shared. The phenomenon isn’t unique to Trump, though: People gleefully shared feelings of schadenfreude after the breakup of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt (who famously ended his marriage with Jennifer Aniston for Jolie), the death by suicide of Jeffrey Epstein, and more.
Schadenfreude isn’t just limited to famous people, though. You may feel schadenfreude when a friend breaks their arm after trying a ski jump they were warned against, or a loved one gets dumped after dating someone known to be a commitmentphobe.
For what it’s worth, schadenfreude isn’t always something a person is aware of. “If knowing that you feel happy at someone else’s suffering also feels morally wrong, then it may be kept out of consciousness,” Gail Saltz, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of medicine and host of the “Personology” podcast from iHeartRadio, tells Health. “But often enough, it is conscious.”
Here’s why some people—and maybe even you—experience schadenfreude.
The other person is considered ‘bad’
It’s a common human characteristic to label people as “good” or “bad,” Mayer says. And, in some cases, failure to do this can lead to cognitive dissonance, which is feeling uncomfortable when you have contradictory thoughts, he says. Ultimately, labeling people “is a coping mechanism to prevent emotional hurt,” he says.
In the case of schadenfreude, people are more likely to experience it when something negative happens to a “bad” person, Dr. Saltz says. “Sometimes it can be that the person who has failed or suffered is in the mind of the person with the schadenfreude deemed morally wrong,” she explains. “This failure feels like just punishment, which makes them feel better about the world and themselves.”
On some level, seeing someone you perceive as “bad” fail can make you feel like your “good” behavior is justified because the other person was seemingly punished, Dr. Saltz says.
It can also feel like all is right in life, in that moment at least. “Many of us still feel like life should be fair and that good things should happen to ‘good people’ and bad things should happen to ‘bad people,’” Monifa Seawell, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist in Atlanta, tells Health. “Life is rarely this cut and dry. [But] when an unfortunate fate befalls a ‘bad person,’ for many people, it can feel like the scales of fairness have been balanced out, at least temporarily.”
Selfishness is at play
Schadenfreude isn’t the most pleasant emotion, if you do consciously recognize it, and Mayer says there’s a reason for that: It’s selfish, and selfishness isn’t a valued character trait in our culture.
“Schadenfreude is a selfish thought,” he says. “It lacks social conscious.” If everyone celebrated the misfortune of others, society would be pretty bleak, he points out.
When someone else goes through pain and misfortune, others may feel some form of pleasure in it because they’re glad it’s not happening to them, Dr. Seawell says. “We can even begin to think that, because this horrible thing already happened to someone else, it makes it less likely that the same exact thing will also happen to us,” she says. “It’s as if their misfortune protects us in some way from succumbing to the same fate. Of course, this is not how life or pain or suffering really works. There is no cap on misfortune, unfortunately.”
There’s rivalry, even if it’s only one-sided
Even if you don’t personally know someone—say they're a celebrity or friend of a friend—they can still feel like your rival. Maybe you’re jealous of their clothes or money, or you compare yourself to them regularly. “It can be that you find pleasure in their failure because they were, in your mind, a rival, and their failure clears the way for you or elevates you,” Dr. Saltz says.
Seeing someone you perceive as a rival fail or go through a bad experience also can make their life seem less perfect, Dr. Seawell points out. “For some people, seeing someone else getting knocked down a couple notches makes them feel better about their own imperfect lives,” she says.
It’s due to a superiority complex
In a way, schadenfreude has ties to the root of some forms of grade-school bullying: Some people simply feel better when they tear others down.
“We love to feel superior to others,” Mayer says. “Feeling superior is a coping mechanism and builds pseudo self-esteem.” However, he says, this self-esteem is temporary and external, which isn’t helpful for long-term feelings of worth. While many people can fall victim to superiority complex, “people with higher self-esteem are less likely to experience it,” Dr. Saltz says.
Overall, schadenfreude isn’t the most positive human emotion, but Dr. Mayer says it is normal. (It just might not win you any friends if you’re open about it.) “We often have to fight these tendencies to think and feel this way,” he says. “Don’t get down on yourself for having such thoughts—instead, self-correct.” In other words, instead of savoring the schadenfreude and letting yourself feel as if the other person deserved it, recognize your emotions, acknowledge that they're not helpful or valid, and move on.
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