On October 2, 2020, Merriam-Webster.com reported that searches for the word “schadenfreude” had increased by 30,500% on the site, making it the most popular word of the day. This was, of course, the day it was announced that Donald and Melania Trump had both tested positive for COVID-19.
As a term, it makes sense that “schadenfreude” would have wide appeal. First, there’s its meaning: “enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others,” per our friends at Merriam-Webster. Whether or not we want to admit it, this is a familiar feeling for most people — occasionally followed by some form of guilt over our spiteful glee.
In German, “schadenfreude” comes from Schaden (“damage”) and Freude (“joy”), and is an example of a word that has entered the English language without being translated. In fact, it’s probably among those people are most familiar with (and perhaps the only one they know off-hand).
The allure of casually dropping a German word into a conversation — especially one that so perfectly describes a common feeling — can, at times, be too strong to resist. Like it was for many on October 2, 2020. But what does that say about us? Is it possible to experience schadenfreude in a healthy and/or productive way? If so, how? Here’s what to know about how to navigate feelings of schadenfreude, using a few different approaches.
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What does experiencing schadenfreude say about us?
First things first: Yes, experiencing feelings of schadenfreude is completely normal. “Experiencing schadenfreude does not equate to evil, as many individuals feel this way due to insecurities, upbringing, temperament and other factors,” Dr. Leela R. Magavi, an adolescent and adult psychiatrist and Regional Medical Director for Community Psychiatry tells Lifehacker.
And while Magavi stresses that schadenfreude is a common feeling that should be normalized, she says that people “who struggle with poor self-esteem and self-confidence” are more likely to experience it, noting that it may stem from envy or jealousy.
Meanwhile, a 2015 study in the journal Psychological Reports found that people with moderate depression experienced more schadenfreude and less freudenfreude (i.e., pleasure from another’s success) than their counterparts with mild depression. Dr. Catherine Chambliss, chair of psychology and neuroscience at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, and one of the co-authors of the study, explained these findings to U.S. News and World Report:
When you’re depressed, and you’re feeling inadequate, other people’s successes become unbearable to witness because it sets up a comparison that makes you feel worse. It’s kind of true that misery loves company. The problem is, schadenfreude in people with depression ends up being toxic to their friendships.
Such situations can cause someone who is already feeling down to further isolate themselves socially — and subsequently make their depression worse. That’s definitely not the outcome we want, and fortunately there are many different approaches to dealing with your feelings of schadenfreude. Here’s a quick look at two of them.
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Navigating schadenfreude with psychology
When Magavi works with patients who are concerned about the fact that they’ve been experiencing schadenfreude, she recommends using it as an opportunity to look inward. “Introspection and self-awareness can help individuals identify these sentiments, understand the cause, and reframe their thinking,” she explains.
If this isn’t something you’re used to doing, Magavi suggests speaking with trusted friends and family members or a therapist who can help you process your emotions. Also, journaling about your emotions is a useful way to gain insight into your own thoughts and feelings. Thinking through the situation that triggered your feelings of schadenfreude, Magavi says, gives us the chance to “remember that everyone fails and struggles at points in their life, and that perfection is merely a social construct.”
Along the same lines, Magavi reminds her patients to avoid black-and-white thinking, because we all exist in the grey areas. “We can laugh when our friend falls down, but simultaneously run over to help him or her and care about our friend’s wellness,” she explains. “Speaking about our emotional flexibility as human beings allows us to release feelings of guilt and shame.”
Finally, if you’re looking for a way to help reduce the intensity of your schadenfreude, Magavi recommends “practicing self-compassion by eating healthy, exercising, using positive affirmations and engaging in mindfulness activities.”
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Navigating schadenfreude with philosophy (specifically, Nietzsche)
There are countless ways to apply various philosophical approaches to schadenfreude, but we’re not even going to attempt that. For our purposes here, we’re going to focus on the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who happens to have some interesting and potentially useful takes on the subject.
“It is tempting to think that schadenfreude can be a morally righteous response when a bad person finally receives his or her just desserts or karmic comeuppance,” Dr. Michael Baur, associate professor of philosophy at Fordham University, tells Lifehacker. “Thus many Americans took pleasure in learning that President Trump had contracted COVID-19.”
But according to Nietzsche, schadenfreude actually isn’t a sign of moral righteousness or moral superiority. “Quite on the contrary, it is a sign of one’s feeling of resentment, which in turn is a symptom of one’s feeling of weakness or impotence,” Baur explains.
In fact, in Nietzsche’s view, only those who are frustrated and resentful feel the need to resort to elevating themselves by putting others down, or by finding gratification in their setbacks. For Nietzsche, a truly superior person doesn’t regard achievement or success as a zero-sum-game, according to which “I can be a winner only if someone else is a loser,” or vice versa, Baur explains.
“So whenever you are tempted by feelings of schadenfreude, just remember that life is not a zero-sum game, and that the misfortunes of others should give you no joy,” Baur says. “After all, someone else’s pain or loss does nothing to make you better or more successful as a person.”