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Schadenfreude: How to Respond When Bad Things Happen to People You Don't Like

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Key Takeaways

  • Schadenfreude is an emotional experience of finding joy in another’s misfortune or struggle. 
  • This phenomenon has evolutionary roots, and feeling this way on occasion doesn't make you a bad person—but it's a slippery slope.
  • Developing more constructive coping strategies will yield long-lasting benefits.

When President Trump announced his positive COVID-19 diagnosis in early October, Merriam-Webster reported that schadenfreude, defined as “enjoyment obtained from the trouble of others,” was its top search, increasing by 30,500%

The president had contracted the very illness he’d been publicly downplaying—a perfect example of a schadenfreude motivator. And while, for many, this may have served as the psychological phenomenon’s gateway introduction, the concept of feeling joy in another’s misfortune is much more common than we might care to admit—or even be aware of. And it turns out, it’s not necessarily the worst thing in the world. 

Schadenfreude is more than just an emotion, it’s a coping mechanism. And there are several factors, both internal and external, that draw us to it.

Origins of Schadenfreude

Schadenfreude is a German term that translates to “damage” (schaden), “joy” (freude). It’s the ripple of delight you get from watching fail compilation videos, or the twinge of excitement you feel when a rival coworker doesn’t get the promotion they expected.

Paul Hokemeyer, PhD

Having a competitive edge on other human beings is instinctual.

— Paul Hokemeyer, PhD

While this phenomenon has gained recent notoriety, the emotion itself has been coined across cultures over the course of history. In fact, from an evolutionary standpoint, it’s a survival tactic with roots in self-preservation. It’s no accident that the human central nervous system is hardwired to compete.

“If you look at the very essence of human beings, as hunter-gatherers we determine our sense of place and sense of security in the world by comparing ourselves to other human beings,” says Paul Hokemeyer, PhD, psychotherapist and author of Fragile Power: Why Having Everything is Never Enough. “Having a competitive edge on other human beings is instinctual.”

In this way, the experience of schadenfreude corresponds to self-worth and social comparison theory, or the tendency to compare ourselves to others. Observing another individual’s misfortune can induce joy as it validates the observer’s personal identity and boosts their self-esteem. 

Zoom out, and the same applies to in-group, out-group dynamics. As tribal beings, humans seek the protection and advancement of the group. This can be tapped via the failure of an opposing group. Today, warring “tribes” might best be exemplified by our allegiances to sports teams or political parties.

Internal and External Influences

While schadenfreude is a common human emotion, it can induce feelings of shame and guilt. As products of our largely binary society, we seek to file this experience into one of two categories: Is it "good" or "bad"?

Of course, it’s not that simple. Emotional flexibility is part of being human, and further examining the experience of schadenfreude can actually increase emotional intelligence. 

“Schadenfreude happens for a reason,” writes cultural historian Tiffany Watt Smith in her book, Schadenfreude: The Joy of Another’s Misfortune. “And when we are willing to look it in the eye, it’s easier to ask what prompted it in the first place… Noticing our schadenfreude and understanding why it feels so deliciously satisfying can help us face up to the more excruciating feelings underneath.”

Common underlying emotions include envy, anger, inferiority—feelings related to self-worth. This calls to mind a tool that is known to amplify these feelings and is used by a vast majority of individuals: social media.

Higher use of social media is associated with higher use of this coping strategy, says Judy Ho, PhD, a neuropsychologist and associate professor of psychology at Pepperdine University. The culture of “one-upping” that’s been cultivated on social media platforms, as well as increased tribalism and polarization, contribute to individuals’ reliance on schadenfreude to boost confidence and self-worth. 

Judy Ho, PhD

People are feeling less and less control and as a result, need to preserve their identity. [Schadenfreude] gives them a sense of control and dominance.

— Judy Ho, PhD

Another emotional trigger that’s especially relevant right now is uncertainty. Ho points to schadenfreude as a coping mechanism humans use in trying to achieve normalcy.

“With the [COVID-19] pandemic, everything has been turned upside down in the world. People are feeling less and less control and as a result, need to preserve their identity,” Ho says. “[Schadenfreude] gives them a sense of control and dominance.”

However, in the realm of coping mechanisms, Ho likens schadenfreude to low-hanging fruit. 

“All of us can be allowed these more primitive coping strategies as long as we don’t overuse them and as long as they don’t cause problems or distress in the other areas of your life,” Ho says.

When It Becomes a Problem

Research shows the experience of schadenfreude activates the brain’s reward centers. A hit of dopamine so easily accessible may very well keep us coming back for more.

“When we get hooked into our limbic system, there is an addictive quality to it,” Hokemeyer says. “We become hyperactive, our prefrontal cortex shuts down, and we’re acting on our very primitive emotions.”

In this way, if schadenfreude becomes a go-to coping strategy, it can pose a serious problem to mental health. This consistent dopamine delivery erodes the observer's ability to empathize, which can be extremely detrimental. Empathy is a key aspect of emotional intelligence, or EQ, that applies to mental balance, healthy relationships, and achieving personal goals and aspirations.

Not to mention, it’s not exactly compassionate to be the one who constantly delights in others’ suffering. 

“Using this technique and taking your own EQ farther from an ideal point rips your own coping strategies away,” Ho says. “You feel less connected with people, which does a huge number on your physical and mental health.”

Developing New Strategies

To partake in schadenfreude doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, but there are healthier coping strategies that yield more sustainable and long-lasting benefits.

The first of these might be a bit uncomfortable at first, but Ho suggests sharing these feelings with a person you trust.

"There's a self-fulfilling prophesy here where you think you're the only person who does this and start to feel ashamed, so you isolate and do more of it," Ho says. "Open up the conversation. This is a universal thing."

For instance, if relief creeps up when a friend shares that they've been arguing with their partner, gently let them know how you feel. There's a good chance your friend can even relate.

For more preventive strategies, Ho recommends taking a social media break and adopting practices of gratitude and mindfulness. Rewiring your brain to derive joy in healthier ways can be as simple as vocalizing what you're grateful for in the morning, or creating a joy list. Write down 10-15 activities that boost your mood, they can range from a cup of coffee or long walk to a lavish vacation. Whenever schadenfreude bubbles up—as it inevitably will—counteract it with healthy sources of joy and validation from your list.

What This Means For You

While schadenfreude is a universal human emotion, it's not the healthiest coping strategy available. Indulge with moderation. Humans might be hardwired to compete, but looking to personal progress for points of comparison is of greater benefit than external sources like social media.

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