In the reading of Brené Brown’s latest book, “Atlas of the Heart” (Random House, 2021) I came across a new term – at least new to me. It seemed so timely that I decided to simply share with you a few pages of the book. Brené is a Christian (though she does not wear it on her sleeve), a research professor at the University of Houston, a best-selling author, and a speaker on courage and leadership.
“Schadenfreude is a compound of the German words schaden, meaning harm, and freude, meaning joy. It’s pronounced sha-din-froy-da. And the world is full of it these days. The German language is known for accurately capturing nanced emotions often with compound words that make the meaning very clear. In the case of “schadenfreude,” it simply means pleasure or joy derived from someone else’s suffering or misfortune.
“In an article in The Wall Street Journal, the reporter Ben Cohen explains, ‘Schadenfreude’ is an old German word whose usage in English dates to the 1850’s, spiking in American publications after World War II but then fading, according to Google data. It returned nearly a half century later, some linguists say, because of a 1991 episode of The Simpsons. More recently the term made a guest appearance on Ted Lasso when one of the characters was rejoicing in another’s misfortune until Ted declared the office is a ‘Schadenfreude-free zone.’
“While schadenfreude may be fun to say and it’s an increasingly used term in the United States, it’s a tough emotion. There’s a cruelty and insecurity about it. Taking pleasure in someone else’s failings, even if that person is someone we really dislike, can violate our values and lead to feelings of guilt and shame. But, make no mistake, it’s seductive, especially when we’re sucked into groupthink.
“It’s easy to build a counterfeit connection with collective schadenfreude. I say ‘counterfeit’ because when we see someone who we don’t like, we disagree with, or is outside our group stumble, fall, or fail, it’s tempting to celebrate that suffering together and to stir up collective emotion. That kind of bonding might feel good for a moment but nothing that celebrates the humiliation or pain of another person builds lasting connection.
“Schadenfreude involves counter-empathy – our emotional reaction is incongruent with another person’s emotional experience. When someone else is suffering and we feel joy, there is decreased activity in the area of the brain that processes empathy and increased activity in the reward centers. In other words, when we feel schadenfreude, it shuts down the area of our brain that we use when feeling empathy and lights up the areas of the brain that make us feel good and that entice us to engage in similar behaviors in the future.
“I think it’s important to point out, especially in this political and social climate, that when we feel relieved, grateful, or even happy that someone who has done something hurtful, unethical, or unjust is held accountable, that’s not schadenfreude and normally doesn’t stem from counter-empathy. On the contrary, it can stem from empathy for the aggrieved. It’s similar to the distinction that when we hold someone accountable and they respond to that accountability by feeling shame, it does not mean we’ve shamed them. When we are relieved or happy to see someone held accountable for wrongdoing, we’re not automatically celebrating their suffering, but more often we’re grateful for the healing that accountability brings to those who have been affected by the wrongdoing.
“Schadenfreude is positively correlated with envy, aggression, narcissism, and anger, and negatively correlated with empathy and conscientiousness.
“We don’t often talk about our schadenfreude because it can make us feel shame and/or guilt. This came up a lot during the pandemic when vaccinated people struggled with feeling outside their values over their schadenfreude toward antivaccination folks who were diagnosed with COVID. I wrestled with it myself. I remember thinking one day Is this who I want to be? Someone who celebrates people getting sick or dying – regardless of the circumstance? I would justify it for a minute by thinking: But they’re threatening my health and the health of people I love. In the end, I couldn’t make it work with my values. But I’m still angry, and without a viable accountability strategy, it’s hard not to let the (nasty) emotions take over.
“To end on a positive note, let’s talk about freudenfreude, which is the opposite of schadenfreude – It’s the enjoyment of another’s success. It’s also a subset of empathy. In Wolfpack, Abby Wambach (two-time Olympic gold medalist soccer player) writes about the ‘Point and Run.’ She explains that every time she scored a goal, the first thing she would do is point to the person who made the assist or the coach who called the play. And the run was about celebrating another person’s victory. She writes, ‘You will not always be the goal scorer. When you are not, you better be rushing toward her.’” (Atlas of the Heart, pp. 33-37)
“Do not rejoice when your enemy falls and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles.” (Proverbs 24.17) “Rejoice with those who rejoice.” (Romans 12.15)