Spring 2008, Volume 4

Essay by Barbara R. Lefcowitz

My Schadenfreude and Yours

“D’ja ever clap when a waitress falls and drops a tray of glasses?. .. That’s Schadenfreude! / People taking pleasure in your pain! “  (from the musical “Avenue Q”)
       “The misfortunes of others are the taste of honey.”  Hidehiko Takahashi, neurologist.

In the past year, I have taken pleasure in a negative review of a friend’s play as well as in a mentor’s troubled marriage, among other indulgences in Schadenfreude.  And I continue to seek out books about the Holocaust or Inquisition and articles about plane crashes and ecological disasters.

Schadenfreude: no equivalent single word for that feeling exists in English.   But that does not mean, despite efforts of a 19th century Anglican bishop to ban use of the word, that the British were so morally superior they were immune to the feeling of “malicious joy” or “shameful delight” upon learning or observing another person’s misfortune. (Or perhaps so susceptible to its lure they needed to suppress awareness of its existence.) Along with a few other terms such as “morose delectation,” a contribution from the Oxford English Dictionary, the preceding comprise the usual English translation from the German Schaden: harm and Freude: joy.  Lest one assume the feeling is uniquely Teutonic, a number of other languages have a single word for that alluring and seemingly paradoxical state of mind, ranging from the Croatian zluradost to the Arabic shamaatah.

The concept goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks, the feeling probably to the earliest competitive societies.  In  21st century America the word has crossed from the salons of the erudite into the living rooms of popular culture, including television, song lyrics, and cartoons. Not surprisingly, it shows up on the internet. At last count, Googling the word revealed over a million hits, ranging from political references to New Yorker cartoons, the metaphysical to the downright silly, such as a recipe for Schadenfreude Pie.  Scientists have even measured the neurological evidence of Schadenfreude, particularly its links with various areas of the brain, complete with diagrams drawn from MRI tests.

Personal Schadenfreude

Without Google two examples of my own Schadenfreude would not have been possible.  The first is the easiest to understand; indeed, it exemplifies the most common type of Schadenfreude, grounded by outright envy of another person’s achievements, particularly if that person shares the same profession. (“Potters envy potters”: Aristotle.) Accidentally on purpose, I recently discovered online a negative review of a play a friend had managed to get produced off-off Broadway.

For some years we had sustained an amicable, albeit competitive long distance relationship.   Lately for some reason she had begun to draw my attention to her successes. Because I had complained to her in an e-mail that I at the time was receiving a spate of rejections, I interpreted her announcement about the play as flaunting. What a bitchy thing to do; surely it was no mere coincidence, but a not so subtle rebuke!  Discovering her negative review aroused in me, at least briefly, sheer delight.  Yet it soon underscored the limited rewards of Schadenfreude. In this case, since she did not and would not know of my discovery (I didn’t want her to think I spent my time Googling her) any sense of vindictive pleasure quickly vanished into an abstraction.  No enhancement of power, a key motive of personal Schadenfreude; instead, an enhancement of the opposite, my lack of power to ignore her success or at least not let it diminish faith in my own writing. And if the review had been good?   Surely it would have exacerbated my jealousy—unless I didn’t have a competitive relationship with her. Prone as I might be to malicious joy, I hasten to add that I have also experienced its opposite, what the Buddhists call mudita, satisfaction over another person’s success, e.g. my pleasure when I hear that someone I know has won a prize for music or sports, pursuits that lie beyond my competitive space. And no matter what their nature, all the achievements of my former students, children, and grandchildren arouse pleasure without a trace of envy—except perhaps of their youth.

My next example of personal Schadenfreude is more complicated, involving something akin to cyber-voyeurism.  Not in the sexual sense of the latter, though much cyber-voyeurism does indeed have a sexual motive, one that stops short of more dangerous computer generated diseases, cyber-stalking and cyber-bullying.  In a particularly disturbing instance, the 2008 suicide of a Florida student, Abraham Briggs, on a live-stream web video camera took place after viewers gawked and encouraged him for twelve hours.  Nothing so tragically dramatic in my own case: the person I kept looking up on a number of sites was an art professor, Mr.K, who for a number of years served as my mentor in other creative pursuits as well.  One day he announced that in a few months he would retire to his native Hawaii. Of course I wished him well and understood why in his later years he would want to leave behind the pressures of the Smithsonian Museum and other Washington, D.C. cultural organizations to spend the rest of his life painting the volcanoes and rainbows of his beloved islands.  But how dare Mr. K leave me behind, so far away that the chances of maintaining any relationship were dim. Unwittingly, I had developed what psychotherapists would call a “transference relationship, “ projecting onto Mr. K  both the role of ideal parent and the selfish, destructive parent.

My detective work had begun during the years I was his (favorite?) student, but was confined to curiosity about his professional achievements. It became more time-consuming, indeed obsessive, after he announced his imminent retirement; moreover it shifted to intense curiosity about his personal life, especially his marital history.  Thanks to various websites like 123People.com and Facebook, I learned more than I needed to know about the identity of his former and present wives.   Their photographs and various accomplishments opened a Pandora’s Box of both envy and scorn.  But did I really have to know that his long ago first wife had become a well-respected scholar?  Worse, that she had written briefly about their short and troubled early marriage in one of her books, replete with criticisms of him both subtle and overt?  Ah, so my personal god had suffered despite the power with which I had imbued him.   Naked, unadorned Schadenfreude, replete with “malicious delight.”   But that bitch goddess is greedy, demanding more and more information to sustain itself.  So after discovering that book I turned to the online archives of the New York Times, that treasure chest of information about anyone whose death, birth, or marriage had been noted in its social announcements. I keyed in his name and there it was, the more than 50-year-old wedding announcement, along with some other unexpected information about Mr. K.

Eventually I realized his impending separation from me made me more angry than I dared express, though fortunately in my most anguished moments I realized that his move had nothing to do with any failures on my part. I also came to realize that my intense reaction to the loss of Mr. K was rooted in the paradox between identity with an admired person and the simultaneous desire to separate oneself and become independent, in this case especially artistic independence.   I also realized how the Schadenfreude aroused by my awareness of an unhappy time in his past provided a brief illusion of power as opposed to my lack of power to undo what I perceived as abandonment.  But such power illusions are dangerously akin to magical thinking:  surely my mentor would acknowledge my superiority now—especially over the women he had married.  And in the process cancel his retirement plans, or take me to Hawaii with him, either along with his present wife, or, preferably in place of her. Let me note here that if the other person is truly an enemy, then satisfaction over his or her downfall is a justifiable feeling, as distinguished from Schadenfreude.

I admit that the preceding examples are private, certainly trivial compared with the world’s many problems beyond the self.   Yet didn’t Voltaire recommend in Candide that one should cultivate one’s own garden?  I don’t think he was being completely ironic.

Public Schadenfreude

Given the modern world’s vast and rapid means of communication, that garden, however, is constantly threatened by outside forces, pests of all sorts, storms, events far beyond its borders. 

In an article about the American election campaign of 2008, John Portmann  (Psychology Today, April 9, 2008) claims that many voters felt a surge of Schadenfreude when Hillary Clinton began to lose her contest for the Democratic presidential nomination—not so much for political reasons than psychological. Both men and women, for different reasons, found her intimidating and thus felt uneasy with a woman who came across as aggressive and overly ambitious. Some. Portmann states, felt she had to be “brought down a peg or two as well,” not only for some questionable behavior when she was First Lady, but also for standing by her man (at least in public) during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.  The root cause? Sexism, more acceptable than racism, the author implies:  “When bad things happen to Barack [Obama], we bite our tongue; when bad things happen to Hillary, we smile.”   In a broader sense, he suggests that Schadenfreude is a sign of one’s sense of inferiority to someone of notable achievements.  A questionable generalization, I hasten to add.   Did the victims of Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme express glee over his conviction because before that event they felt inferior to him?  Hardly, unless a sense of victimization in itself is a covert admission of naiveté, or, in some cases, outright foolishness.

A more mystifying example of public Schadenfreude is the satisfaction some feel when they hear bad news, as long as that news does not affect them directly. A personal instance: as the world economy falters (I write this in April, 2009), I confess a sub rosa feeling of excitement, particularly since the events have not (yet) had a significant effect on my own life.   Therein lies the key. Bad news relieves not only one’s sense of isolation but the boredom that comes from the banality of everyday life.  Unlike envy of another person, which is most intense when that person is close, secret delight of this variety appears when the events are distant.

To the contrary, closeness is essential to one of the most unsavory instances of Schadenfreude:  relief when learning about the death of an elderly parent, usually from some form of dementia, whose maintenance has been a major strain on emotions and finances. Likewise, awareness of same in other contexts.  Anger plays a role, often unexpected. When I reacted to a middle-aged friend’s dying days with occasional feelings of Schadenfreude as well as pity, I was at first dismayed.  Once again matters of identity and separation came into play. (This person lived in a different city, so I was immune to her daily suffering.)  One night, during a telephone conversation, she expressed anger when I asked about her latest chemotherapy treatments; anger at me for asking such a ludicrous question, accompanied by denial she needed such treatments, which I knew from her daughter was not true.  How dare she lie to me, her friend from way back in our teen years?   Fortunately, I bit my tongue and didn’t express to her my own anger, keeping in mind the sadness of her condition and how much I already missed her.

The need for distance, on the contrary, underlies some people’s fondness
for horror novels and horror movies, including slapstick,  the more violent the better, especially if the events took place long ago and faraway.  I refer not only to fictive horror but the horrors of actual historical events, such as the Holocaust, the Bomb, the Black Plague, the Inquisition, the rape and pillage of American Indians, slavery... the list goes on, to say nothing about natural disasters, tsunamis, earthquakes, severe drought, et al. Not to forget a morbid curiosity about such human and mechanical failures as plane crashes and errant space capsules.   I have been guilty at various times of indulging my own curiosity about many of the preceding.  Though feelings of Schadenfreude may be secondary to desires to mitigate fear in such contexts, they are always present at some level: it happened to them, therefore it is not happening or will not happen to me.  Of course, in the science-fiction versions of horror films and stories, objects of dread vary from culture to culture, ranging from ghosts to monsters to vampires to totalitarian governments to economic and ecological catastrophes.  It is hard to imagine a science-fiction fantasy about, say, rockets launched from Jupiter or exploding space stations whose time frame is the Middle Ages.  Anything so farfetched would be more light entertainment than an illogical source of relief of the “them, not me” variety.

Such magical thinking differs from Aristotle’s ideas about the attainment of catharsis through observing the grief of others.  In The Poetics he notes that the audience watching a tragic drama ultimately achieves a purgation of pity and fear aroused by the protagonist’s fate. Thus tragedy, when properly executed, offers a particular form of pleasure, “that which comes from pity and fear through imitation” or in modern terms, identification with the hero.   Few modern protagonists, however, meet the Aristotelian definition of a hero, who must be of noble stature and who helps bring about his fate because of a tragic flaw, most often hubris (excessive pride).  Willy Loman, the protagonist of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is often cited as a 20th century tragic hero, though he verges closer to the pathetic, given his passivity.  Having taught the play to college students many times, I was often surprised when they reacted to Loman’s suicide not with empathy but scorn and, above all, relief that the old bumbler is finally dead, commenting that his wife Linda’s final words express joyful relief that she is now free from her hapless spouse.  That sort of reaction, which entirely misses Miller’s irony, involves a crude version of Schadenfreude.   Who hasn’t equated Loman with a n’er do well uncle or neighbor or, less overtly, with oneself or potential self?   But distance prevails: bad things happened to him, not to myself.   Besides, didn’t he bring them on himself with his lying and braggadocio, a far cry from classic heroic pride?  Thus, Miller’s main point, an attack on mid-20th century American social values, eludes awareness.

In a New York Times article of February 2, 2009, Natalie Angier pays particular attention to the negative side of Schadenfreude.  Of the traditional seven deadly sins, it comes closest to envy, which unlike its kin, produces more pain than pleasure.  Mere jealousy, limited to a particular social situation (why is my partner flirting with her at a party), may be painful but it is usually short-lived, even acceptable and sharable, whereas envy, fueled by the need for social status, usually remains a shameful secret, in extreme form equivalent to a physical illness.   Though the scientific research is in its infancy, Angier alludes to the neural similarity between envy and Schadenfreude, quoting psychology professor Matthew Lieberman of UCLA, who claims “he was impressed by how the neural correlates of envy and Schadenfreude were tied together, with the magnitude of one predicting the strength of the other.” 

The neurological thesis suggests a potential, albeit limited, answer to the puzzle of why Schadenfreude is so prevalent despite its shamefulness.   According to a 2007 article in the journal Brain, research conducted at Israel’s University of Haifa asserts that manifestations of the envy and gloat intrinsic to Schadenfreude cause detectable changes in the brain’s ventromedial cortex.  I leave the technical particulars to neurologists.  Fascinating thesis—until one realizes the Haifa research team focused on subjects with brain lesions.  As Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University notes, such a focus limits what he calls the “ecological validity” of the study; in other words, it does not offer insights on the cultural prevalence of Schadenfreude in a wide spectrum of societies nor their relative degree. 

Japanese researchers who used MRI imaging have noted that the anterior cingulate cortex shows signs of arousal in the context of envy, the ventral striatum in the brains of  subjects whose envy has evolved into Schadenfreude  (Science, 13 February 2009).  The latter is described as a “rewarding reaction” that also stimulates an increase in dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure in general.    Is Japanese culture, supposedly rife with feelings of shame, more tolerant of the particular form of shame associated with Schadenfreude?  If so, why?   What about Inuit culture, Anasazi culture, German culture, particularly under Hitler, as opposed, say, to Italian?

Though further studies, both neurological and sociological, may provide valuable clues about the “true” nature of Schadenfreude, I prefer a focus on the universality of the feeling and possible means of controlling its power through rational analysis that recognizes that Schadenfreude is but a partial, but expectable, reaction to particular situations, linked with a yet unknown place in the mind’s evolutionary history. Denial of its power does no good: one must give it its due and not excoriate oneself in the process.

At least that’s what I told my son when he hesitated to express his Schadenfreude upon learning of an arrogant friend’s involvement in the scandal over retention bonuses at American International Group (AIG) in March of 2009. Denial of the feeling merely enhances a moral self-righteousness that strains belief on the part of others and is more noxious than the secret shame aroused by the bitch goddess Schadenfreude. Even worse, denial might result in the emergence of that nasty beast Freudenschade, a neologism noted in The Stanford Daily of April 8, 2006:  “ If Schadenfreude is feeling joy at the misfortunes of others, Freudenschade is feeling miserable at their joy.”  Given a choice, who would not choose joy, or at least delight, malicious as it might be?


BIO:  Barbara F. Lefcowitz has published nine poetry collections. Her most recent, “The Blue Train to America,” appeared in 2007. Her fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in over 500 journals. She has won writing fellowships and prizes from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Rockefeller Foundation, among others. She lives in Bethesda, MD and is also a visual artist. Recently she has begun to write one-act plays.