Schadenfreude: The Tendency to Laugh at the Misfortune of Others

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Schadenfreude: The Tendency to Laugh at the Misfortune of Others

feeling schadenfreude is a very human experience/ Photo By WAYHOME studio via Shutterstock


It has been part of human nature, whether openly or secretly find pleasure in seeing others mess up. The internet provides plenty of examples such as sharing epic fail videos, posts with grammar errors that people enjoy ridiculing and correcting and gloating over the latest breakup of a celebrity.

According to The Guardian, before 1853, there was no name for the joy that one feels when witnessing someone’s downfall. It first became part of the English vocabulary when RC Trench, the archbishop of Dublin, used it in his book On the Study of Words.

Now, there is a term for this dark side of human beings. It is schadenfreude, which is derived from the two German terms “schaden” which means “damage” or “harm” and “freude” meaning “pleasure” or “joy”. Put together, it is translated as “harm-joy”.

A 2014 study published in the journal PLoS One reveals that as early as two years old, children have exhibited signs of schadenfreude as a reaction to the unfortunate circumstances that their peers go through.

Situations That Prompt Schadenfreude

Mina Cikara, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University  assures, “Feeling schadenfreude is a very human experience.”

She adds that even though they may not have a tangible benefit from that person’s failure or even it the misfortune does not avenge them in any way, people enjoy seeing others experience tragic situations since it makes them feel much better about themselves. She also explains that it is part of a social comparison process.

Cikara illustrates, “It seems to be borne mostly out of social comparison processes: If I compare myself with others and find that I’m not as good as [they are], I’m much more likely to be pleased when they get taken down a notch.”

According to the U.S. News, the three situations that may cause one to laugh or feel smug about someone’s tragedy or mishap are:

1. If they benefit from that individual’s misfortune

2. If they think that people deserved that misfortune

3. If they dislike, resent or are jealous of that person

People Who Are More Likely to Experience Schadenfreude

Experiencing schadenfreude reveals two things about an individual’s personality, according to the various researches conducted.   

People with low self-esteem

Feeling inferior may cause a person more prone to experiencing schadenfreude, a 2011 study published in the journal emotion shows. Those with low self-esteem will be more likely to show signs of this when they are faced with a high achiever’s setback. This happens because it gives them a chance to make themselves feel better.

It was also revealed by a study conducted in 2013, which was published in the Annals of the New York Academy Sciences, that envy was a major factor in the feelings behind schadenfreude that some people directed at those who were superior in status. This may have drawn out the competitiveness here.

Mildly depressed individuals

In a research published in the journal Psychological Reports, the connection between schadenfreude and depression was discovered. It was shown that individuals who were moderately depressed gained more enjoyment from watching others fail than seeing them succeed. The pleasure that is derived from seeing others become successful is called freudenfreud.


feeling inferior may cause a person more prone to experiencing schadenfreude/ Photo By Iurii Stepanov via Shutterstock


Catherine Chambliss, the chair of psychology and neuroscience at Ursinus College and co-author of the study, says that when a person does not feel enough or is feeling depressed, it hurts to see other people become successful because it sets the stage for instant comparison which just aggravates them.

Chambliss elaborates, “It’s kind of true that misery loves company. The problem is, schadenfreude in people with depression ends up being toxic to their friendship.” She adds that it becomes even more of a problem if schadenfreude is expressed because this could push those to who are depressed to become socially isolated.


How to Deal with  Schadenfreude

Chambliss advises that if people are frequently experiencing schadenfreude, they may have to reflect on its hidden causes because it is only a “fleeting high”. Since this is a relational emotion, it may show how an individual feels towards the person schadenfreude is targeted at. For instance, they are jealous of their wealthy neighbor.

She explains, “It makes you feel better for the moment, but it doesn’t address what’s underneath that feeling.”

Secondly, she also says it would be helpful to lessen how much of an enemy or rival a person views them. She said,” It helps to cultivate more compassion toward the person.” They must assess if they feel inadequate, insecure or inferior in some manner.

Lastly, she admonishes, “stop engaging in upward or downward social comparisons.” Instead, she suggests that determine their own personal values, build up a sense of purpose and create goals based on those. If an individual takes the measures to lessen schadenfreude, it not only enhances their mood, it will also be better for their relationships.




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