If you’ve ever experienced pleasure from people’s failures, well, join the rest of us. Here’s how to manage and make the most of your schadenfreude, says cultural historian Tiffany Watt Smith.
I have a confession. Okay, several. I love daytime TV. I smoke, even though I officially gave it up years ago. I’m often late, and I usually lie about why. And sometimes I feel good when others feel bad.
There’s no word for this grubby delight in English, so we use the German word schadenfreude (pronounced SHAH-den-froy-da) — schaden means damage or harm, and freude means joy or pleasure. Damage-joy.
Today schadenfreude is all around us. It’s in the way we do politics, treat celebrities, even in YouTube fail videos. I’m a cultural historian who focuses on emotions, and studying schadenfreude has made me realize how large a role it plays in our lives. I’ve become so much more attuned to it now. When I feel twinge of excitement at someone else’s misery, I try to catch it like a spider under a glass to peer at it more closely before I settle, inevitably, into that familiar sour aftertaste of self-disgust.
What, if anything, ought one to do with schadenfreude? I’m not a psychologist or a moralist, and I’m certainly not a self-help guru. But after spending so much time reflecting on it, I’ve — more or less — made my peace. Here is how you can reframe your understanding of schadenfreude.