TSUTSUMI ACUNA: Battling schadenfreude

In 1895, two German words combined to form a bittersweet union. “Schaden” met “Freude” and the concepts of harm and joy became jointly represented in the one and only schadenfreude — pleasure derived from another’s misfortunes. English has no exact synonym for this word, and yet we have borrowed the term to explain a fundamental human emotion just as present in Anglophone culture.

Three different conditions give rise to schadenfreude: we gain something as a result of another’s misfortunes; a person’s misfortune is deserved; or we envy another person’s accomplishments. It is a natural feeling — perhaps one we should be slightly ashamed of, but one that is all too common nonetheless.

Yalies would never dare speak of such a thing. In an environment teeming with talent and skill, bars are raised and the stakes are higher. A competitive spirit is often part of the scene and it is this very attitude that brings about both healthy motivation and unhealthy comparisons. When friends get into selective seminars, excel in their courses, make it into an a cappella group, get elected to a desired position or set an outstanding school record, we are supposed to rejoice. And oftentimes we do. But we have also all been culprits of allowing that left-shoulder devil to whisper in our ears, causing our competitive self to welcome moments of failure, weakness or vulnerability in others.

We mistake another’s misfortunes for signs of our own triumph. But this is a delusion our angels must fight against.

As individuals we can do little to prevent this immoral high. However, if our society were less receptive to it, perhaps we would be too. As a society, we can try to avoid celebrating other people’s failures, especially those in public, in order to promote our own self-worth. Some of the most viral videos are those in which someone in an unfortunate situation causes us to laugh. Media publications often grab our attention and keep newspapers and magazines flying off the shelves by indulging us in public figures’ misfortunes.

Studies have revealed how schadenfreude can hinder cooperation. For example, results from a study involving children suggested that those with greater schadenfreude were more likely to exhibit spiteful behavior in resource allocation games. Another study found that prosocial videogame-playing increased interpersonal empathy and decreased schadenfreude. It seems that schadenfreude and ethical behavior are inversely related.

In addition, when a society tolerates — and fosters — the conditions that give rise to schadenfreude, a self-perpetuating cycle develops. Innocuous joy derived from misfortune can evolve into indifference toward — or even rationalization of — harmful acts.

History is proof of this effect. In order for atrocities and genocides to occur, dehumanization must take place. This desensitizes perpetrators by inducing pleasure when witnessing the harmful effects of violent acts. Intergroup conflict becomes easier when people replace guilt and empathy with pleasure.

It is unlikely that schadenfreude will disappear. But introducing a counteractive positive force into the picture is plausible, and perhaps necessary. If we can derive pleasure from other people’s good fortunes, we will be able to motivate our pleasure-seeking selves to promote the welfare of others. In turn, this might reinforce a culture that returns the favor. This would be a non-zero sum game, in which people collaborate for better absolute outcomes for all, instead of relatively better outcomes for a few.

In order to feel happy for others, we must take a step back. In a competitive environment, we can reframe the circumstances to avoid viewing others as our direct competitors. Once competition is taken out of the equation, it becomes easier to derive pleasure from another’s good fortune. The next time we are shopping for classes and our friends get into a prestigious seminar, rather than feeling a pang of jealousy, we should try to view the situation in a new light. Focus on our differences: that our friends are in another year or pursuing another major — which means that their successes will not hurt our own.

If we implement this philosophy, perhaps someday we’ll instead be talking about the positive force of “freudefreude.”

Ida Tsutsumi Acuna is a junior in Saybrook College. Contact her at ida.tsutsumiacuna@yale.edu.

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