Schadenfreude (//; German: [ˈʃaːdn̩ˌfʁɔʏ̯də] ( listen); lit. 'harm-joy') is pleasure derived from the misfortune of others. Borrowed from German into English and several other languages, it is a feeling of joy that comes from seeing or hearing about another person's troubles or failures. It is an expression of pleasure or self-satisfaction at another's failure.
Spelling and etymology
Though normally not capitalized in English, the term schadenfreude is sometimes capitalized to mimic German-language convention, as German nouns are always capitalized.
The corresponding German adjective is schadenfroh. The word derives from Schaden (damage, harm) and Freude (joy). Schaden derives from the Middle High German schade, from the Old High German scado, and is a cognate with English scathe. Freude comes from the Middle High German freude, from the Old High German frewida, and is a cognate with the (usually archaic) English word frith. Schadenfreude can be enjoyed in private or it can be celebrated openly.
Little-used English words synonymous with schadenfreude derive from the Greek word, epichairekakia (ἐπιχαιρεκακία, first attested in Aristotle). Nathan Bailey's 18th-century Universal Etymological English Dictionary, for example, contains an entry for epicharikaky that gives its etymology as a compound of ἐπί epi (upon), χαρά chara (joy), and κακόν kakon (evil). A popular modern collection of rare words, however, gives its spelling as epicaricacy.
An English expression with a similar meaning is Roman holiday, a metaphor from the poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage by George Gordon, Lord Byron, where a gladiator in ancient Rome expects to be "butchered to make a Roman holiday" while the audience would take pleasure from watching his suffering. The term suggests debauchery and disorder in addition to sadistic enjoyment.
Another phrase with a meaning similar to Schadenfreude is "morose delectation" (delectatio morosa in Latin), meaning, "The habit of dwelling with enjoyment on evil thoughts". The medieval church taught that morose delectation was a sin. French writer Pierre Klossowski maintained that the appeal of sadism is morose delectation.
An English word of similar meaning is "gloating", where "gloat" means "to observe or think about something with triumphant and often malicious satisfaction, gratification, or delight" (e.g. to gloat over an enemy's misfortune). Gloating is differentiated from Schadenfreude in that it does not necessarily require malice (one may gloat to a friend about having defeated him in a game without ill intent), and that it describes an action rather than a state of mind (one typically gloats to the subject of the misfortune or to a third party). On the other hand, unlike Schadenfreude, where the focus is on someone's misfortune, gloating often brings to mind inappropriately celebrating or bragging about one's own good fortune without any particular focus on the misfortune of others.
The Buddhist concept of mudita, "sympathetic joy" or "happiness in another's good fortune", is cited as an example of the opposite of schadenfreude. Alternatively, envy, which is unhappiness in another's good fortune, could be considered the counterpart of schadenfreude. Completing the quartet is "unhappiness at another's misfortune"—which can be called sympathy, pity, or compassion.
The term "compersion", taking joy in the joy of loved ones, is generally considered an antonym of schadenfreude.
The Finnish language contains a word with a meaning similar to schadenfreude, vahingonilo, which literally means "joy of misfortune". Likewise, Swedish also has a term equivalent to schadenfreude: skadeglädje, which translates literally as "injury joy" (the joy of watching someone's injury, be it figurative or literal). Similar terms exist in Danish (skadefro), Norwegian (skadefryd), and Estonian (kahjurõõm) as well.
Afrikaans inherited leedvermaak without any changes in spelling or meaning from Dutch, though the pronunciation is slightly different.
The Arabic language contains the term shamaatah, which, according to the Arabic thesaurus means "to enjoy the calamity upon the enemy".
French uses joie mauvaise (bad or evil joy) and a few similar terms in a sense close to Schadenfreude.
Bulgarian and Russian have the noun злорадство Bulgarian pronunciation: [zɫorˈadstvo], from зло (evil) and радост (joy). Also Bulgarian has a corresponding adjective злорад. Slovak language knows the term as well—škodoradosť Slovak pronunciation: [škodoradosť] from škoda (harm) and radosť (joy, pleasure).
Portuguese possesses no single word that can exactly translate the term, but it has a common adage for the same emotion covered by schadenfreude in other languages, pimenta nos olhos dos outros é refresco, which means "to have someone else's eyes peppered is a refreshment" or, more literally, "pepper in someone else's eyes is [to the unaffected] a refreshing drink". According to popular folklore, this might often be the consequence of one putting an olho gordo over another person and the consequential failure that might ensue to their fate. To consciously place a bad omen on someone and then relish with their affliction is called agourar. The meaning of the verb agourar is ambiguous, though, as it might imply just common ill omen (for example, the literal, folkloric bird of ill omen).
Neologisms and variants
Neologisms and portmanteau words were coined from the word as early as 1993, when Lincoln Caplan, in his book Skadden: Power, Money, and the Rise of a Legal Empire, used the word Skaddenfreude to describe the delight that competitors of Skadden Arps took in its troubles of the early 1990s. Others include spitzenfreude, coined by The Economist to refer to the fall of Eliot Spitzer and Schadenford, coined by Toronto Life in regard to Canadian politician Rob Ford.
Literary usage and philosophical analysis
The Book of Proverbs mentions an emotion similar to schadenfreude: "Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth: Lest the LORD see it, and it displease him, and he turn away his wrath from him." (Proverbs 24:17–18, King James Version).
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle used epikhairekakia (ἐπιχαιρεκακία in Greek) as part of a triad of terms, in which epikhairekakia stands as the opposite of phthonos (φθόνος), and nemesis (νέμεσις) occupies the mean. Nemesis is "a painful response to another's undeserved good fortune", while phthonos is a painful response to any good fortune, deserved or not. The epikhairekakos (ἐπιχαιρέκακος) person takes pleasure in another's ill fortune.
Lucretius characterises the emotion in an extended simile in De rerum natura: Suave, mari magno turbantibus aequora ventis, e terra magnum alterius spectare laborem, "It is pleasant to watch from the land the great struggle of someone else in a sea rendered great by turbulent winds." The abbreviated Latin tag suave mare magno recalled the passage to generations familiar with the Latin classics.
During the 17th century, Robert Burton wrote in his work The Anatomy of Melancholy, "Out of these two [the concupiscible and irascible powers] arise those mixed affections and passions of anger, which is a desire of revenge; hatred, which is inveterate anger; zeal, which is offended with him who hurts that he loves; and ἐπιχαιρεκακία, a compound affection of joy and hate, when we rejoice at other men's mischief, and are grieved at their prosperity; pride, self-love, emulation, envy, shame, &c., of which elsewhere."
Rabbi Harold S. Kushner in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People describes schadenfreude as a universal, even wholesome reaction that cannot be helped. "There is a German psychological term, Schadenfreude, which refers to the embarrassing reaction of relief we feel when something bad happens to someone else instead of to us." He gives examples and writes, "[People] don't wish their friends ill, but they can’t help feeling an embarrassing spasm of gratitude that [the bad thing] happened to someone else and not to them."
Susan Sontag's book Regarding the Pain of Others, published in 2003, is a study of the issue of how the pain and misfortune of some affects others, namely whether war photography and war paintings may be helpful as anti-war tools or, whether they only serve some sense of schadenfreude in some viewers.
A New York Times article in 2002 cited a number of scientific studies of schadenfreude, which it defined as, "delighting in others' misfortune". Many such studies are based on social comparison theory, the idea that when people around us have bad luck, we look better to ourselves. Other researchers have found that people with low self-esteem are more likely to feel schadenfreude than are people who have high self-esteem.
A 2003 study examined intergroup schadenfreude within the context of sports, specifically an international football (soccer) competition. The study focused on the German and Dutch football teams and their fans. The results of this study indicated that the emotion of schadenfreude is very sensitive to circumstances that make it more or less legitimate to feel such malicious pleasure towards a sports rival.
A 2011 study by Cikara and colleagues using fMRI examined Schadenfreude among Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees fans found that fans' showed increased activation in brain areas correlated with self-reported pleasure (ventral striatum) when observing the rival team experience a negative outcome (e.g., a strike out). By contrast, fans exhibited increased activation in the anterior cingulate and insula when viewing their own team experience a negative outcome.
A 2006 experiment about justice served suggests that men, but not women, enjoy seeing "bad people" suffer. The study was designed to measure empathy, by watching which brain centers are stimulated when subjects inside an fMRI observe someone experiencing physical pain. Researchers expected that the brain's empathy center of subjects would show more stimulation when those seen as "good" got an electric shock, than would occur if the shock was given to someone the subject had reason to consider "bad". This was indeed the case, but for male subjects, the brain's pleasure centers also lit up when someone got a shock that the male thought was "well-deserved".
Brain-scanning studies show that schadenfreude is correlated with envy in subjects. Strong feelings of envy activated physical pain nodes in the brain's dorsal anterior cingulate cortex; the brain's reward centers, such as the ventral striatum, were activated by news that other people envied had suffered misfortune. The magnitude of the brain's schadenfreude response could even be predicted from the strength of the previous envy response.
A study conducted in 2009 provides evidence for people's capacity to feel schadenfreude in response to negative events in politics. The study was designed to determine whether or not there was a possibility that events containing objective misfortunes might produce schadenfreude. It was reported in the study that the likelihood of experiencing feelings of schadenfreude depends upon whether an individual's own party or the opposing party is suffering harm. This study suggests that the domain of politics is prime territory for feelings of schadenfreude, especially for those who identify strongly with their political party.
In popular culture
In "When Flanders Failed", a 1991 episode of The Simpsons, Lisa Simpson defined "schadenfreude" to Homer as "shameful joy", repopularizing the term, which had faded from English publications since spiking after World War II.
In the 2003 Tony Award-winning musical Avenue Q, the song "Schadenfreude" parodies the language instruction songs of Sesame Street. The song, sung by characters Gary Coleman and Nicky, describes schadenfreude as "German for 'happiness at the misfortune of others'". In the song, schadenfreude is also described as "making me feel glad that I'm not you" and "people taking pleasure in your pain". The characters use examples like "D'ja ever clap when a waitress falls and drops a tray of glasses?" and "Don'tcha feel all warm and cozy, watching people out in the rain?" as being schadenfreude.
A 2005 episode of the television drama Boston Legal carries the term as its title. In the episode, attorney Alan Shore describes this condition to a jury in order to describe the only way they could possibly attain a guilty verdict against his client.
A 2005 episode of the television police drama Cold Case also carries the term as its title. The episode describes this condition as the media's motive for the quickened prosecution of a doctor on his wife's murder and the re-opening of the case years later after new evidence comes to light.
In 2013, electronic music group The M Machine released a track titled "Schadenfreude" on their album Metropolis, Pt. II.
The video game Team Fortress 2 has a taunt in the game called "The Schadenfreude" where classes will point and laugh.
A frequent guest on the BS Report and other Bill Simmons related podcasts named John O'Connell (aka JackO, aka The Gregarious Raconteur) refers to his own sense of schadenfreude frequently as it relates to watching athletic teams he dislikes either losing games or making poor decisions with personnel.
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- Smith, Richard H. 2013. The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-973454-2