Schadenfreude and Envy

Competition Below the Surface

They are inevitable, normal, even, at time, useful – but does that make them good? Can we justify taking pleasure in the misfortune of another, or, as the German’s put it, “Schadenfreude?” Or can we keep ourselves from being envious of other’s good fortune? (See, “Our Pleasure in Others’ Misfortune.”)

A professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, Richard H. Smith, notes that we are comparing and judging each other all the time. In a new book, he wrote: “Vegetarians need not say a word; their very existence, from a meat eater’s point of view, is a moral irritant.”

The underlying issue here is that in every case our self-esteem is involved. Vegetarians irritate carnivores because their behavior implies they see themselves as superior. If the vegetarian is self-righteous, so much the worse. That would be hard for a carnivore to forgive.

But, then, vegetarians can’t help feeling superior. They made the choice to give up meat. There are different reasons for those choices, of course, not always grounded in moral or ethical considerations. Some just feel better when their digestive systems don’t have to cope with meat. Some just want to make their mother’s lives harder. But there is always the implication that the same reasons apply to others as well. You’ll feel better. You’ll be healthier. You’ll be better.

Which brings us to schadenfreude. When someone suffers a misfortune, we may not think they brought it on themselves. But we can’t help thinking, “Thank god, that’s not us.” We may not get credit for our good fortune, but there is no doubt we think we are better off. Far from deserving the complacent pity of others, we will be the object of their envy. We have not lost our jobs. Our house was not damaged by the storm. Our daughter got into Harvard.

In both envy and schadenfreude we are the targets of another’s vicarious emotion. In one it is provoked by our good fortune, in the other by our misfortune. But usually we did nothing to create either response. We deserve neither praise nor blame. They are unconscious by-products of living our lives. Together they form a continuous stream of inner commentary on our interactions with others.

But as they are socially disapproved, they create psychological dilemmas for us, reflecting badly on us if we allow them to show. Schadenfreude is somewhat more acceptable if we can agree that the person brought misfortune upon himself. In that case our pleasure is masked, and we can all join in blaming the victim. With envy it’s best to remain silent, as it is almost impossible to get people to own up to it.

Dr. Smith concludes that schadenfreude “need not be demonized.” Better to embrace the opportunity it provides to indulge our dark sides than to deny its existence. He’s right, of course, although “indulging” our dark sides is not exactly how I’d put it. Just acknowledging it to ourselves can help us to feel less guilty about what we can’t help feeling.

As The New York Times put it in its report on Professor Smith’s research: “So long as it remains passive, schadenfreude can enhance our self-worth and serve as a reminder that even the most enviable people are fallible — just like us.” It’s part of being human.