The recent flood of news about financial scandals and economic reversals afflicting the wealthy and prominent have given a real workout for schadenfreude, the most embarrassing of our emotions.

We like to think of ourselves as empathic to those who suffer, good hearted and generous to those in distress — and sometimes are actually are.  But all too frequently we are not.  In fact, we work hard to suppress our wan smiles or smirks or to conceal our spiteful thoughts when we hear about the victims of Bernie Madoff who can no longer afford their five houses, their private jets, or even, merely, the country club fees they used to pay without a thought.  We don’t want others to know about those feelings;  worse, we don’t often even want to know about them ourselves.

Recent research has confirmed what psychoanalysts have known for sometime: schadenfreude is a cousin of envy.  Because we do envy others for what they have that we don’t, we take a special pleasure when they lose it.  And we don’t like the fact that we are envious, either, and seldom will we openly acknowledge it.

But Natalie Angier has reported in Science Times on recent research that shows the actual  links in the brain.  New scanning techniques illuminate the areas of the brain activated in response to scenarios of envy and, then, the extended scenarios in which the envied person has a downfall.  The evidence is unmistakable:  we suffer with envy and we enjoy the reversal. (To see the Times article, click here)

In a society characterized by a widening gap between the rich and the poor, this happens more and more.  And in a recession such as the one we are now experiencing, our own pain only intensifies the pleasure we take in the pain of others.  This too can be amplified when we band together to enjoy punishing the “greedy” investors and managers to led us down this lane.  Indeed, the collective pleasure of schadenfreude can become irresistible, and a powerful political force.

Another aspect of this worth considering:  how much we don’t want to know we are the object of other’s envy — and subsequently, of course, the fact of being a source of pleasure for others when we suffer a loss or reversal.  This may be a key element in humiliation, where we suffer not only the loss of esteem in the eyes of others but sense as well that we will continue to be punished for having been envied in the first place.

I have often wondered why our language has not come up with a native term for “schadenfreude.”  It’s not as if the German word is so mellifluous or, even, easy to say.  Perhaps it is yet another way for our culture to keep awareness of such feelings at a distance.  Without a convenient label, maybe we won’t notice it so much.