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Have your veins ever felt a rush of offbeat pleasure on knowing someone failed in an endeavor? Did you ever witness the hidden devil in you smiling over someone who recently faced a setback after being at the top of their game? Do you feel some uncanny or unwonted happiness upon seeing a high-performing colleague or a fellow mate commit a blunder on the D-day or has someone else’s professional or personal mishap given you a sense of accomplishment? Does watching nefarious characters in a film being finally smacked in the face or thwarted by kismet give you some joy?—Well, let us not shy away from admitting that all of us have had this grubby glee at some point in our lives. 

Experiencing this sordid delight in the misfortune of others is what is known as schadenfreude. ‘Schadenfreude’ (pronounced SHAH-den-froy-da) is a German word which, upon breaking down, is found to be a stash oxymoron where ‘schaden’ means damage or harm and ‘freude’ means joy or pleasure. The English dictionary has an equivalent word ‘epicaricacy’ for a feeling so human and abound. It is derived from the ancient Greek where ‘epi’ means upon, ‘kharis’ means joy and ‘kakos’ means evil.

Though schadenfreude involves deriving pleasure and being joyful, it is irrefutably different from laughing off when we get amused upon seeing someone having a bad show. For instance, watching an individual trip on a banana skin, a model stumble on the ramp walk, an anchor making a slip of the tongue, somebody accidentally spilling contents from a box, so forth and so on, is all simple humor as long as the concerned individual is not seriously hurt. Thus, if there is no physical injury or emotional harm but only joy, it is plain humor. While on the contraposition, if there is harm and still joy, it is schadenfreude. For example, feeling happy about the class topper scoring less, your ex running into a failed marriage, one of your egoistic colleagues fumbling during his presentation or your unkind sibling getting rejected in one of his interviews, all apparently highlight sensing schadenfreude.

In a nutshell,

Harm  (No) + Joy (Yes) = Normal humour

Harm (Yes) + Joy (Yes) = Schadenfreude

Schadenfreude is essentially gloating in the affliction of your competitors and not relishing in your victory over them as the latter is sheer arrogance. Schadenfreude, in fact, serves to protect or enhance one’s view of themselves. There’s a risk of experiencing schadenfreude when someone whom you treat as a threat or someone whom you perceive as dominant, arrogant, boastful, narcissistic, etc. suffers a misadventure. So, if you dislike someone, then it’s very likely for you to experience schadenfreude towards them. In most cases, the target of your sense of schadenfreude is a high achiever. Schadenfreude is, thus, said to have some relation with envy. Envy is a negative feeling one endures because someone else is or appears more successful than him or her.

As far as the person who experiences schadenfreude is concerned, it’s mostly out of his or her low self-esteem and sense of inferiority complex. If something bad happens to a person they are jealous of, their self-worth gets re-established, regaining their long-lost self-confidence. Their negative emotion of envy gets positively replaced after they undertake a social comparison once their opponent undergoes some adversity. They feel that the playing field has been leveled because a high performer is finally bogged down, satisfying their envy. 

Isn’t it ironic how schadenfreude being a negative feeling in itself gives us pleasure and joy?

Schadenfreude is not sadism either. Sadism or being sadistic means deriving pleasure by inflicting pain upon someone through your own actions. In schadenfreude, you never cause a problem to the other party, unlike sadism where you are the originator of the pain to the person you don’t like and glean pleasure from the same. Under schadenfreude, there is always an external factor or third party that engenders agony.

Seems like too much negativity?Time to flip the coin!

Do you remember being recently jubilant about someone’s success story? If yes then what you experienced was ‘freudenfreude’ which is just the opposite of schadenfreude. Freudenfreude is elation in another person’s success, i.e., feeling joyful in response to others’ joy. 

Well, sensing epicaricacy may seem like a guilty pleasure. There are several theories behind schadenfreude and why it occurs. A lot of research has already been done on this subject matter and several psychologists are divided on whether schadenfreude is necessarily clinical in nature, amoral, or just very humane?

Therefore, if schadenfreude regularly creeps into your veins and you desire to get rid of it, instead of pondering over how moral or not it is to feel this, try making the best use of a feeling so unusual or abound. To help you with it rationally and in a simpler manner, here are some of the best ways to cope with this feeling and make its best use:

Click here if you feel guilty about sensing Schadenfreude and want to get answers to questions like how can a negative feeling which in itself gives pleasure and joy be used in the most positive manner or is it even possible to experience schadenfreude in a healthy and/or productive way?

Aakriti Sanghi

Delhi North '23

Aakriti Sanghi is a student at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She is a learner and an ambivert who desires to become the reason due to which people believe in the goodness of others, especially in today's world of polarization where we live and thrive!
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