Schadenfreude: The Guilty Pleasure of Feeling Good When Others Feel Bad


At some point, an employee might feel like having a good day after seeing his troublesome coworker get yelled at by the boss. Similarly, a soccer ball supporter wildly cheered up after seeing the opponent’s goalkeeper fall when trying to stop the goal. From the coworker and the goalkeeper’s point of view, the experience felt unpleasant or even painful. But why did the other parties find pleasure in it? 

Think about a similar feeling you experienced. This feeling of pleasure derived from another’s misfortune is known as schadenfreude, which is often regarded as unethical or unkind behavior. 

Acquiring a better understanding of the triggers and impacts of schadenfreude in social situations is key to gaining control over this complex emotion. This article aims to explore the origins and reasons behind the emergence of schadenfreude, providing you with valuable insights by the end of the reading. 

Origins of schadenfreude

Schadenfreude, a word formed from the German words “schaden” for harm and “freude,” which refers to the typical emotion of joy, refers to the enjoyment one takes in another person’s misfortunes. While no exact English equivalent exists,  the phrase “malicious joy” closely captures the essence of the term. 

While the naming of Schadenfreude may involve subtle distinctions, it’s far a regular emotion in contemporary society and linked to essential sides of our lives. It is worth noting that schadenfreude is distinct from the joy of winning or when you celebrate while defeating an opponent in the competition. The main distinction lies in the cause of the misfortune, which must be unrelated to one’s actions. 

In schadenfreude, we are simply able to feel happy after hearing that our opponent can’t continue the match due to external factors. 

What causes schadenfreude

According to the appraisal theory of emotions, each person evaluates events subjectively, resulting in different emotional experiences. Some misfortunes can trigger empathy for a person and joy for others. The occurrence of Schadenfreude can be explained by three typical situations, which involve the momentum of self-gain, justice, and social comparison. The following circumstances show how a person develops Schadenfreude:

When the situation leads to your gain

One of the reasons for experiencing Schadenfreude is when a person’s loss directly corresponds to one’s gain. An example is when a student got excited after hearing that he became a substitute delegate for an overseas conference because another student could not attend due to illness. It is possible to question whether the joy felt in such a situation actually comes from a person’s focus on winning rather than being happy seeing the other’s losing. 

However, according to social identity theory, the winning itself becomes meaningful only if there is a presence of someone else’s loss. Competitive scenarios can trigger a naturally competitive tendency in most individuals, leading to the enjoyment of witnessing rivals’ suffering. 

Another common situation that can elicit schadenfreude is when the context involves inter-group competition in sports. One example is from the study that examined schadenfreude in the out-group’s loss, which proved that a group of Dutch with a high interest in soccer experienced high schadenfreude when reminded of Germany’s loss in the World Cup.

When you compare yourself to others you envy

Envy occurs upon a frustration over realizing that somebody possesses something that one desire but lacks. When one person envies another, they perceive an imbalance between them. But if the envied person fails or loses something, the perception shifts, and the envying person no longer feels inferior or subordinate to the other, thus joy occurs. 

In another study, schadenfreude results from the presence of compensation or when the envied person undergoes an event that the envying person also has. 

When you feel the sense of ‘deservingness’ 

Imagine when you hear news on TV about the school bullies who finally got dropped out of college after their years of bullying were uncovered, what will you feel? You might think of something like ‘they deserved it’ or consider it good news. This is an example of experiencing schadenfreude triggered by a sense of ‘deservingness’. This situation is slightly different from the other two as it’s unrelated to oneself but more likely happens when justice is finally being served. 

The evaluation of justice will depend on a person’s subjective values. For instance, when you feel pleasure when seeing someone with their car get a penalty for parking in a disabled-only area. This joy might not happen to others who don’t really care about disabled rights.

In conclusion

Schadenfreude is an emotion typically evoked based on an individual’s subjective interpretation and the surrounding circumstances. It can be evoked by personal factors such as self-gain or feelings of inferiority and also be related to societal issues, like fighting against injustice. Being a good person does not necessarily mean that one should always have empathy for others, and it’s absolutely normal and acceptable to feel the opposite types of emotions, like schadenfreude, as long as one is aware of and in control of them.

If you would like to know more the other aspects of joy, check out the Happiness Science Labs. The lab uses the research of the Institute for Life Management Science to produce courses, certifications, podcasts, videos, and other tools. Visit the Happiness Science Labs today.

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