In an age when compassion and positivity have become buzzwords and “feeling grateful” is a hashtag, not just a state of mind, there might be less tolerance than ever for our uglier, less generous emotions. We’re encouraged to embrace our anger, befriend our fear, and reframe our vulnerabilities as strengths—but experiencing a secret little thrill about someone else’s misfortune? That’s just shameful. It’s no surprise that our word for it comes directly from another language; schadenfreude is a concept we sunny, self-aggrandizing Americans don’t want to lay claim to.
Yet it’s also a common and normal human response, according to researchers. In a study at Princeton University, participants were connected to an electromyogram (which captures the electrical activity produced when we feel pleasure), and shown photographs of groups meant to elicit particular emotions, such as the elderly (pity) and rich professionals (envy). Then each set of images was paired with a positive, negative, or neutral event, and participants were asked how they felt about each pairing. The electrical activity showed that most of them experienced pleasure when observing the suffering of those they envied—even though not all of them admitted it.
From an evolutionary perspective, scientists theorize that schadenfreude could be a natural product of competition between rivals over limited resources. Certainly, it appears to be inborn: In a study titled “There Is No Joy like Malicious Joy,” kids as young as two exhibited signs of schadenfreude toward peers who were favored over them.
(Interestingly, altruism and compassion also appear to be instinctive, at least when no threat is present: in another study, children as young as 18 months typically stopped what they were doing in order to help a stranger in need.)
So, if taking joy in others’ pain is innate in us, can it also serve as an opportunity to look more closely at ourselves? Can we bring greater awareness to the involuntary reactions of our “lizard brain”?
Unraveling the tangled web of emotions associated with schadenfreude can help us pinpoint the sources of this uncomfortable yet seemingly unavoidable feeling. A study of brain activity in situations that evoked envy and schadenfreude showed a strong correlation between them; participants who experienced one were likely to experience the other. “With envy, we feel bad about ourselves in light of the success of others, and with schadenfreude, we feel good about their misfortunes,” says Arnie Kozak, a psychologist, clinical assistant professor in psychiatry at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, and author of Mindfulness A to Z: 108 Insights for Awakening Now and The Awakened Introvert. “Both are predicated on social comparison and a sense that we are in competition with others for resources such as fame, wealth, success, and admiration. Sharing something in common with the target strengthens these feelings”—which explains why we often experience schadenfreude in relation to friends, colleagues, siblings, and other peers, the people we are most likely to be in competition with (in our minds, at least).
Ultimately, the emotions that spark schadenfreude—feeling threatened, jealous, or inferior—are catalyzed by our primary goal in life, the goal that underlies all our attempts to collect emotional, material, and spiritual resources: the drive to develop, reinforce, and protect our sense of self. “The person who threatens us makes us fear losing the sense of self we have, while the person we envy makes us fear that the self we have is not enough,” says yoga teacher Sam Chase, author of Yoga and the Pursuit of Happiness and a graduate of the Certificate in Positive Psychology program at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. “Both figures are prime targets for schadenfreude—their suffering makes us feel like our carefully crafted sense of self is safe and sufficient. But, instead of sitting in this self-satisfying sensation, we can use it as a signal to probe deeper into our own sense of who we are: What in me is being threatened? Where is the source of the envy, the outrage, or the low self-esteem?” (Low self-esteem has been shown to make us significantly more likely to enjoy the plight of others.)
Kozak adds a few more questions to consider when confronting schadenfreude: “What unmet need might be at play and what is a more skillful way to go about fulfilling that need? For instance, is your glee at someone’s failure a way to protect yourself against your own fears of failure? Perhaps it is time to take a risk, to make yourself more vulnerable.” In her now-classic book on spirituality and creativity, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron suggests combating envy by first locating its precise form, then identifying why it feels like a burden, and, finally, deciding on an action that can be taken to address it.
The Buddha cited four virtues we should aspire towards—all of which might be considered inoculations against schadenfreude, or antidotes for it, according to Kozak, a Buddhist scholar and faculty member for the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. These include mudita (“sympathetic joy” or appreciation), metta (loving-kindness), uppekha (equanimity), and karuna (compassion). “If schadenfreude and envy assume happiness is a zero-sum game—that is, there is only so much happiness to go around—then appreciation and compassion assume that happiness is unlimited, and I don’t need to be in competition with you,” he says.
Both Kozak and Chase point to a response to schadenfreude that transcends ego and our limited notions of who we are. In Buddhism, it’s called anatta, or “not-self.” “The self that can experience envy and schadenfreude experiences itself as a distinct, enduring entity that can be afflicted by the rises and falls of life’s fortunes,” Kozak says. “If the self, however, is experienced as a fluid, changing process that is not owned by the person, difficult emotions are less likely to arise.”
Yoga philosophy echoes that viewpoint—it’s “built on the belief that our sense of a stable and separate self is largely an illusion, and that the energy we devote to maintaining that illusion is our primary source of suffering,” Chase explains. “So whatever sense of security or self-esteem we get from schadenfreude is ultimately rather flimsy—it serves as a kind of psychological Band Aid, covering over but not healing a deeper wound in ourselves.”
While most of us aren’t anywhere near dissolving our distinct self into a greater whole, perhaps we can start by simply using that occasional flicker of “malicious joy” as a bell of mindfulness—a reminder to pause and observe what thought pattern, insecurity, or lack could be triggering it. Accepting that feeling, forgiving ourselves for it, and practicing unconditional loving-kindness toward our own frailties might be the first steps in extending that same compassion to everyone else.