Schadenfreude: The Joy of Another’s Misfortune by Tiffany Watt Smith

Schadenfreude: The Joy of Another's Misfortune by Tiffany Watt Smith
Sch… den… wot?

Schadenfreude delight is something we mention every now and then on Professional Moron. It’s when you take subtle joy in the mishaps of others – such as if you see some pompous-looking businessman fall over in the street. You’ll feel smug and superior about it for an instant.

Why is this? Well, Tiffany Watt Smith decided to find out. She’s a research fellow at the Centre for the History of the Emotions. And there’s a lot of that going on in the world of…

Schadenfreude

At the start of the book, Watt Smith highlights the above superb male creature embarrassing himself by “plunging” into a lake of solid ice. That clip went viral and is part of a YouTube sensation of “fail” videos.

Those are random clips of people injuring themselves in some way – failing at life. It’s not a new phenomenon, as in England we had You’ve Been Framed back in the early 1990s. Elsewhere, there’s the likes of America’s Funniest Home Videos.

Why do we like stuff like that? As the writer puts it:

"The unexpected thrill we feel at another’s misfortune is a deliciously clandestine human pleasure. Sure, we put on our best sad face when our infuriatingly attractive friend gets dumped.

But behind the commiserations, there’s just a little pulse of excitement, making our eyes gleam and the corners of our mouths twitch."

There’s a fine line to tread here. As if, say, that pompous-looking businessman fell over in the street, shattered both ankles, and was then run over by a bus… well, would you still feel smug?

Or would a very humane and instinctive urge to assist kick in? Take the below clip, what’s your automatic reaction here?

For us, we think it’s hilarious. Although we do hope all concerned went uninjured. But, still… LOL! etc.

Schadenfreude is a furtive emotion, Watt Smith explains, as laughing at others is something you normally associate with villainy. And we do feel a bit evil for considering the above clip amusing.

The term is, of course, from Germany. It’s uncomfortable for some of us to acknowledge it, but it’s part of our popular culture. The Simpsons covered it many years ago.

Gloating, smugness – whatever you want to call it, at some point in your life you’ve had a laugh at someone else’s expense. Regardless of whether it was deserved or not.

"Schadenfreude might be seen as the opposite of empathy, but even vicarious sadness can be a pleasure. We all know people who love a good catastrophe, so long as it’s not happening to them.

All that gossip and drama, the boxes of wine, the tissues. Misery, as the old saying goes, loves company. It’s reassuring, to hear about other people’s bad decisions and errant spouses and ungrateful children. It reminds us that it’s not only our own hopes that get dashed – everybody else’s do, too."

But that’s the big stuff. This emotion also has a lot to do with the little things in life, such as seeing a colleague you don’t like being fired, or some jackass in a sportscar getting a speeding ticket.

You’d likely also take immense delight in scraping your car keys down the side of some overly fancy car knowing the owner’s reaction will be hilarious.

Watt Smith’s book does delve into that, but in a light-hearted manner. This isn’t a particularly serious read (the cover of the book provides a hint, huh?) and covers the idea we’re in an era of casual spite in a jaunty way.

She does briefly consider various psychoanalytic theories, such as with Freud (who viewed the emotion rather negatively – perhaps as it riffs off your surname too closely, Sigmund?). But if you want an in depth study of schadenfreude you may want to look elsewhere.

It’s instead an upbeat and engaging tour through one of humanity’s more peculiar emotional reactions – a beginner’s guide to one aspect of psychology, essentially.

Also, wouldn’t it be ironic if you, say, got a paper cut while reading it and someone laughed at you? We say… punch them in the face!

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