Understanding schadenfreude

When you respond to other people’s emotions there are four very distinct ways of doing so:

Sympathy is when you are unhappy at the unhappiness of others;

Joy is when you are happy at the happiness of others;

Envy is when you are unhappy at the happiness of others;

And schadenfreude is when you are happy at the unhappiness of others.

Schadenfreude is defined as your malicious joy in the misfortunes of others and has been in English only since 1922 when it was first borrowed from the Germans, who seem more accepting of the concept. Schadenfreude comes directly from German and literally means damage-joy from schaden for damage, harm, injury and freude, from Old High German for joy. It can be literally interpreted as meaning hopping for joy (freude shares the same origin as frolic).

Sympathy and joy are shared emotions—you feel what someone else is feeling—and therefore show empathy and caring. On the other hand, envy and schadenfreude are contrary emotions and are viewed as unpleasant, and, indeed, malicious. Envy is recognised as a common negative emotion. However, schadenfreude is often not acknowledged at all, because it is seen as so unpleasant that some people refuse to accept that it exists.

The historic denial of the existence of schadenfreude is apparent in our culture by the very lack of a native English word to describe it. Although we have seen its symptoms described since early times:

Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth: Lest the LORD see it, and it displease him, and he turn away his wrath from him, Proverbs 24:17–18.

However there are degrees of acceptability in the emotion of schadenfreude. Studies have shown that men in particular are susceptible to schadenfreude (particularly when supporting sporting teams) and that it is felt most strongly when the misfortune of others is thought to be most deserved.  I myself take great pleasure in seeing New Zealand rugby players being yellow-carded (sent from the field for breaking the laws of rugby football) and do so without even the remotest twinge of guilt.