The Feeling of Schadenfreude, an experience with the dark side of joy

To better understand this topic, I’m gonna need you to drop the myth that any one emotion is remotely ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Drop it. In the end of the day, all you are left to do is to simply feel them.

However, it all goes without saying that our emotions are indeed complexed. Feeling emotions to later identify what they (really) are and how they came about is the best way to working through it. You must allow your emotions to flow.

Life doesn’t exist in shades of black and white, and this same principle applies to our emotions, too. There are times we may feel sad, which may come off as a generally negative feeling, albeit a normal emotional response to pain, there also exists its darker counterpart, despair.

The same goes for the feelings of anger and hatred.

Love and lust.

Faith and greed.

But what about our happiness? Could a word that sounds as purely innocent as to what it means really have such a negative, extreme aspect? Is our happiness capable of bringing harm to oneself and to others?

Allow me to introduce to you a really cool-sounding German term Schadenfreude, which means “defective joy“. This oxymoron is used when a person’s sense of pleasure is derived from the pain and calamities that befall on others.

It is not to be confused with sadism as there is no actual intention to inflict harm on others. It is in simply feeling good upon observing or learning of others’ misfortunes.

Here, let us take a deeper look into Schadenfreude and to what extent being joyous brings out the devil inside of us.

Aggression-based Schadenfreude

Schadenfreude is something we feel more often than we think we do. Though a person may not openly talk about its occurrence, Schadenfreude does in fact have some relation to our ego and self-esteem. This is more prevalent in people who take great pride in an in-group status.

To simply put it, aggression-based Schadenfreude is more of a group versus group scenario. Whenever an opposing faction experiences some form of setback or failure, a person may take those losses as a damage to the rivalling group’s reputation.

While it is not a win per se, it does provide some relief in knowing that one’s own group is given the upper hand. This sort of Schadenfreude could be used as a means to motivate oneself and their fellow group members.

Aggression-based Schadenfreude is more commonly seen among people who hold an undying devotion to a cause or to an identity they’ve associated themselves with. Apparently, not everyone has the capacity for tolerance over differences. As the term implies, this type of Schadenfreude has got more of a suggest of aggression than competition.

It has been argued that aggression-based Schadenfreude is responsible for seeding racism in modern day society.

Rivalry-based Schadenfreude

It is to no surprise that a person could feel Schadenfreude to a personal level, too. In fact, Schadenfreude often stems from an inferiority complex. A person may feel desperate to rise above their peers to prove their self-worth. However, the thing about desperation is that we would go to any lengths necessary to achieve our ends, or to feel good when seeing things work in our favour.

In knowing that someone else is facing a difficulty, we further cement our beliefs in our own path and capabilities. We would take in their loss as a personal glory. Essentially, there will be a misunderstanding that any mishap that befell on others is due to their incompetence, or simply because they are deserving of it.

Sometimes, one may even believe that it is the work of karma, or that some external force is working to our favour. Whatever it is that we choose to believe, even if by the miracles of coincidences, our so-called “gratitude” is misplaced.

The thing about rivalries is that it teaches us to compare ourselves to others. In doing so, we undermine our own efforts in the attempt to strive for betterment. It would be in our best interest to appreciate the hard work we bring about ourselves rather than to see how far others have gone or have fallen behind.

Rivalry-based Schadenfreude could be seen more commonly in, but not limited to, cases of sibling rivalries. Competitive children often experience a degree of pleasure whenever they find their siblings in trouble. The amusement comes from the idea that one will be deemed more favourable in the eyes of others, typically by their parents, even if for a short-lived moment.

Justice-based Schadenfreude

Schadenfreude has some seemingly innocent instances, too. There may be times deriving pleasures from others’ pain could also be more justifiable. In the case of justice-based Schadenfreude, people find pleasure and great solace upon learning when a punishment fits the crime.

In our eyes, when a criminal or felon commits misdeeds, we would expect nothing less than a fair, strict sentence for them. This is especially true if we feel a strong sense of empathy for those affected by the crime, or if we feel personally affected by it as well, how ever directly or indirectly.

When justice is served, we can’t help but feel relieved. The heavier the punishment sentenced to the “bad” person, the more joy we’d find from the conviction.

Justice-based Schadenfreude can be effective in restoring one’s faith in the judicial system. It gives people more security in knowing that fairness will be delivered to anyone who has been wronged.

Is Schadenfreude something to worry about?

“To feel envy is human, to savour Schadenfreude is diabolic.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, philosopher.

I suppose everyone has at some point lived the behaviour of Schadenfreude. We have all derived joy from setbacks that don’t personally affect ourselves in any way, shape, or form. And yet, it doesn’t occur to us that we are to feel terrible for having felt that particular way.

A plausible reason for this would be due to the fact that we were presented with a strong sense of victory without having to put in any effort for it. The feeling of pleasure is further upheld in knowing that we’ve had no involvement in harming anyone whatsoever; the problem doesn’t implicate us.

Furthermore, a person may simply feel grateful that a bad thing happened to someone else rather than to themselves. However, that gratitude could be exaggerated to a point whereby we’d feel superior for simply having been on the side of luck.

Schadenfreude could get eerily disturbing in the sense that we may develop hostility towards others, typically to those whom we view as a potential interpersonal competitor or a threat to our status quo. Schadenfreude may negatively impact one’s existing relationships with others. In the long-run, it may even present us with some difficulties in trying to make newer and maintain healthy friendships.

Schadenfreude is more or less like any other emotion, and therefore it should be treated as such. It demands to be felt. It is best to not dwell on the joyous feelings derived from Schadenfreude any longer than we have to. Yet, I implore that we embrace it until the the feeling passes.

To feel something does not necessarily equate to acting on it. It just means that we need to process some unresolved emotions; to feel it is the best way to working through it.

Schadenfreude as a personality trait

We can’t deny that there are also times where we feel lost in our thoughts and emotions. Schadenfreude occurs more easily in those who covet dominance. Sometimes, seeing ourselves in a state that is comparatively much better than others gives us an assurance that our lives are well-preserved and more importantly, within our control.

The thought of losing control of one’s own life can be daunting. Schadenfreude just happens to be one of the many ways to cope with that fear. Therefore, we choose to believe what supports our worldview and what sustains our desired way of life.

People who adapt to having Schadenfreude as a personality trait may also take on a particular interest in darker ventures such as stories of murders, the occult, the understanding of weapons, and the ideologies of racial supremacy. It all comes from a false ideation that for a person to be powerful, one must dominate and stand apart from others with an iron fist, or at the very least, to show some capacity of familiarity with it.

To this day, Schadenfreude has been widely accepted as a social norm. Some people may band together or find common ground in their beliefs of rejecting others from being part of their society. People fear what they lack in understanding, therefore, they “punish” those who don’t conform to what the majority views as acceptable.

People who more frequently indulge in Schadenfreude may risk losing their empathy for others altogether. Schadenfreude stems from the idea that any misfortune that befalls on others is in simply because one is deserving of it. This may make a person to eventually feel less motivated to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.

People will ignore the rationality or consideration for another’s burdens and feelings simply because one’s empathy and their take on fate do not align. And by extension, we may unknowingly cast doubts on ourselves whether or not we should lend a helping hand. This does not make us unwilling to help others entirely, but we may have our second thoughts before and whilst we help them. There is always the possibility that more joy could be derived from, should any further damages happen to them if we decide to take a step back.

Schadenfreude – the dark side of joy?


For a poem about Schadenfreude, click here!


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