In Defense of Schadenfreude

Historian Tiffany Watt Smith argues that schadenfreude, the joy we derive from another’s misfortune, is just a natural part of the very complex emotional responses we have as human beings.

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Jessica Gross | Longreads | February 2019 | 16 minutes (4,130 words)

Tiffany Watt Smith is a historian of emotions. How’s that for a profession? In The Book of Human Emotions, which came out in 2016, Smith profiles 154 emotions in sharp, concise bursts. Torschlusspanik, she writes, “describes the agitated, fretful feeling we get when we notice time is running out.” (The German term translates as “gate-closing panic.”) The Japanese word amae refers to the “sensation of temporary surrender in perfect safety.” And there is a two page–long entry on schadenfreude—“from the German Schaden (harm) and Freude (pleasure)”—that often-shameful feeling of pleasure at another’s pain.

In her new book, Schadenfreude: The Joy of Another’s Misfortune, Smith—who is a Wellcome Trust research fellow at the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London—takes a close look at the various flavors of this feeling. There is the schadenfreude we feel witnessing someone else’s accident, the burst of joy when our rival falters, the satisfaction when justice is served, the pleasure of watching the morally superior get their comeuppance. There is sibling rivalry (and sibling-esqure rivalry in the workplace). There is the guilty pleasure when a friend we envy suffers a disappointment.

Smith makes reading about schadenfreude fun. She also convincingly levies the broad argument that, although there are circumstances in which it can be dangerous, schadenfreude is a vital part of the way we relate to one another and doesn’t deserve to be held in such poor esteem. I spoke with Smith by phone about the nuances of schadenfreude and her experience writing about this much-judged emotion.  

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Why do you think it’s important for us to pay attention to our emotional states and our inner lives in the first place?

For one thing, that’s how we understand what is really motivating our behavior. It’s very hard to be honest if you are wading through layers of defensive shame and confusion. I think that emotional self-knowledge is really, really important for our public collective good.

In terms of the history of emotions, I think it’s important that we appreciate that our emotions are shaped not just by biology but also by the cultures we live in — the philosophical ideas, medical ideas, religious ideas, political ideas and ideas about gender and so on that surround us. If we really appreciate the cultural voices that shape our imagination, we can understand that there’s quite a complicated play at work in our minds when we experience one emotion and then perhaps feel shame about it, or feel that we need to adjust our responses to fit prescribed behavior.

The emotions that we value have changed and do change across time. For example, in the sixteenth century, sadness was a very valuable, sought-after and praised emotion. Now, happiness is the emotion that we’re all supposed to be aspiring to. Something as simple as that can make you question the received wisdoms of your own time.

In your new book, you write about how experiencing schadenfreude can prompt, almost immediately after, a fear of judgment. How did you think about revealing your own experiences of schadenfreude? Was there some relief in it, or was it more like sacrificing yourself for the broader purpose of writing this book and exploring this concept?

It is definitely more sacrificial [laughter]. I actually still feel shame. I was talking to a friend and my editor: “Oh gosh, I’m going to have to talk to people about this book.” I’ve done lots of interviews before, but on other topics. With this one, I do feel exposed.

But in a way, that was one of the things that got me interested in it in the first place: this isn’t an easy emotion to talk about. It’s cloaked in a lot of shame but also ambivalence and awkwardness. And that that was interesting to me. I was intrigued: What are the situations in which we feel this? Why do we feel it? And what do we do when we do feel it?

And then this emotion, which had seemed a rather minor, fleeting thing, seemed to be actually much more present and prevalent than I had realized. It had seemed to be a minor bit of malice, but had actually revealed itself to be a really interesting window into all kinds of human interaction and behavior.

It seems important to you to present in the book a view of schadenfreude that is not moralizing or judgmental, just analytical. How did you think or write your way through that initial fear and shame? Often, there’s a sense of curiosity and real delight in the writing.

It’s very hard to write about something which you are trying to hide. You sort of just have to embarrass yourself, don’t you? When you’re writing, ultimately I think you feel like you can have a certain amount of control. There is wryness in the voice in the book, which allows it both to reveal stuff and to control it a little bit. And I guess the way that I wrote my way into it was trying to be honest with myself about the kinds of scenarios that I found myself enjoying.

Also, because I was reading so much about this topic and talking to so many people about it, it did, through that process, become normalized for me. One of the reasons that some emotions that feel very shameful is that you get the feeling you’re the only person who feels like this. One of the great reliefs for me in reading other people’s work on this subject, and one of the things I hope that some people might take away from the book, is, “Oh, yes, everyone feels like this. Everyone has this from time to time. And people have been feeling like this for a very long time; this isn’t unique for me here right now. I’m not a terrible person. This is just a feature of what it is to be in living it collectively.”

At the beginning of each section of the book, you offer brief lists of examples of each flavor of schadenfreude, and I often got a shot of joy or relief from reading through those. One of my favorites was, “Horse yoga (in which people do yoga on top of horses) and when it goes wrong.[laughter] Could you walk me through your process of writing those very specific examples? I pictured you keeping a notebook with you at all times and writing one down when it came to you. But equally it could have been you sitting down with each of these categories and making these up.

It was much more the first. When I start writing about emotions, I observe myself feeling them and try and understand what it feels like. That process does involve me jotting down things that prompt that emotion — usually I email them to myself or make notes on my phone. I collect them at the same time as I’m reading and thinking.

After a while, I start to understand how an emotion works on many different levels. Emotions are very broad and they don’t have straightforward boundaries, and there are lots of subcategories. But once I start jotting down lots of instances, I start to get a picture of the range.

I didn’t actually include those lists in the book initially; I was just using them as a way to help me organize the other material. In the first draft that I sent to my editor, I included only one list as part of the introduction and my editor said, “Oh, please, can you put more lists in?” [laughter] So I went back to my notebooks and I had all of these examples. At that point it turned into the skill of trying to tell them with a good punch line.

The phrase “punch line” is particularly apt here: There are some wonderfully funny stories in the book, especially in the historical research you include. One personal favorite was the third century emperor who had his dinner guests sit on deflating airbags so they fell under the table. That delighted me. And then I loved the tale of the “Earle of Oxford” who went into a [laughter] seven-year exile after he farted in front of the Queen. The book is quite short, and you pack in so much. Can you talk about choosing what to include?

If I was to pick up a big book about schadenfreude, I might find it a bit off-putting. Whereas something small, something deceptively playful and light, I thought might have a chance of finding lots of readers and appealing to a broad range of people. Of course, as I got going on it, this topic revealed itself to be quite complex. So then it became a process of trying to see how much could go in without overstuffing it.


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You don’t linger on this, but you point out in the introduction that the difference between schadenfreude and sadism is that with schadenfreude, we aren’t causing the pain ourselves. That seems to me a really key part of this, and makes it even more interesting that we experience such shame around schadenfreude.

When the word first appeared in English, it was used quite broadly. Some of the ways people used it are very familiar to us today — laughing at vain people getting their comeuppance, or enjoying the possibility that some law that you didn’t vote for ends up screwing up badly and everyone gets in a real muddle about it. But people also talked about scenarios that were much more brutal and unpleasant, and the sorts of things that we probably wouldn’t think of as being schadenfreudian today, like people enjoying watching cats being tortured.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, you get an expanding and professionalization of psychology, which means a lot of naming and categorization of mental life. This is the moment when a lot of the conditions and names that we are familiar with today, like anxiety, get invented. One of them is sadism. And I think it’s because sadism comes into focus as a particular condition of mind, and one that is so clearly linked to pleasure and torturing, that you get this kind of hiving off schadenfreude. So schadenfreude becomes something which is much more opportunistic and second-hand, like a spectator’s sport, whereas sadism itself is much more the pleasure of causing pain and then enjoying the pain that you’ve caused.

When you think about some of the situations that we find ourselves in today, like when someone says something foolish on Twitter and loads of people pile in and criticize him, then partly what we’re doing is a process of public shaming. There is some pleasure, I think, in those moments where even if you don’t actually add a comment, the fact that you might like or share the big list of comments does contribute to the shaming. So it’s a way of schadenfreude being registered, but it is also a way of contributing to that person’s feelings of humiliation, shame, and punishment. So I don’t know how clearly that line can really be drawn in our age.

Yes. I was wondering about the intersection of personal and cultural ideas of what’s okay and what isn’t. The broad-scale public shaming that you describe, and that, as you mention, Jon Ronson wrote about, feels new. But also I wondered about different personal thresholds and what might predispose a particular person to experience more or different schadenfreude than somebody else.

On the one hand, people have enjoyed seeing transgressors get their comeuppance for a very long time. Presumably it’s part of what has allowed our societies to function relatively smoothly. One of the stories that really stuck in my head was about researchers who worked with a group of children as young as six. They showed them a puppet show; sometimes the puppets were well behaved, and sometimes the puppets were really naughty. The researchers indiscriminately punished all of the puppets, and when the good puppets were punished, the children got very, very upset. But when the bad puppets were punished, the children were positively gleeful. What’s worse is that then the researchers drew a curtain over this puppet theater. If the children wanted to carry on seeing the naughty puppets being punished, they had to pay with tokens. And the children paid.

I thought it was really fascinating that children even that young take such delight and enjoyment from seeing people punished. As we get older, we learn either to hide it or to recognize certain sorts of decorum around it — it’s kind of squeamish and awkward because we know that our justice system is organized around the ideal of dispassionate and emotionally distant process. And yet, of course, we also know that there’s a bully that creeps in.

As far as individual propensities toward schadenfreude, I talked to a neuroscientist named Lisa Feldman Barrett about this and I thought what she had to say was really intriguing. Our enjoyment of transgressors being punished is surely linked to the sense that we are under threat. I live in the suburbs and have young kids and I have to walk around these streets for hours every day pushing prams, so I really hate it when people cycle on the pavement. I find it slightly dangerous; I think, “Cycle in the road.” It is illegal to cycle on the pavement, by the way, in Britain. So if someone gets pulled over by a police car, that will keep me going all week. I’ll be so happy about that. Whereas maybe if you drive everywhere and you see this person being pulled over for cycling on the pavement, you think, “Why are the police wasting their time?” So that’s a clear example: if something really affects you and bothers you, when that person gets caught or told off, then you really enjoy it.

The research seems to point in two different directions about the relationship between a personal sense of confidence and a tendency to experience schadenfreude. At one point you write about how, for people who are ill, the less self-assured they are, the more hearing about someone who’s more sick will make them fear that it will happen to them, too. But on the other hand, it seems as though in general, schadenfreude might be the purview of the more insecure. I’m thinking in particular of the pleasure we feel when someone who’s made us feel inferior is destroyed. If you’re quite confident, you’re not feeling so inferior so much of the time. So how do you parse that relationship between confidence and schadenfreude?

Those two examples come from two different ways of thinking about schadenfreude. And one of the things that came up when I was trying to organize the material for this book is that it did seem to me that there were not just variations on the same theme, but actually quite distinct forms of this emotion.

So on the one hand, yes, if you feel unconfident — and I think that was defined as feeling like you don’t have any control over the outcome of your actions — then other people’s failures, when those other people are in exactly the same predicament as you, can seem scary, rather than reassuring. You think you’re going to suffer the same fate. When people who are more confident and believe they’ve got some sort of control over the outcome of their situations encounter people in worse situations, they tend to feel like they’ve secured some sort of advantage by making slightly better choices. Both of those are fanciful thinking, but nonetheless, it seems to be how it works.

It’s probably more likely that you’re going to feel envious or insecure or inferior if you’re in situations where you are also feeling insecure. So you might generally be quite a confident person, but there might be one particular area which is your Achilles’ heel. Perhaps you’re very nervous about your piano playing and someone else seems to be doing really brilliantly with their piano playing, which makes you feel even more inadequate. And then they fail their exam and you feel slightly pleased because it suggests that either you’ve not done as badly as you think you have or they were just showing off, or no one’s really that good at piano, whatever. In a situation where we feel more overtly in competition, that allows us to feel a certain kind of pleasure and triumph when our rival has faltered. Whereas in the previous example, I don’t think sick people would describe themselves as in competition, but rather as looking for reassurance.

The genre of schadenfreude that has to do with competition was very interesting to me. You write about workplace schadenfreude, like when your direct rival at work fails and you feel like your star will rise in comparison. You make a brief analogy to sibling rivalry, which begged a question for me. When there’s sibling rivalry, it’s due to some sense that there are not enough resources, as you put it, or love to go around. To transpose this onto a workplace — in my field, writing, for example, there can be incredible competition between writers, as if there really isn’t enough to go around, as if only one person can publish a book. I wonder at the underlying belief system that’s betraying. The fact that it is so widespread clearly means it’s not pathological, as you put it. But there’s something that feels a bit unhealthy about the conviction that there’s not enough to go around. If my colleague gets it, that means I can’t. And if he fails, that means, good for me. What do you think?

I think there is something pathological, but I don’t think it’s us. I think it’s the structures that we find ourselves in. So, an example from my work. The universities in Britain used to function as pretty autonomous institutions. Academics have to collaborate and usually enjoy collaborating across institutions. So the idea that one institution would be set against another institution was kind of meaningless.

And then our government brought in league tables [university ranking systems], actually following America. This was some time ago. Now, this league table thing has got very, very intense, and everyone hates it. All academics scoff at it. And yet, at the same time, human nature is such that once the league tables are published, if you happen to see one — or more likely you’ve got some terrible email from your manager saying, “Hooray, we’ve done really well at blah, blah, blah” — then you will know that your university edged ahead of the other university down the road. And that makes you feel a bit better.

So there shouldn’t be any competition there and at one point, there really wasn’t. But once a competitive framework gets introduced, we kind of fall into it.

The pathology, I think, is in the difference between a family in which it’s meaningless to say that children compete over love because love is not a finite resource, and a family in which love is presented as a finite resource. In that situation, then love does seem like something worth doing battle over and we will fall into those kind of behaviors. So I think the fault, as it were, lies with the structures that we find ourselves in.

How do you think people’s very particular familial histories and worldviews prime them to experience schadenfreude, or not? My guess is that people who tend to see the world as abundant might experience schadenfreude less frequently or less intensely than those who see the world as a scarce place.

That is a question that I’ve wondered as well. And it’s part of my anxiety about the book coming out and talking about it. Do I come across like one of those people who is just obsessed with competiveness? I don’t think I am, but maybe I am more than I more than I appear to be! [Laughter]

I don’t think that anyone’s totally immune from schadenfreude because while we do know that no one really wants to spend their life constantly looking over their shoulders and competing, it’s also quite normal to try and understand where you are in some kind of pecking order, or to understand something about how well you’re doing by measuring it against other things. We all fall into this a little bit. So I feel like it would be very hard to completely evade.

And also, we spoke about how there are so many different varieties of schadenfreude. So even if you aren’t particularly prone to feeling envious or competitive and that doesn’t really chime with you — although I have to say I think it chimes with most people — then you might well find yourself really enjoying the absurdity of silly accidents that really have nothing to do with competitiveness but have to do with the kind of odd celebration of things going wrong. Or you might have a very strong affiliation with a sports team and not be able to help yourself by cheering when the rival school loses.

I found it honestly surprising to read that studies of sports fans show that it’s actually more pleasurable to watch your rival fail than to watch your own team succeed. That was shocking to me. [Laughter] Being immersed in this for so long and having the job that you do, did that surprise you at all or was that just a normal finding?

No, no, that definitely surprised me. It surprised me, too, to find that when people smile in schadenfreude, not only is it the same kind of physiological smile that people do when they’re experiencing joy, but the people who are experiencing schadenfreude seem to smile more rapidly and more intensely, at least immediately, than they do when they’re experiencing joy. I found that fascinating. Even if we don’t like to look at this emotion, even if it feels shameful and embarrassing, it is essential to our emotional lives.

There’s a really interesting study about how oxytocin is also implicated in schadenfreude. It’s not just to do with pro-social warm and cozy relationships with one another, but to do with any social relationships that we have. It’s a way of intensifying the relationship. People who were given a squirt of oxytocin up their noses felt more intense schadenfreude than those who were given the placebo. So if we see schadenfreude just as part of our social interaction rather than an unpleasant little corner of it — if we see it as part of the fabric of how we are relating to each other all the time — then I think that allows us to see this emotion for what it really is, and also then to understand some of the more challenging consequences of it. Playfully, the book is a defense of schadenfreude, but I hope it also highlights some of the areas, like in contemporary politics, where schadenfreude can be dangerous and problematic.

There is the question of whether we are in a time in which schadenfreude feels particularly acute — schadenfreude on steroids. For most of the twentieth century, hardly any academic studies were published on schadenfreude. Around 2000, you get a sudden whoosh of studies, and now there are hundreds and hundreds of studies with the word “schadenfreude” in the title. At the same time, we see this real interest in empathy. Psychologists often present empathy and schadenfreude as mutually exclusive or opposing forces. Empathy: I feel pain like your pain; schadenfreude: I enjoy your pain. Those seem to be completely incompatible.

But my view is that this opposition between schadenfreude and empathy is really problematic, and not really how emotions work. I think it’s completely normal and reasonable to think that you might very sincerely feel compassion for someone, say your friend, who’s very successful and didn’t get the latest promotion or something, and also to feel a little prickle of pleasure underneath it all. You could feel both of those things at the same time, and the little bits of pleasure you feel don’t wipe out the sympathy or compassion. Nor does it render you a hypocrite. It just means that as a human being, you are capable of really complex emotional responses. Emotions don’t just come in either/or, on/off, black/white. For me, that is really important to remember in situations where you’re experiencing schadenfreude in a shameful, ambivalent, awkward sort of way: It is reasonable that you might feel those two things all at once. That’s just part of being human.

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Jessica Gross is a writer based in New York City.