Finding joy in the misfortune and failures of others is, alas, such a common human proclivity that it has a name: “schadenfreude”—imported into English from German, without the standard German capitalization, as a compound of “hurt/damage/loss” and “joy”. [In this video clip, “The Simpsons” ever-moralizing whiz-kid Lisa, crisply defines it as “shameful joy”’.]
Its negative tone and image notwithstanding, is it possible that there is some hidden wisdom in or acceptable rationale for indulging in schadenfreude?
And is schadenfreude a better emotional investment with higher returns than similar, yet contrasting negative feelings—or is it worse?
“Freudenschade”: the Flip Side of Schadenfreude
Among its possible contrasts, there is one that rivals schadenfreude for mean-spiritedness and psychoanalytical intrigue: feeling miserable when others succeed—at work, love, investments, lotteries, school or, among the most extreme and mean-spirited, in connection with anything at all.
Although probably just as common as manifestations of schadenfreude, this latter emotion seems to have not yet established itself as a familiar concept in English—nor, it seems, even in German [as far as my investigations have been able to determine].
However, there is a candidate concept that is “out there”, with numerous Google citations: “freudenschade”—an easily grasped, totally Anglo-invented, neat inversion of the familiar, authentically German “schadenfreude”. Since there are 12,400 Google returns for a “freudenschade” search, I’m going with that as the best formulation.
No matter what we call these feelings, we are all familiar with them—either as our own or as the feelings others have harbored and, less often, openly expressed. Of course, we are conventionally expected to politely feel neither schadenfreude nor freudenschade, to express disapproval of both and to deny feeling them ourselves, when, as is all too often the case, we do.
Consider each, in turn, from a professional perspective. Can either schadenfreude or freudenschade contribute to career advancement and satisfaction—even after allowing for its social, psychological and existential costs and risks?
It is to such a cost-benefit analysis of schadenfreude vs. freudenschade that the enquiry now turns.
From an objective, coolly analytical standpoint, what kind of case can be made for either?
[Bold italics appear below and above for ease of referencing the main points.]
First off, it is obvious that schadenfreude offers more immediate satisfaction and pleasure, and requires less emotional and other work to achieve it.
Feeling sadistic joy in hearing of, if not inflicting, the misfortune of others is an “emotional terminus” or end point, in the sense that it requires no further emotional, cognitive, volitional or perceptual effort in order to terminate in gleeful, lingering satisfaction.
This is not true of freudenschade, because when we feel bad upon hearing of another’s success, by definition, we cannot feel good—since we feel bad. If we want to feel good, something more has to be done or happen.
Likewise, all of the other emotions associated with or manifested in freudenschade are negative and unpleasant—negative not only in terms of the ill will built into them, but also negative in virtue of the inescapable unpleasant “hedonic tone” for the “freudenschaderer”, the individual feeling the freudenschade.
To achieve a positive ROI on that emotional investment, a freudenschaderer has to make additional mental, emotional, social, etc., exertions.
This is true—but with only a small likelihood of really racking up a net emotional-pleasure gain in the end. That’s a problem with freudenschade not shared by schadenfreude, since the latter is pure stand-alone undiluted joy—period, full stop, however otherwise nasty it is.
How could freudenschade be transformed into a pleasurable emotion like schadenfreude?
One way to escape the unpleasant feelings of freudenschade is to abandon the zero-sum premise that defines it, the idea that another’s gain is my loss, especially when we are not in direct competition, e.g., for a job promotion.
This requires reinterpreting the success of others as a non-zero-sum outcome: Instead, when that otherwise envied or resented other succeeds, I see personal benefit. This means a non-zero win-win outcome.
For example, I’m delighted when my friends score big on the stock market, because that decreases the odds of my ever being homeless and destitute, if my own financial planning and plays fail—unless, of course, my friends are themselves prone to schadenfreude.
Managing the Freudenschade Game and Fire Alarm
You’d think that, given it is so common to feel bad when others have better luck than you, that there has to be some kind of positive incentive or payoff for feeling that bad—even if that [imagined] payoff is subtle, hidden or unconscious.
This, of course, is an allusion to the broader mystery of the rewards and satisfactions of painful or unpleasant emotions in any form, including not only the pain or misery of freudenschade, but also of depression, envy, jealousy, hate, bitterness, fear, panic and disgust, to name but a few.
From a rational and systemic perspective, all of these negative emotions should serve only one purpose: to terminate their causes or themselves, precisely as an unpleasant smoke or fire alarm noise is designed to function or to be dealt with if it malfunctions.
But freudenschade doesn’t work that way. It lingers, as the freudeschaderer wallows in misery, impotent to eliminate the happiness and success of the envied and equally unable to turn the “alarm” off.
If incapable of putting out the fires of another’s success, nor able to silence the bad feeling, even when packaged as “righteous indignation”, the freudenschaderer is doomed to stew in a toxic, unappetizing brew of vented steam and venom.
As explained, freudenschade is a “zero-sum” game, with a guaranteed initial emotional loss—we feel bad because someone else succeeded at our expense, e.g., got the promotion we wanted, therefore that success makes us feel bad. However, what is strange about it is that it is played even when it appears to be only emotionally zero-sum, with no objective win-lose correlate.
For example, the objective, emotion-independent pay-off outcome can easily prima facie be non-zero-sum, “non-sum”—to coin a term, in an emotionally negative-payoff scenario: the case in which the success of someone else has no objective impact, positive or negative, on my fortunes or misfortunes, except that somehow it nonetheless makes me feel bad, e.g., my neighbor wins a set of golf clubs in a contest I didn’t enter and for a game in which I have zero interest.
This appears to be freudenschade in a most extreme, perhaps pathological form—no matter how irrelevant the success of another is to me, I hate it.
Perhaps there are no such cases. Perhaps, I feel bad about not entering and winning the contest even though I hate golf, because I could have sold the clubs if I had entered the contest and won them.
Or perhaps success always confers status and I resent anyone’s closing or widening a status gap with me, no matter how they do it.
Objective zero-sum freudenschade is far more understandable and forgivable than subjective, no-sum freudenschade.
The reason is that in this case, an objective personal loss—whether lost promotion, girlfriend, etc.—is entailed by the success of another. It’s the no-sum or non-zero-sum freudenschade that seem a tad weird and in need of justification—assuming that freudenschade is ever really not zero-sum.
Indeed, perhaps, in freudenschade’s defense, it can be argued that the no-sum form is a disguised, crypto-form of zero-sum freudenschade, since whenever anyone enjoys, but does not share with me, success as I conceive it, [s]he is getting something I am not getting or becoming, even when we are not in direct competition for it or when I had no prior interest in it, until I heard about it.
As suggested above, success always confers status, presumably always a scarce resource; hence whenever anyone wins anything that has status implications and an impact—however small—on his or her status, it should really rankle a freudenschaderer.
With the downside of the down-emotion of freudenschade understood, what can be done to make it more enjoyable—say, as enjoyable as schadenfreude?
Clearly, even a masochist is presumed to derive some pleasure from his or her own pain. So, there must be something a freudenschaderer can do to feel good about feeling bad, apart from abandoning it for a more positive non-zero-sum emotional outcome. Is it not possible to stick to one’s freudenschade guns and profitably ride the wave of resentment?
Maybe a comparison with depression can help: Despite its horrible emotional tone, depression can yield a high ROI as an S.O.S. broadcast to others—much as the cries of a helpless, hopeless, unhappy infant usually do.
The problem is what happens when there’s no one to hear your screams. At that point, depression, like unnoticed infant wailing, becomes a fire alarm heard by no one but you.
So, for freudenschade to generate [eventual] positive ROI in the form of materially helpful and emotionally rewarding responses from others, it has, on this analogy, got to be perceived by them.
But, given the overwhelmingly negative attitudes of others to our freudenschade and schadenfreude, it’s hard to imagine risk-free benefits from revealing or otherwise communicating our freudenschade.
That said, it is possible that the bad feelings freudenschade generates may catalyze proactive actions to turn things around and secure some of the luck or success others have so disappointingly, maybe even unfairly enjoyed.
For example, it is possible, perhaps hoped, that the freudenschade whining incites like-minded freudenschaderers to subvert the success of the envied.
Or, it elicits status-enhancing respect, righteous indignation and sympathy in virtue of being someone more deserving than the resented successful coworker.
This means destroying or at least critiquing the success of others in the name of “justice”.
In these mobilization scenarios, the social and emotional advantage shifts to freudenschade over schadenfreude, because, unlike the freudenschaderer, the schadenfreuderer cannot solicit sympathy, respect as more deserving, or co-conspirators to “do something about it”, since the schdenfreuderer is delighted with the way things have turned out.
What’s more, unlike the schadenfreuderer, the freudenschaderer can use his or her emotion to trigger personal or external change–even perhaps, to reform and give up freudenschadering.
By contrast, the schadenfreuderer is likely to be perfectly content and stagnate with the emotional, financial and social status quo and the failures or losses of another.
In other words, freudenschade offers more “growth potential” and incentives to proactivity than schadenfreude does.
What clearly emerges from these considerations and comparisons is that for immediate positive satisfactions, schadenfreude is the route to take: simple, uncomplicated, requiring no contingent follow-up participation by others to be fully satisfying. In short, schadenfreude offers gratification without delay.
Freudenschade, on the other hand, requires patience and risk-tolerance for its payoffs.
If successful, morose freudenschade can reap a huge social and emotional harvest through the recruitment of other freudenschaderers or simply sympathetic supporters, while having greater incentives to personal change, growth and proactivity.
But the participation of collaborators can be very tricky to engineer, and therefore cannot be guaranteed.
As to which to choose, given comparable ROIs, the answer is simple: Let the successes or failures of others be your guide and your cue:
Somebody succeeds, you opt for freudenschade, but with cunning, or less likely, wise management of it; they fail, the choice is a no-brainer—schadenfreude…
...that is, unless you have an ounce of compassion or can see opportunities for greater success for both of you through collaboration or by rendering assistance.
I’m sure that this is your best strategy, if you are inclined to either of these wicked primary emotions.
In the event this strategy fails when you try it, well, there will be at least one consolation.
I’ll be happy.