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June 1, 2024

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PLEASURE IN PAIN: The uncomfortable truth we avoid

I have a confession. Alright, I have a few. I take my phone to bed. I skip social events and lie about why. And sometimes I feel good when other people feel bad.

There’s no English term for this last disclosure so we use the German word, schadenfreude. “Schaden” means damage or harm, and “freude” means joy or pleasure. Put together, schadenfreude is to take enjoyment in someone else’s suffering.

Check in with yourself before deciding that’s not you. Have you ever quietly celebrated a colleague not getting promoted, laughed at an embarrassing reality TV moment or felt pleased at a public figure being taken down? Then you’ve had schadenfreude.

That you have felt delight in somebody else’s downfall doesn’t make you a bad person. Just human. We sometimes find solace in the suffering of others. It’s an uncomfortable but unavoidable fact, and one that’s reflected back at us in popular culture. Pick up a book, go to the theater or listen to a power ballad, and the plight of someone will be present.

For me, there’s nothing more depressing than a romantic comedy. If you want to feel awful about yourself, watch Jennifer Aniston imitate the excruciating reality of actual life. No, I prefer crime. Love a thriller. It’s cathartic to see somebody else’s life fall apart. “Breaking Bad,” “Criminal: UK,” “Happy Valley,” “Mindhunter,” “Prime Suspect,” “The Fall,” “The Sinner,” “The Staircase” and “The Stranger.” I’ve done them all. And I’m not alone.

As I write this, one of the top trending shows on Netflix is “Baby Reindeer.” I just binged it. This uniquely dark series tells the true story of a struggling comedian who finds himself in a twisted relationship with a female stalker after showing her one simple act of kindness. Over seven episodes, Donny Dunn is pursued, drugged and repeatedly raped. The protagonist is the man who suffered this unimaginable trauma. How bonkers is that? He lived this nightmare and then relived it for us to enjoy as we switch off from the reality of our own existence. Which we have: “Baby Reindeer” has more than 22 million views — that’s 87.4 million hours of entertainment and counting.

Why do we take pleasure in somebody else’s pain? And real or not, is it ever OK?

Feeling uncomfortable about my Netflix home screen, I contacted licensed counseling psychologist and close friend Zhang Bohan. In his mind, we experience schadenfreude to give us a sense of justice when we see others as being more successful than we are. It’s a coping mechanism to ease bitter feelings fueled by the comparison culture of the modern world. When someone we deem superior runs into trouble in ways that lower their standing, it produces a heady cocktail of happiness at zero cost to us. Make sense.

But what does enjoying someone else’s downfall mean? Bohan assured me we’re not going to hell in a hand basket. To feel schadenfreude may highlight that we’re not entirely selfless but it doesn’t make us bad people. It’s an experience akin to jealousy, and if you’ve never felt that, you’re likely dead inside. Of course, this is all proportionate and doesn’t happen every time someone messes up. Nice, likeable people experiencing misfortune is seldom comfortable to see, whether they’re fictional characters or not. And there’s only so much suffering any of us can stand.

But given schadenfreude is an inbuilt, common experience, I wonder if it comes with benefits. Various thinkers throughout history have said so.

The famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud believed that schadenfreude provides emotional relief, an idea echoed in Richard H. Smith’s book, “The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature,” which explores how schadenfreude can lead to a deeper understanding of human emotions.

Not convinced? Susan Krauss Whitbourne, writing for Psychology Today, highlights that acknowledging schadenfreude can improve emotional intelligence and self-awareness. And social psychologist Mina Cikara’s research suggests that sharing schadenfreude might even strengthen social bonds. I’m only scraping the schadenfreude surface.

The uncomfortable truth is: While schadenfreude isn’t the most flattering emotion, it is part of life and embracing the odd moment might help you understand yourself and others better. I plan to continue indulging in the shadowy side of popular culture without beating myself up or worrying about what it means. There will be no karmic justice, nor does it make me any less human. I’m just a flawed and complicated person with unmet needs, fears and desires that I like to switch off from. So, the next time you find yourself engrossed in a crime drama marathon or chuckling at someone’s minor mishap, don’t be too hard on yourself.

... And if it’s any consolation, we’d probably do the same if it were you.


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