Have you ever secretly cheered when a backbiting co-worker gets his comeuppance, or googled the tabloids for the photo of a ‘supermodel’ (is there any other kind?) caught with a patch of cellulite and no makeup? How about the implosion of the celebrity marriage that everyone proclaimed was “perfect”?
Most of us occasionally take a perverse pleasure in the misfortunes of those whose looks, social status or finances exceed our own. It’s a comparison thing which according to author Richard Smith (The Joy of Pain), is hardwired into most animals especially humans. Cutting the mighty down to size as the old saying goes isn’t charitable but it feels sooo good! This, my friends is Schadenfreude, and like many of you I have taken a few trips to the dark side of this social emotion.
Dr. Smith says it’s normal, healthy even. After all, Schadenfreude is a passive pleasure that arrives by happenstance and leaves us feeling better about ourselves. Best of all, it’s as guilt-free as a diet soda without the bitter aftertaste. Someone else’s seismic loss is our gain.
The late, great Gore Vidal declared, “Every time my friends succeed, I die a little.” He tapped into the vein of Schadenfreude within us all by acknowledging this brutal fact: the success of a peer may bring our own failings under merciless scrutiny.
Writers are especially susceptible to this malady. We read the work of our colleagues and quietly judge their output against our own. Commercial success may be equated with “selling out” as if healthy bank balances or critical acclaim are the work of Satan.
The multi-talented Clive James devoted an entire poem to the concept that underlies Schadenfreude. Read I beg you the entire work. You will chuckle, wince and read it once more. The opening line says it all:
“The book of my enemy has been remaindered and I am pleased.”