‘When my friends get fired, have break-ups, put on weight: I feel happy,’ Jenny, 25, told me. ‘Even worse is that I actually feel closer to them and like them more. I am evil.’ But Jenny isn’t ‘evil’ and we know this because a lot of us have felt the exact same thing. It’s so widely acknowledged, in fact, that it actually has a name: ‘schadenfreude’, which is German and literally translates into ‘harm’ (schauden) and ‘joy’ (fraude).
To say you take any kind of pleasure in another person’s short-comings isn’t a nice thing to admit. Unless that person is Donald Trump or Katie Hopkins or a similarly awful human of course, in which case it seems justified and deserved (we’ll get to this later). But to feel a sense of happiness or pleasure from a friend’s failure? You’re a monster. You’re a Bad Friend. But actually, you're probably in the majority too.
So why do we feel like this sometimes? ‘We can experience schadenfreude because another's misfortune provides us with a psychological benefit, for example, a sense of justice, a solace from envy, or a boost to our self-esteem,’ Professor Wilco van Dijk, a Social and Organisational Psychologist at Leiden University explained to me. ‘Their pain can be our gain and therefore it can be pleasing.’ In other words, for us to feel pleased about a person’s misfortune there has to be something in it for us, like feeling vindicated or better about ourselves.
The idea of envy inducing pleasure makes sense: envy comes from feeling that another person possesses something that we don’t have but want, so if something bad happens, the desire to be like them is less and 'equality' is restored. A 2013 study confirmed this; they found that participants smiled more in response to others experiencing negative events only if they envied those people - in this instance those people were ‘rich professionals’.
Envy and low self-esteem (which 85% of the world's population are reported to suffer from) are ugly step-sisters – if you feel unworthy, you’re likely to envy those around you who you perceive to be better than you in some way. This would suggest, then, that those with low self-esteem are more likely to experience schadenfreude which is exactly what a 2011 study lead by Professor van Dijk found. People with low self-esteem (which they established at the beginning of the study) were more likely to be threatened by an over achieving student and experience schadenfreude. 'In this study, if we give people something to affirm their self, then what we found is they have less schadenfreude — they don't need the misfortune of others to feel better anymore,’ Professor van Dijk explained to Live Science. In essence, make someone feel better about themselves, and schadenfreude becomes less prevalent.
Schadenfreude is the reason that magazines that focus on celebrity downfalls exist. We feel better about ourselves when someone we perceive to be 'better' than us fails, so celebrities are fair game, after all, they have everything don't they? The only discrepancy here is that the downfall has to be seen as deserved: one study found that reactions towards the downfall of a person in a position of relative power were negative when it was seen as undeserved.
The same can be said for our personal relationships. ‘I had a university friend who used to boast about all her freelancing and act like she was better than us even though she didn’t work hard and expected things to come to her,’ Anna, 26, told me. ‘When she didn’t get a job straight out of university it kinda felt good because the rest of us had slaved away for a year without as much credit. I’m happy for her now she has a job because I think not getting one straight away taught her how important it was to work hard at things.’ Here the failure seemed 'justified' so Anna was pleased it happened.
One study used MRI scans to establish the physical effects of these processes on our brains. ‘‘We are usually motivated to maintain a positive self-concept, and we feel discomfort when our self-concept is threatened by others who outperform ourselves in a self-relevant domain.’ the researcher explain. They found that if the possession of the target person is superior and the comparison domain is self-relevant, that’s when we feel intense envy. So when it's one of our peers who we relate to and also envy, schadenfreude is going to pop up.
Jenny is testament to this. ‘I saw a friend who I'd known for years and always had a kind of low level jealousy for, and she'd put on a lot of weight, enough that she'd gone from “modelly” looking to normal looking, and I was delighted,’ she explained. ‘I do feel bad about it but I'm a much nicer friend to her since she's been bigger, and I don't dislike standing next to her anymore.’
They also found ‘a neurocognitive mechanism of a psychologically rewarding reaction, schadenfreude, and its relation to envy’ meaning that it stimulates parts of the brain associated with reward. Explaining the study in Marie Claire, the co-author Dean Mobbs put it in simpler terms: ‘It's the same feeling as when you take drugs, laugh, have sex. Schadenfreude is our psychological immune system kicking in to make us feel better.’
The danger then is that someone with really poor self-esteem will seek friends intentionally to make them better, which obviously isn't a foundation for a positive friendship. A 2014 study went some way in backing this up, finding that individuals in a bad mood are more likely to go on social media and look at people ‘doing worse’ than them (and the opposite was also true), as a way to make themselves feel better – this is called ‘downward social comparison’. ‘Perhaps, someone who is insecure will look for friends who are “beneath them” to make themselves feel more adequate and successful. But healthy friendships are based on reciprocity: they are friendships between equals,’ Irene Levine, psychologist, author and producer of The Friendship Blog, told me.
In an ideal world, we wouldn't take any pleasure at all in someone else feeling bad. This isn't an ideal world, sure, but if you find yourself willing a friend to fail, there's a really big issue to look at there. ‘It may be that the person who takes pleasure in misfortune isn’t truly a friend. They may feel ambivalent about the friendship and, therefore, gloat in the other person’s misery,’ Irene explains.
It wouldn’t be surprising to me to discover that millennials experience schadenfreude a disproportionate amount – I have no proof of this but there's got to be some truth to it. For a start, age; you’re likely to become more secure and comfortable in yourself as you get older, but as well as that, I reckon it would be fair to say that we have far more stressors in our lives than previous generations (no money, no house, huge workplace competition, yada yada) and with social media making comparison so easy, it's no wonder a lot of us are experiencing envy.
But whilst it might be an explainable phenomenon, wouldn't it be great to not feel like that? To feel totally happy and supportive of another's success? Let's make it happen. Next time you feel a bout of schadenfreude, consider why it might be and try to deal with it because a friend's success doesn't equal your failure. Let's stick together, because none of us need even more people willing us to fail. Especially not our mates.
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.