chadenfreude. It’s a German word that literally means “joy from damage”. It refers to the perverse pleasure we take in observing or hearing about the misfortunes of others. That pleasure seems to be enhanced by talking about it with others — gossip would be empty without it, and when we hear about a disaster, like the horrendous catastrophe of this week’s Asian earthquake and tsunami, we have an almost instinctive need to share the news with others.

If you don’t think it’s pleasure we feel in these situations, here are some more examples:

  • Our reaction when we hear that another couple’s marriage has broken up, or suffered a sex scandal
  • Our reaction when someone we know (but don’t love) loses their job, or their life savings
  • Our reaction when we hear of an unexpected death or tragedy outside our immediate circle of family or friends
  • The pleasure we get from comedy that recounts the protagonists’ stupid, catastrophic or pathetic behaviours and their consequences
  • The satisfaction we get from hearing about criminals’ dire, even cruel, punishments
  • Reality TV
  • The joy many felt at the bursting of the dot-com bubble
  • Our media-pandered fascination with celebrities’ scandals
  • The pleasure we get from winning a game or sporting event, that we wouldn’t get if there wasn’t a ‘loser’
  • The popularity of movies that dwell on, and exploit war, suffering, and horror

There’s even a book, When Bad Things Happen to Other People, on the subject, written by John Portmann. Portmann believes Schadenfreude is harmless, a natural and healthy stress-buster. At the other extreme, the sublime ecstasy that psychopaths feel when their lies and bullying and manipulation cause misery to their victims is extremely harmful, and perrhaps addictive.  How dangerous and unhealthy is this all-too-human proclivity? And why do we feel this way at all? Is it because others’ misfortune, in a world of scarcity and competition, vindicates our own behaviours and decisions, increases our own stock and our self-perceived likelihood of success, or at least survival?

Writer Valerie Weaver-Zercher suggests what may be behind this is our dual need to see others as needy (which plays to the nurturer in us) and to see ourselves as not needy (which plays to our egos, and our feelings of learned helplessness). She calls this the “head-shaking syndrome”. Some writers say it reflects a subliminal (or not-so-subliminal) desire for revenge against those we feel have wronged us or shown us up in some way.

I confess I’m like Calvin’s Dad in the cartoon above: I don’t get it, though I recognize it seems to drive an enormous amount of human behaviour and activity. I loathe reality TV and the plethora of programs and films that wallow in human misery and suffering. I love games, and play to win, but afterwards I feel badly for the ‘losers’, and it is the social and learning aspect, rather than the competitive aspect, that I enjoy: I would get as much, if not more, pleasure from a collaborative social activity that everybody ‘won’. I find comedy that ridicules and humiliates people to be pathetic and exploitative, not funny at all. And although I have been predicting a growing cascade of social, economic and ecological catastrophes, I will get no pleasure from being proved correct. I change the station when news comes on about disasters, crimes, and the undoing of celebrities: If there’s nothing I can do about these things, to me it seems merely morbid to dwell on them. Can someone please explain to me how these things are pleasurable, or even cathartic? What perverse joy can anyone get watching people eat worms, women screaming at the loss of a child, athletes and film stars humiliated, losers of card games groan, or stand-ups reveal grotesque embarrassments from their past? Taking joy from these things seems deranged to me, evidence of great mental distress and anguish, or at best a bizarre, reality-detached ennui.

But I will admit to a strange desire to spread bad news about others (though only if I know the news to be true — I don’t traffic in rumour). I don’t know what’s behind this. Maybe it’s my natural pessimism, an opportunity to say ‘I told you so’, to warn people: If John and Mary are breaking up, we should all be alarmed — maybe all marriages are doomed, or maybe monogamy itself is unnatural, unsustainable, and Tom Robbins’ warning of the staggering difficulty of ‘making love last’ needs to be heeded. If Frank lost his job, perhaps this shows that all business hierarchies are fragile, uncaring, poised to destroy the lives of those who rely on them and allow them to continue. If Bill took his own life, maybe he’s the brave one, the harbinger of the future, the canary in the coal mineshaft. I love to learn, to attach meaning to things, and bad news seems to call out for explanation, for interpretation of meaning. Why would our amazing planet be designed to suddenly shudder, and drown millions of her creatures in a tidal wave of misery, and destroy the joyous lives of tens of millions of others? What possible reason could there be for such cruelty, such devastation? Someone, please, stop telling me how many died, and instead tell me why?

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  1. Robert says:

    I agree 100 percent. I’ve had this same discussion with friends and I find local news to expecially useless. They create fear and suspicion within their own community. My solution is to require local news agencies to report only on stories to which they offer a solution. Otherwise, it doesn’t get reported.Furthermore, I believe that this atmosphere of suspicion creates a palpable rip in society. It leads to isolation rather than fellowship. It perpetuates the idea that everyone is out to harm his or her neighbor. And, it seems obvious to me that you cannot build a true community without trust and faith in your neighbors.The same goes for celebrity news. Who cares about Britney Spears’ latest bowel movement? This celebrity worship furthers the notion that being non-famous equals being a nobody.Just another unhealthy American obsession that’s been exported to the rest of the world.

  2. Gary says:

    In every place I’ve lived in the world there seems to be a sizable portion of the population that vicariously lives the lives of others, either as celebrity worship (I wish I was him) or as observing the misfortune of others (I’m glad I’m not him). Someone once pointed out that all humor is based on the somebody’s misfortune. My reaction was to start collecting jokes that had no victim (Did you hear about the guy who had five penises? His pants fit like a glove).The growing number of dead in south Asia raises our level of alarm, but the Why is THE question. In a world where we are increasingly trying to educate ourselves and one another about the imminent dangers of global warming, why do we not have an alert system in place to warn the huge populations living within a few feet of sea level?

  3. mark says:

    There is no why. It’s just our lives, on a small planet.

  4. Kevin says:

    “Why would our amazing planet be designed to suddenly shudder, and drown millions of her creatures in a tidal wave of misery, and destroy the joyous lives of tens of millions of others?”

    It’s surprising to hear that from you. The planet is obviously not designed with the goal of doing evil things, it is designed in a way that keeps the cycle of life going. We are simply a part of that design, and cycle, yet, in many cases, we have chosen to design our society as though we were not, then when something happens proving that we are, we wonder why. It’s almost like asking why the planet doesn’t change itself to fit our wants and lifestyle.This is in no way to say that the suffering that people are experiencing now is not terrible and tragic, and that I do not feel for them, but I have trouble blaming the natural system for doing what it does naturally… after all, if it was not designed the way it was, we would not be here in the first place.

  5. Raging Bee says:

    “…it’s pleasure we feel in these situations?”What you mean “we,” paleface? The only way this post of yours can have any validity is if you redefine the word “pleasure” to include the mere temporary alleviation of anguish by discussing what we observe and trying to get more information.Surely you’re not saying (just to take one example) that people who know friends and loved ones in the affected area derive “pleasure” from hanging onto the TV news and calling the State Dept. to find out whether they’re still alive?You may not intend to sound superior and disdainful of other people’s motives and feelings, but that is exactly how much of this post sounds.As for your question of “why” something happened, the answer in this case can be found in a geology textbook. Your talk of “why” reminds me of previous annoying habit of TV news types who wanted to hog prime time but had nothing to say about a particular disaster or violent crime, so they droned on about how “people in this shaken community are asking why.” It sounded Deep and Probing and Concerned, without requiring any real effort. And of course, they never even tried to offer any answers to their own question!

  6. Cyndy says:

    Someone is asking this question. Earthquake: Coincidence or a Corporate Oil Tragedy? In part it asks: On December 27th, 20 whales beached themselves 110 miles west of Hobart on the southern island state of Tasmania.What is interesting about this is that the same place where the whale beachings have been taking place over the last 30 days is the same general area where the 8.1 Australian earthquake took place, and this is the same area where they are doing these seismic tests. Then 2 days after the Australian tectonic plate shifted, the 9.0 earthquake shook the coast of Indonesia.A great deal of interest and seismic testing has been taking place in this area, as the government of Australia has given great tax breaks to encourage the oil exploration. I certainly don’t know enough to say it isn’t a valid question.

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks, everyone. Robert, I have to confess that Reality TV is actually an import from Europe. Kevin, I guess I should have anticipated your response — I wasn’t suggesting that the planet was designed for our benefit. But I do believe in the Gaia principle — that all life on Earth co-evolved and acts in many ways as a single organism. Geological or cosmological disasters that cause that much suffering kinda makes me wonder why, with millions of years of practice through ice ages and extinctions, that co-evolution hadn’t been perfected to spare its creatures the kind of suffering that this perfectly ordinary tsunami wreaked. My ‘why’ is a biological question, not at theological one.Cyndy — this is interesting. Although it’s perfectly possible that human activity caused the earthquake, it’s also perfectly possible that it didn’t, or even that human activity might actually reduce tectonic strain in some areas. If there’s an answer to ‘why’, I don’t think that’s where we’ll find it.

  8. Raging Bee says:

    “Geological or cosmological disasters that cause that much suffering kinda makes me wonder why, with millions of years of practice through ice ages and extinctions, that co-evolution hadn’t been perfected to spare its creatures the kind of suffering that this perfectly ordinary tsunami wreaked.”First, is “co-evolution” really a process that can be demonstrated, like evolution? Or is it, like the Gaia Principle, too vaguely imagined to be provable or disporivable?Second, a tsunami is not “perfectly ordinary.” It does not happen regularly enough, to enough people, to require us to “evolve” any biological response to it.Third, what biological response CAN we evolve to handle a tsunami, anyway? Giant sails that sprout from our backs at the sight of the onrushing tidal wave, lift us out of harm’s way (hopefully there will be a stiff breeze handy), then wither and drop off after the tide recedes?

  9. Mario says:

    Why does everyone blame everything on America. Reality TV and psuedo journalism originated in Sweden and Japan, not America. Get your facts straight before you attack, people. Isn’t that the idea behind this sophomoric piece?

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