Schadenfreude: the sinister psyche, a way of life

March 24, 2016 — by Tiffany Zheng

In 2011, Kevin Hart spread the joy of schadenfreude with his “Laugh at My Pain” tour, a special that chronicled his crude and self-deprecating stand-up comedy.

 

In 2011, Kevin Hart spread the joy of schadenfreude with his “Laugh at My Pain” tour, a special that chronicled his crude and self-deprecating stand-up comedy.

For those unfamiliar with schadenfreude, it is a German term used to describe the impulse to derive joy from other people’s misery. A rough German to English translation from would give you the phrase “malicious joy.”

Now I know what you’re thinking. You would never find sick pleasure from someone else’s pain. You’re a good person living in a utopian universe, right? Newsflash: A good number of people are messed up.

Take a social outing of mine as a prime example of human inhumanity. Over the summer, I went to Golfland with a couple of my friends. One friend, in particular, was being especially clumsy, resulting in a glorious collapse onto the turf. Her eyes widened as her knees buckled and within a few seconds, the damage was done. Her plummet was dramatic and harrowing, much like my grades dropping during junior year.

My mouth opened on instinct, the human side of me struggling to spit out the support that friendship demands, when I astonished myself with my own loud grating laughter. Am I a bad friend? Sure, I’ll take that title. Am I still in stitches over her face, a kaleidoscope of agony and confusion? Oh, most definitely. Did I experience a wave of undeniable guilt? Yep. I’m still a human being, all right?

The concept of schadenfreude is unfairly bashed in society. People who regularly experience it are labeled as “sick,” perpetuating the idea that this incredibly human response is shameful. Schadenfreude should be accompanied with an appropriate amount of guilt, but don’t beat yourself up for laughing at a Vine of a twerking girl falling down a flight of stairs. Slapstick comedy is good in moderation, but it’s important to recognize that it does border sadism.

Now, don’t worry, it’s not all bad. Sometimes, it gives you the opportunity to appreciate what karma serves up to some scum of the earth. For example, the notorious ex-CEO of  Turing Pharmaceuticals Martin Shkreli, who raised the price of a life-saving drug from to $13.50 to $750, was recently charged with securities fraud.

In that moment, I heartily embraced schadenfreude, which allowed me to appreciate this gem of karma. When GOP candidate and America’s favorite imbecile Donald Trump was attacked by America’s symbol, a bald eagle, did I praise a higher being for blessing the human race with this event? I’m sure you can guess.  

Schadenfreude, honestly, is a way of living. Haven’t you ever laughed a viral video of a person falling off a roof? Or of a video of a cat being scared by a cucumber? Pain is a staple of humor. Yet a part what makes these viral YouTube clips so funny is that the video cuts off after the incident. We remain detached because we don’t get to view the impending hospital visit.

Perhaps it’s the fact that I don’t personally know some of the people I laugh at. I experienced guilt when laughing at the blunder of a friend, but when witnessing a video of a skateboarder failing to successfully complete an absurd stunt, the guilty conscience was nowhere to be found. There’s a human detattachment component that must accompany schadenfreude.

Understanding the severity of certain trauma affects the amount of cackling I produce. I’ve had friends who have pretended to be more injured than they actually are just to watch my laughter erupt into cries of panic. Life is short and laughter has a calming effect. We can’t be crying all the time, no matter how emotionally mature we are.

If you’re the clumsy freak who seems to only catch items with his or her face, don’t be embarrassed by the laughter. It’s not that they truly enjoy seeing you in pain: Giggles are simply a natural product of the human brain’s complexity, immaturity and need to entertain itself.

So if you’re like me and are a posterchild for schadenfreude, never fear. You’re probably not going to hell — at least not for this all-too-human tendency.