Every once in a while when I am preparing the science for these emotion episodes, my daughter will look over my shoulder and sweetly say, “whatcha doin mom?” When I told her Carissa and I would be discussing schadenfreude - or finding joy in the misfortune of others, she quickly found reference in The Simpsons. “You mean how Lisa and Bart always laugh when Homer gets hurt? Is that schadenfreude?”  Exactly. In the last three decades of The Simpsons many of us have shared a laugh at Homer’s expense. Whether it is watching him willingly get food poisoning from eating a week old hero sandwich he left behind the radiator, to being punished with a teamwork retreat for pushing a bench in front of a fire exit during a fire drill.  And perhaps we take joy in Homer’s misfortune because we know his choices can be careless, and maybe sometimes we envy that carelessness. We want to be careless too. Or maybe it is because we have watched Homer choke his son Bart in frustration for those same three decades and we don’t feel so bad when he gets hurt. All could be true. 

When it comes to complex emotions, instances where more than one feeling is present - which research shows is most of the time, the English language comes up short. Like pretty much all the time. The idea of experiencing joy from another’s misfortune is widely accepted in other cultures as a thing that humans simply do. The Japanese, French, Danish and Dutch all have words and phrases to describe schadunfrede as well as Hebrew, Mandarin, Russian, and even the Greeks and Romans spoke of this phenomenon. It is of no surprise, as we have discussed in other JOY episodes, that a puritan and colonial language like English leaves little room for emotional complexity. If we must name it to claim it and acknowledge it to heal, how do we begin to even discuss something that doesn't have a name or a word? Of course not having a name does not cause extinction. So, we borrowed from the Germans. 

Much of the research on Schadenfreude places the experience on a less desirable end of the spectrum, involving envy, hostility, shame, guilt, and rudeness. I even found evidence of theory that schadenfreude is closely linked to sociopathy and narcissism, hinting that schadenfreude is the opposite of empathy. And yeah, sure, but I can also say from personal clinical experience, that a sociopathic or narcissistic joy from misfortune has a much different and more menacing flavor than laughing at Homer Simpson, or being delighted when the mvp of a rival sports team is caught taking steroids. Schadenfreude, does not make one void of empathy. It, like everything else, exists on a spectrum. 

What we know about schadenfreude in the neurological sense is that it activates the ventral striatum, which is associated with the limbic system and reward processing and motivation. Interesting, right? Additionally, schadenfreude has been linked to the nasal administration of oxytocin, which is normally associated with prosocial behaviors, suggesting the significance of schadenfreude as a social emotion. Research shows that schadenfreude plays an important part in divisive politics, and of course sports rivalries. 

The feelings underlying schadenfreude according to cultural historian and scholar of schadenfreude Tiffany Watt Smith, include envy, anger, inferiority and feelings related to self-worth. Interestingly enough, envy alone does not predict schadenfreude, as we see with many other emotions a feeling is more complex than just one thing. Schadenfreude in most cases is in duet with hostility and this combination becomes more targeted of people with the same gender. Studies show that men experience schadenfreude when the target is male and empathy when the target is female. 

Where researchers become concerned is the use of schadenfreude as a coping mechanism. And this reverts back to the study I mentioned where schadenfreude activates the brain’s reward system. We actually receive a hit of dopamine from schadenfreudne and if you remember JOY episode 61 with Bridget Watson Payne about Pleasure and the old skinner box experiment, animals will pretty much do anything for a hit of dopamine. In Olds and Milner’s 1950’s version of the experiment, mice pressed that dopamine lever over 7,000 times an hour and favored dopamine over water and food. If you remember, the study was aborted because the mice quite simply would starve themselves to death. 

So, yeah, science might have cause for concern here, specifically when it comes to social media. Neurologist and associate professor of psychology at Pepperdine University, Dr. Judy Ho says that higher use of social media is associated with a higher use of schadenfreude as a coping strategy. She says, “the culture of one upping that’s been cultivated on social media platforms as well as increased tribalism and polarization contribute to individuals' reliance on schadenfreude to boost confidence and self - worth.” 

Ooof. So where does this leave us? Well, of course I have many thoughts. But in the end, it always comes back to know thyself. Do the work, process your own shit and commit to reconciliation with your self-worth. Nothing is all bad and schadenfreude doesn’t make you an unempathetic jerk. The misfortune of Homer Simpson will continue to be funny. Envy and comparison are not the enemy, it's what we do with them internally that can poison us like a week old hero sandwich kept behind a radiator. 

Thank you for being here.

Listen ot this episode of JOY IS NOW here.

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