by Sarah Geegan
“And when I see how sad you are; it sort of makes me happy, happy…" go the lyrics from the Broadway musical, "AVENUE Q."
Many of us have felt it, though we don't admit it: spiteful joy in response to the pain or misfortune of others. It may stem from envy, self-esteem concerns or even a passion for justice, but whether or not we confess to it, the feeling exists universally. The good news is that psychologists believe these are natural human emotions; there are psychological and adaptive foundations to back them up.
UK psychology Professor Richard Smith's new book "The Joy of Pain," provides a glimpse into this hidden corner of the human psyche, teasing out the science behind the malicious glee people experience from others' pain, known as schadenfreude — a German word joining "schaden" meaning "harm" and "freude" meaning "joy." Using examples from popular culture, television, sports and politics, he shows how pervasive schadenfreude is in our lives.
"A large part of our emotional life results from how we compare with others," Smith said. "We gain from another person's misfortune when a 'downward comparison' boosts our rank and self-worth. This is no small benefit."
Envy, often the trigger for schadenfreude, can result in revenge fantasies which manifest in the current TV genre of “humilitainment,” and it is seen in many other realms of daily life including politics, Hollywood and sports.
Sports references should strike a chord with University of Kentucky basketball fans. In his section "The Emotional Life of the True Fan," Smith describes an experiment he conducted with UK supporters in reference to the UK-Duke basketball rivalry.
"In the world of spectator sports, emotions run high and frank expressions of schadenfreude are more common than in other areas of life," Smith said. "In sports, people are freer to voice their darker feelings — the same feelings that in most other contexts would be shameful. Research shows that the average fan is quite capable, in some circumstances, of being pleased over injuries to players on opposing teams."
But beyond the passing pleasure we might get from seeing a competitor fail, Smith even asserts that envy provides a way of understanding why the Nazis delighted in brutally treating the Jews, even when these actions were counterproductive.
"Our cooperative, empathic instincts are a significant part of human nature, but competition is woven into so many aspects of everyday life," Smith said. "The consequences of inferiority in love and at work are hard to ignore, and envy is understandable, inevitable and probably adaptive in its own way."
Smith argues that it is unreasonable to think that we can stop feeling envy and, furthermore, stop our envy from setting the stage for schadenfreude. As guilty as it might also make us feel, the pleasure resulting from the suffering of someone we envy is just too sharp.
"Richard Smith's long-awaited book is a profound, thoughtful meditation on one of the most puzzling and disturbing forms of human emotion," said Roy F. Baumeister, author of "Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength." "Mixing scientific research, popular culture, striking anecdotes and personal reflection, it is a stimulating, enjoyable, yet unsettling read. I recommend to anyone with a serious interest in human emotion and motivation — and to anyone with an abiding curiosity about the peculiar twists and turns of human nature."
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