Is Eliminating Schadenfreude Really That Easy?

Dec 29, 2022
Lucas Hanft
The New York Times would have you believe it is.  But to make that kind of change often requires hard work, dedication, and a great therapist.

Schadenfreude – defined as “satisfaction or pleasure felt at someone else's misfortune” – isn’t necessarily something we address head-on at Rappore.  It’s more of a symptom than it is a condition that requires therapeutic intervention.  Nonetheless, as symptoms go, it’s quite prevalent among patients seeking our help.  In fact it’s an almost universal affliction: even if you’re a Nobel Prize Winner — if you’ve accomplished so much in your life that taking joy in the failures of others is fundamentally, unavoidably petty — chances are you’ve felt that feeling.

A recently published article in the New York Times identifies an emotional and linguistic antidote to schadenfreude: instead of being the kind of person who takes a sadistic pleasure in your friends’ failure, the Times advises, be the kind of person who takes joy in their successes.  Allow yourself to partake in the spirit of “freudenfreude” – which the Times defines as the exact opposite of schadenfreude.   

Of course this is easier said than done — or written about, in this case.  What’s more difficult, than forcing yourself to revel in the successes of others, especially when those successes are beyond your own abilities?  How does one achieve such a Buddha-esque level of magnanimity and equanimity?  This is the very crux of the problem — the very question the Times refuses to address: how to transition yourself from a state of schadenfreude to a state of freudenfreude.  How to eliminate jealousy from your emotional vocabulary — how to become the kind of person who recognizes that envy is distorting your perception of others and infecting your relationship with your friends.  It takes the kind of recognition and analysis that people, by and large, are incapable of.

Maybe you know, deep down, that you’re jealous of your friends — to paraphrase Morrissey, that you hate it when they’re successful — but owning up to that emotion is a different story.  Such is the nature of suppression: to quote Saul Bellow, “there is no fineness or accuracy … if you hold down one thing you hold down the adjoining.” 

The Times sniffs around this idea: the article relates an anecdote in which a woman admits that she’s jealous of her friend, and in doing so, frees herself to rejoice in her friend’s success.  The woman’s refusal to keep her emotions hidden in the dark opens her soul to the bright light of joy. 

But how to begin to enact this transition?  

In our experience jealousy is often an expression of self-hatred.  You see other people’s successes as a quantification of your own failures, and your failures are evidence of the fact that you are not good enough.  That’s where schadenfreude comes into play: the failures of others is seen as evidence that they are just as bad as you are. 

Inevitably though you feel guilty for experiencing schadenfreude; the fact that you take pleasure in other people’s pain becomes another reason to hate yourself.  Which ends up feeding your jealousies.  It’s a destructive cycle, and there’s no easy way to break it.

Indeed the road between schadenfreude and freudenfreude is long and winding.  In order to make that transition, you must become emotionally capable of being open with yourself and with others.  Another way to think about it: feeling confident enough in yourself and your capabilities that you no longer feel the need to keep secrets.

At Rappore, we work with patients so that they become comfortable with themselves and their abilities, so they can approach life with a greater degree of confidence.  Because the more confident you are, the less joy you’ll take in the failures of others. 

If you feel overwhelmed by your jealousies and feel negatively about your tendency to schadenfreude, Rappore can help.  Sign up to talk to one of our therapists today and confidently start your journey toward freudenfreude.