Recently I had a chance encounter with a former classmate. In high school she never lacked boyfriends or dates. She hung with the cool crowd. Slender, blonde, cute and not too smart to be intimidating, she fit the description of hot high school popular girl.
Now she’s twice-divorced, grey-haired, heavy and between jobs.
When I walked away from her after our brief conversation, I couldn’t help smiling to myself just a little. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. All those times she swept by me without a glance in the high school hall vindicated.
The German word for this enjoyment of the misfortune of others is Schadenfreude, and it’s frightfully common. I experienced it in a powerful way when I met my former classmate, and I experience a tiny bit of it every time my son pitches in a baseball game and strikes out the big hitters on the other team. Oh, how I love to watch the mighty fall at the plate .
According to researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands, this says something about me. According to this article from Live Science, Schadenfreude gives us a self-affirming ego boost. We feel better about ourselves when those we consider to be the big dogs fail. But, importantly, study participants with the lowest self-esteem experienced Schadenfreude to the greatest degree.
So, enjoyable as the feeling might be, it’s not so good after all.
If we need to see others fail in order to feel good about ourselves—to give a fragile ego some food—it means our self-esteem platform is a little shaky. We shouldn’t soak in Schadenfreude too happily or too well. Maybe we should shore up our self-esteem with some strong worthiness cement instead. Maybe we should try to find some compassion for the other.
Both of those things are more positive, I think.