Schadenfreude Among Friends

I have always been fascinated by schadenfreude – the pleasure derived from another’s misfortune – an emotion perceived by many as mean spirited and contemptible.

Recently, I got a thoughtful comment asking my why I am so fascinated by it. I drafted several iterations of a response, but wasn’t satisfied with any of them as they were either too theoretical or shallow. So, I am giving this topic another try, but this time from my personal experience. It may not be prudent to reveal too much about myself, but I will take my chances.

Not many people would admit experiencing schadenfreude given its negative connotation, but I would venture that schadenfreude is one of the more primitive and universal emotions that many, if not all, have experienced to varying degrees.

It is human nature to want to see our enemies suffer. In fact, the desire to see those who committed wrongdoing to be brought to justice is a form of schadenfreude. Schadenfreude towards people we dislike makes sense. The more we dislike someone, the more pleasure we derive from that person’s affliction.

But what about between friends? I have certainly seen schadenfreude among friends. I have also experienced it myself – I had schadenfreude towards someone I considered friend, and had someone I thought was my friend feel schadenfreude towards me.

So the specific question about schadenfreude that has long fascinated me is: can schadenfreude be directed at someone you genuinely like? In other words, can you have a true friendship if one party feels schadenfreude towards the other?

Before I proceed to answer this question, I want to be precise about what I mean by schadenfreude. Schadenfreude is typically defined as being happy at another’s misfortune. I would expand the definition to include the corollary – the dismay caused by another’s fortune.

Many people would say that this dismay is envy, but I think envy is quite different from schadenfreude. Here is an example of the dismay that is not schadenfreude.

Just yesterday, I got an email from an ex-colleague announcing his new job. The job sounds cushy and prestigious – one that I would have most likely pursued in my past life as a BigLaw associate. My first reaction was “wow, that is great for him!” But, amidst the happiness I felt for him, I couldn’t help detecting a twinge of unpleasantness.

What was that unpleasantness? Sour grapes, perhaps. But not schadenfreude.

As I struggle hard to forge my new identity after leaving law, it is hard not to feel a bit inadequate next to my friend’s shiny new title as General Counsel. My path is so divergent from his, and it is hard not to have a little self-doubt seeing his achievement. But, my friend’s success in itself didn’t cause me to feel any dismay towards him. To the contrary, I am sincerely happy for him and proud of him.

A superficially similar but fundamentally different scenario happened with another friend. And this time, there was schadenfreude. (I have changed the facts a little, but the underlying emotion remains the same.)

I found out that my friend got a promotion. Even though her promotion was not something I desired, I noticed my mood taking a dip upon hearing the news. Unlike the previous example, I was not comparing myself to my friend and was not feeling inadequate about myself. The mood dip was unmistakeably schadenfreude (per my expanded definition).

So what provoked the schadenfreude? I felt slighted. I had given what I felt to be a significant amount of emotional support and practical advice to my friend as she sought the promotion, yet she behaved ungratefully. I felt she took advantage of me. I was upset and probably would have been delighted if she didn’t get the promotion given the way she behaved towards me.

Some may say that I was being petty. I agree. Yet I suspect that many people would recognize my underlying emotional logic.

Based on my own experience and observation, my tentative answer to my core question – can schadenfreude be directed at someone you genuinely like? – is no. If I genuinely like someone, I don’t think I could feel schadenfreude towards that person. I may feel envy, but I wouldn’t delight in his or her misfortune or be dismayed by his or her success.

However, just because I dislike someone at a particular moment, it doesn’t mean that the friendship is not true. Schadenfreude is mainly considered to be a negative and unproductive emotion. But I think it can serve a purpose – as a harbinger of a friendship snag. Maybe I feel schadenfreude because I felt aggrieved by something my friend did. If I detect that my friend feels schadenfreude towards me, maybe I should examine whether I did anything to my friend that I need to rectify. If both parties can talk through the issue and move forward, then the schadenfreude will dissolve and the bond between the friends will become stronger.

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9 Responses to Schadenfreude Among Friends

  1. Paramendra Bhagat says:

    Gutsy tackling of a touchy topic.

  2. daniel says:

    Actually, Jennifer, I feel a twinge of happiness that you had trouble writing this…

    No, in all seriousness, this is, as Paramendra says, a touchy topic, and it’s so admirable the way you tackled it. I do agree with your having expanded the traditional definition of schadenfreude; it’s human to be in a place in which you feel some dismay at someone else’s fortune. But, as you write, is or was that person really our friend? Did that person do (or in your case, not do) something to strain it?

    I had a colleague years ago, to whom I gave much friendship and emotional support during very rough times for him, when nobody else would. Later on, the shoe wound up being on the other foot, and for political reasons, he shunned me. Apropos of what you had written, I would say that with any success he would find thereafter, with apologies to Shakespeare, I would have found dregs of unhappiness within me. I would have been delighted had he never been able to publish a play or poem ever again. Yes, it might have been petty. But it’s completely human to feel slighted when you put yourself out there for someone only to encounter a locked door when the situation is reversed. But then, there is something else to think about: Is a person who would conduct him or herself that way, really happy in life? That question could open a Pandora’s Box of issues and responses. I’m interested in yours and anyone else’s.

    Regarding your friend’s promotion to GC, you remember that it is a field which you chose to leave; how happy would you have been if you had stayed in BigLaw and gotten that position instead? Maybe sour grapes, yes, but it would have meant a whole list of new responsibilities, billable hours, etc., in a field which you wanted to leave anyway. I wonder if the twinge, or mood dip is just reminiscent of your time as an attorney. After all, you did invest a huge amount of your life in it – law school and practice. Of course it is bound to bring some immediate memories back to the surface. (God, I hope I’m not sounding like a psychotherapist.) If anything, it’s great that you felt happy for him. That’s his path, and you have yours. You’re not second guessing your path, so good for you!

    I wonder what you think…

    everysixminutes says:
    April 10, 2011 at 18:17

    Nothing like unrequited kindness to incite the resentment of unfairness. I don’t know why some people behave ungratefully, maybe they have their own emotional logic, maybe they are ingrates by nature (like the viper in Aesop’s fable of The Farmer and the Viper). This is why I am a big fan of talking things through. Maybe one will learn in the process mitigating factors excusing the friend’s behavior. Maybe one will realize that the friend is a viper and it is time to cut the losses.

    I have also been thinking about expectation. I don’t think my expectation of my friend’s reciprocation was excessive, but if I had treated my help to my friend as a gift with little or no expectation of gratitude, I probably wouldn’t feel slighted.

    In the GC situation, I think you are right. I think it was just a brief moment of wistfulness and what-ifs given that we used to have similar career trajectory. He has reached his milestone, but I haven’t yet. I am not second guessing my decision to leave law. Even with the challenges I see ahead, I am more excited than ever about my adventure.

  3. Daniel says:

    Great point about expectation. I wonder about that, too. I’d like to think that it is my nature to do for people because I just want to, and/or they need my support and friendship. But yes, as you wrote, nothing like unrequited kindness to incite resentment. I think that when our kindness is unrequited, it can easily evoke a sense of our being taken for granted. Sometimes I wonder how different that dynamic is in a friendship from a relationship.

    But we do have something in common; we see challenges ahead, and they excite us. They can be what makes life worth living. Uncertainty can either be a plague or an incredible chance for growth and learning. I think living in New York makes all of this the more true.

  4. LISA says:

    I agree. Thank you for your thoughtful frankness!

  5. Mr. Reality says:

    Your friend is successful in a material, tangible way.

    Growing a goatee and writing poetry all day may seem really self-actualized and wonderful. It may seem like more than a reaction to difficulty in your last job. Just as being a high-dollar attorney soon lost its luster, as your writing becomes lost amongst the chaff, your fear has returned.

    You resent the one who stayed the course and is starting to reap the benefits.

    And you are starting to realize that that by changing your course, you have given up ground in reaching your goal. Time, now, is your chief adversary. The ladder you are now on has rungs that you fear you can not reach, even as you see others climbing ever higher in your “old” profession.

    The fear smothers you. It is why you can’t get started on anything new. You are afraid you will never be successful again.

    Come back to the Law, the mistress whispers. Come back to what you know, to what where you can shine and climb again.

  6. Zk says:

    The thing is that I don’t like feeling envy and schadenfreude (as probably all of you) , but they just lurke in without invitation. Eventually I realised that these are natural emotions, which are part of my dark side, but it takes quite a bit of consious effort to deal with these emotions and not to act upon them. So I would happily get rid of them if I know how! It helps so much to know that other people feel the same way. This is one of the sensitive topics, which people don’t like to talk about — thanks for for your post.

    I agree that it might be also some disconnect with a particular friend that contributes to having these emotions. I have friends, a couple actually, who like to judge how we upbring our 2.5 year old. We try hard, but obviously we are not ideal parents, so their statements suggestive that we fall short of their standard drive me nuts. At times I feel that I bound to feel schadenfruede towards them. Of course, I am never going to do anything to harm them, but simply having these complex feeling sort of alienates me from them.

  7. Amadeuz says:

    Very interesting post. I hadn’t thought of the different shades of schadenfreude (friend v enemy). I don’t have an issue with feeling schadenfreude for a person I don’t like. What’s more disturbing to me is when I feel schadenfreude for certain friends or family. You know there’s always those people who it seems like everything ALWAYS goes their way. They always get the job or the promotion. They always get the girl/guy and have babies by just sneezing. Or could be that their kids are also seemingly perfect and so smart. I guess that’s the envy part. However, when I see something NOT go there way or I find about it, a little bit of me (the dark side of me) can’t help but sort of enjoy it. And it can’t be described as envy because envy typically involves something good happening to another person. It’s like, finally(!), you can experience failure or hardship like the rest of us.

  8. Moria says:

    Thank you for your generous post re: schadenfreude, which has elicited many interesting and thought provoking responses. It is very interesting to ponder this “primitive and universal” emotion. In your analysis it was interesting to learn that the degree to which we dislike a person, (or feel “wronged” by something they did or didn’t do with regard to us ), is very relevant, as is the kind of relationship we have with the other. The more we dislike someone the easier to feel schadenfreude. It is like moral justice – quite subjective. The more complicated the relationship the more troubling it can be. Interesting too, your observation that such a feeling as schadenfruede can signal a snafu in a friendship; a chink in the relationship that may warrant an attempt at clearing the air.

    From all the ideas expressed I have arrived at the conclusion that schadenfreude is inextricably linked to the way we think about the “fairness” of the situation as it relates to ourselves. It is quite personal and subjective. After all, at some level, all our interactions with and awarenesses of others are just interpretation; a processing by number one: US. Everything relative to us… how we think, how we feel about it. It is a perception issue, like fairness is; like social justice.

    I recently sat in the dental office reading a working mother magazine in which I found an article that spoke of the brain chemistry of thoughts/emotions surrounding fairness. The study revealed that the brains production of serotonin declined when one perceived unfairness, and not just unfairness to ones own self. That was the interesting part of it, it was fairness in general and not just how it affected the one feeling shortchanged. The test was this: giving one of two people $50, (making one rich and one poor). The second time around, another $50 went again to the rich one. The interesting discovery was that both brains registered decrease in serotonin in the brain activity. So in a sense, both experienced the negatives of the evident unfairness.

    A person I do not know once said that the answer to nine out of ten questions is money but I think that the answer to nine out of ten questions should be BALANCE. Equanimity.

  9. Suzanne says:

    I searched the web to find some answers as to why people have schadenfreude toward others, where it comes from and how to handle it.
    I am the parent of a freshman at PSU. She was on campus just under three months when the horror of what may have occurred on campus became news.
    She worked hard in high school, narrowed her choices for college and at the last minute chose State College. Now, she must grapple with what may have occurred, who do you trust, where is the University going? I am in no way dismissing what the vicitms have been through….it is the paramount issue.
    Last week I had to attend a function and I ran into an acquaintance. She began to tell me how well her children were doing in their various colleges, endevours. She asked me how my oldest was and I answered she was well. She then asked me what college she was attending and when I told her Penn State, she sneered a bit and said, ‘it’s going to be alot easier to get into that school’.
    I knew one of her children had applied to PSU’s main campus and hadn’t been accepted. She was taking pleasure in the University’s crisis, even though the crisis involved children and in a larger web, students, alumni, faculty and parents….like myself.
    I don’t consider this woman a friend, only an acquaintance. Yet, I still stung.
    Thanks for the article and letting me vent.

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