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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