When I hear a word not commonly used in my vernacular twice in a period of a few days, I know I need not wait for a third time to explore the concept.

Schadenfreude (pronounced ‘shade n froid’) which comes from German and originates from the words ‘harm’ and ‘joy. It is defined as, “enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others.” Chances are, you know someone who indulges in this practice, or perhaps, you do so yourself. It may seem like human nature to wish ill will on someone who wreaks havoc or does harm to others. As much as I am aware that cause and effect ultimately occurs, I take a page from those I know who practice the religion of Wicca as they don’t believe in casting negative spells since they hold firmly to the idea that what they put out into the world, returns 10-fold. Better not to evoke bad karma.

Nothing is more evident in the ever-changing world of politics, than this paradigm. Those who voted for one candidate may have a rubbing their hands with glee feeling when the other stumbles and falls. It is like a see saw that raises and lowers depending on the whim and will of the populace. People like seeing someone get their comeuppance, especially when they smugly proclaimed their righteousness.

One of the people who mentioned this word today has someone in her life who latches on to bad news about other people as if it is something that feeds his soul, when it fact, it might be poisoning it. He listens to talk radio with a political edge while he is driving. Ironically the other person who used the word a few days ago admits to having done that in his anger fuel injected past, but does no longer since he found it toxic. The first man doesn’t acknowledge the connection between having his brain bombarded with vitriol and his own easily triggered ire.

Schadenfreude as Social Sadism

Richard H. Smith who wrote The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature, offers this commentary on the subject,” Few people will easily admit to taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others. But who doesn’t enjoy it when an arrogant but untalented contestant is humiliated on American Idol, or when the embarrassing vice of a self-righteous politician is exposed, or even when an envied friend suffers a small setback?”

Call it a form of social sadism, if you will. Reality shows highlight the prevailing culture’s obsession with watching people behave foolishly, shaking their heads in disdain and yet, often can’t turn away or change the channel. We like to see the ‘bad guys’ here, get theirs. Tabloid journalism thrives on uncovering human frailty and foibles; whether through deliberate ill- advised behavior or accidental actions.

Often, people express relief that when something painful or traumatic occurs in someone’s life, that “there but for the grace…go I.” We see ourselves as being separate; an ‘us and them,’ rather than ‘I and thou’.

According to an article in Discover, children in the second year of life can experience schadenfreude, when they perceive unfair or unequal treatment. In my therapy practice, I have taken note in the delight that various siblings have when their brother or sister gets in trouble; glad it wasn’t they who had consequences levied. Setting the other up can become a sport in some family arenas.

Take Me Out to the Ballgame

There is a neurological connection as well, as evidenced in a study that involved a simulated Yankees-Red Sox game. The researchers found that the brains of subjects lit up at the same location whether their team excelled or the other team failed. Taking it a step further, it was discovered that those who felt the most pleasure at the downfall of the other team, were also more likely to aggressively act out, such as throwing things, cursing at or punching rival fans.

Not Like Us

The concept of compassion deficit disorder is created by the perspective of viewing someone else as ‘other’ and therefore, ‘not like us’. One definition of compassion is “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” It is what may fuel hatred whether on an individual or institutional basis. At the time of this writing, virulent hatred has erupted like a boil in Charlottesville, Virginia. Pundits, politicians and private citizens have weighed in with their opinions on who or what is to blame for this wave of violence that left Heather Heyer dead and 19 others injured. Although it is impossible to know what thoughts poured through the mind of white supremacist James Alex Fields, Jr., the man whose actions took the life of this young woman, likely he saw her and those whose opinions differed from his as a threat to his existence.

Wind back the clock and it is likely that somewhere along the time line was a person or group of people who influenced him and created this disconnect from humanity and saw Heather and the other counter-protesters as the enemy and therefore, expendable.

Arnie Kozak, is a psychologist, clinical assistant professor in psychiatry at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, and author of Mindfulness A to Z: 108 Insights for Awakening Now and The Awakened Introvert. He contends that envy plays a role in schadenfreude, “With envy, we feel bad about ourselves in light of the success of others, and with schadenfreude, we feel good about their misfortunes.”

What if poor self-worth was at the heart of reveling in another’s failure and enhanced sense of self love contributed to its obliteration?

If we are to thrive as a species, it is important to recognize this phenomenon and alter our attitudes, since ultimately what affects one, affects all.