Gwyneth Paltrow in her Goop newsletter recently posed one of those cringe-inducing questions that ignite the desire to plunge for the bedcovers.
“Why does it feel so good to hear something bad about someone you don’t like? Or someone you do like? Or someone you don’t know?” she asks.
In a nutshell, this glamorous, flaxen-haired actress had summed up an emotion we’re all guilty of from time to time: Schadenfreude.
Simply put, this German phrase means “pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.”
It’s that uncomfortable, slightly guilty feeling we all get: angst mixed with relief, when we hear that our tiny, size-two friend has gained a few pounds, or the smug mommy of that potty-trained two-year-old had an “accident” to clean up at Wal-Mart. We picture her, stuck in Aisle 3, with no extra set of underpants, and we try not to laugh.
Because, we rationalize, she had it coming to her.
Schadenfreude is easiest to justify when the person who just had a collision with Murphy’s Law is someone we don’t necessarily like. Or don’t know, as Gwyneth points out in her newsletter.
I’ve always enjoyed watching Reese Witherspoon on the big screen. But personally, she rubs me the wrong way. I remember in an interview with a major women’s magazine she kept going on and on about her happy married life and how she felt lucky to have had kids at a young age.
At the time, I was reaching my mid-thirties, was still very single, and part of me wanted to punch her.
So, it wasn’t all that surprising to feel that teeny ping of joy when Perfect Sanctimonious Reese and her perfect husband Ryan Phillipe, got a purrfect divorce. Meow.
Schadenfreude has a presence in everyone’s life. Some of my own family members walk hand in hand with this monster on a regular basis.
There’s that one aunt whom everyone tries to avoid at family parties and weddings, because she’ll inevitably snake her way up to you and ask, “So how are you DOING? Are you happy? Are you in a relationship?” Falter in any of her answers, and she’ll coil up like a reptile about to attack its prey and say, “Ooooh, that’s too BAD,” and then walk away, licking her chops.
I once made the mistake of introducing a ne’er do well boyfriend to her at an affair years ago. When she found out the poor guy was unemployed, she spent the rest of the evening leering at me, her smile reminiscent of the crocodile in Peter Pan just before he’s about to eat Captain Hook.
While I don’t think I’m as bad as my aunt is in deriving pleasure from other’s pain, I am certainly not a stranger to this emotion.
I remember when my old college friend Amy* got married in a beautiful outdoor ceremony in Long Island nearly a decade ago. She looked so radiant on her wedding day. Instead of being happy for her, I sat there moping next to the noncommittal man I was dating at the time, feeling hopelessly, insanely jealous.
Two years later, Amy, who had moved across the country to her husband’s hometown, started having marital problems. Her husband was chronically unemployed and in a stress-filled moment had stolen something from a store. My friend, who had a one-year-old to take care of, found herself carrying the marriage on her shoulders. That carefree, long-haired girl from her wedding day had vanished, preserved only in glossy album photos.
As I heard her talk about her woes over the phone, I felt the ugly Schadenfreude monster lurking beneath my subconscious, poking me with its sharp, pointy tail.
The monster as it turned out, was no competition for the deep, long-term friendship I had with Amy. Eventually, those feelings went away as I found my own way in life, falling in love and marrying a man who was finally worth my time and having a child of my own.
It’s clear that the best antidote for Schadenfreude is inner happiness.
*Name has been changed