In an ideal world, we feel happy for other people. We feel happy when they get something good and sad when they get something bad. In an ideal world, basically, our behaviour is ideal too! But in reality, we are not that saint-like. We have some perverse mentality in us that makes us a bit jealous, a bit sadist (and hence a bit human!)
We have some perverse mentality in us that makes us a bit jealous, a bit sadist, hence a bit human!
(Disclaimer – Serious people, please go get your pinch of
salt before reading ahead!)
Talk to anyone with less than 8-10 years of work experience. When talking about work, their conversations centre around who is doing what, where and for how much. They will talk about who is better off and worse off. The stories of the ones who are worse off offer them secret consolation. Soon they will start to nit-pick the ones that are better off and find faults in their happiness till they can be safely put into the worse off category or at least not that well-off category. Nothing, absolutely nothing, makes them happier than the fact that nobody is happy with their work.
There are words for this trait with the German word ‘Schadenfreude’ being really popular. (There are some really cool German words to express feelings- Fernweh and Kummerspeck are a couple more! Pronunciation struggle – different story altogether though!) Some people go as far as to even call extreme schadenfreude a disorder. Plainly translated, this means deriving a malicious pleasure from someone else’s pain. A more relatable example of this can be through games – we rejoice more when the opposing team’s wicket falls than when we score a sixer/boundary. Or in football, it has been seen that fans smiled more quickly and broadly when their rival team missed a penalty, than when their own team scored.
This feeling is actually tied to our reward centres -the one
that believes in ‘Karma’. You feel good when something bad happens to a bad
person. You feel good that the person, who was mean to you way back in nursery,
is not doing that great now. If a person who was mean to you is doing great
now, you will end up nit-picking his success and try to find some reason to
feel that they are not all that great. And if you fail at this attempt – you might
feel a bit sad.
I know there are a few saints (and the remaining people who
are wishful-saints) out there reading this, shaking their heads, saying this is
so bad, but guess what? This is common human behaviour. Studies have found that
a lot of ‘normal’ people experience this. And the best part about those studies
– they found that it is generally directed towards successful people! Like I
said, we nit-pick over the people who we think are better off than us, till we
find something missing in their life and voila! that consoles us.
Let me give another example. I started with the example of
work, but this is the case with almost all aspects of our life. When two
Indians in their mid-20s meet, another common topic being pitched is love
marriage vs arrange marriage. Strangely, no one compares the benefits of these
two. The comparison is between the disadvantages of the two; the scale is
between how unhappy people are after arrange or love marriage; and not how
happy they are. The common ground to be arrived at is that ‘there are issues in
The good part is, feeling all schadenfreude is not all bad.
It apparently gives confidence to people to go ahead with goals that they think
are too high. People unconsciously gather courage from the misfortune of successful
people, thinking ‘bad things happen to better people; let me go and try, at
least it won’t be as bad as what happened to him’
Now, if its human nature to feel occasional pleasure at someone else’s misfortune, then why is it weird to think about the incidents I have highlighted? Normally, I pick traits like ego or gossiping and say that treading a midline is great. With this trait of finding pleasure in someone else’s misfortune, I can’t really say a mid-line is ideal. Games can be excluded from consideration under the umbrella of the sporting spirit. An instantaneous reaction like feeling glad that a mean colleague got passed over for promotion is acceptable to some extent. ( Plus, it gives you a reason to bond with the other colleagues who hate him. Yes, I know, I am mean. ) We cannot say that it is all bad because it kind of is the basis for a lot of social interaction – including being one of the founding stones of gossip. But if we are thinking deeply over someone else’s life to find where could they be unhappy, something is wrong there. It might mean that we are actually projecting our unhappiness, our inability to do something good in our life, over them.
I, personally, am guilty of possessing almost every negative
human emotion, so of course this is no exception! What do you think? Let me
know in the comments below.