Feeling Schadenfreude? Embrace it. At least for a moment.
When Americans woke up to the news of Donald and Melania Trump having contracted COVID-19, it triggered a variety of immediate responses, including suspicion of whether this was #fakenews, concern that they may have infected Biden during the last debate, and empathy that they were the latest to contract the disease.
But, more than anything else, there was an overwhelming response of glee and “ha ha.” Here, the man who has consistently questioned masks, said “It is what it is” about a disease that has already killed over 200,000 Americans, and has called the pandemic a hoax, was finally getting a comeuppance.
If you are one of the millions of Americans who felt even a teeny tiny bit happy about this Trump-COVID plot twist, know that:
- you are in powerful company
- you should embrace it
And, if you find yourself shaming another for feeling this emotion, just STOP IT.
There is a name for this jolt of pleasure that comes in others’ misfortune: Schadenfreude. The word emanates from the German Schaden, meaning harm, and Freude, meaning joy. And, it’s one of today’s most highly trending Twitter hashtags.
But is schadenfreude bad? Through my 26 years of research on emotion and organizing, one of the most important things I’ve learned is that all emotions serve a purpose in the world. No emotion—whether happy, sad, angry, or fearful—is singularly bad or good, and this includes schadenfreude.
First of all, schadenfreude is a completely expected, normal, and an evolutionarily beneficial response to witnessing the peril of wrong-doers. Case in point, research with young children and chimpanzees shows that they will “pay” (with candy or physical effort) to see antisocial (but not prosocial) agents be punished. Indeed, research shows that schadenfreude is not a wholly deviant obsession worthy of shame or guilt. Rather, it can be a functional and useful emotion in certain circumstances.
It makes sense that [humans] would have evolved to enjoy seeing justice done, and transgressors get their comeuppances. … One study I came across in my research suggests that Schadenfreude may have been very useful for our earliest ancestors. The study’s authors found we tend only to belly laugh in response to slapstick – and that belly laughter in fact raised people’s sensitivity to pain – and so suggest that belly laughter at pratfalls and clowns in pain etc, may have been part of what allowed us to survive very harsh conditions in groups (R.I.M. Dunbar et al, ‘Social laughter is correlated with an elevated pain threshhold’, 2012).
In sum, feeling schadenfreude is normal, evolutionarily functional, and can be instrumental for collective coping, resistance, and survival in the face of very harsh conditions. So, if you feel schadenfreude in relation to Trump’s misfortune, part of what you’re experiencing is a communal reclamation of power in the face of a severe, unpredictable, and punishing president.
So, I say, take some time to embrace these feelings of schadenfreude. Give yourself a moment, an hour, or even the whole day to appreciate what schadenfreude can do for your own and our collective mental wellbeing.
And, at the least, don’t shame others for feeling it.
Edit 10/3/2020: Like any emotion, Schadenfreude has a mix of outcomes, and its functional aspects come primarily in terms of immediate coping, survival under threat, and a reclamation of power. Just like all those old 80s movie storylines that depended on their audiences cheering when the high school bully finally got his due (e.g., think Biff in “Back to the Future”), it’s natural to feel schadenfreude as an immediate response. That said, it’s not an emotion I would encourage folks to personally wallow in for days or weeks, and its survival function seems to lose applicability in relation to the decreased immediate threat at hand.