It’s so common it has its own name:
Schadenfreude – finding pleasure from the misfortunes of others.
And although few will admit to it, it’s a very human experience. If we see others fail, we feel better about ourselves.
This is on full display in our obsession with the entertainment industry (build them up and tear them down), but it’s also happening in our work places, neighborhoods, homes.
Many have a love (or maybe just a habit) of cynicism, snarkiness, competition; other people’s challenges become our delights.
Maybe it brings a sense of safety (see what happens to people who try new things?), or self assurance (they aren’t so great after all). Or maybe it just keeps us focused on others so we don’t have to focus on our own stuff.
Whatever the reason, we tend to revel in the bad news (again, check out the headlines) rather than find joy in the good.
But the truth is that the happiest people are the ones who are present when things go right for others (quote taken directly from the article What Happy People Do Differently, Psychology Today, July/August, 2013 issue).
The ability to stand by a person with wonderful news is an indicator of inner awareness and self respect. Holding the hand of someone who is shining brightly takes bravery and strength.
And research shows that it bonds our relationships. Psychologist Shelly Gable of the University of California discovered that romantic partners who make a big deal out of each other’s successes are more committed and satisfied, while partners who are passive about each other’s accomplishments are more likely to break up.
When you are experiencing something wonderful, the best feelings come when you get to share it with someone else; it creates intimacy. And the person who is willing to listen and celebrate with you is the person you come to depend on.
There are some people who tend to have a lot of good news, and of course envy is a completely normal emotion. Don’t worry, you aren’t a bad person if you feel it, you are just a human being.
But when envy shows up and you want to ridicule or dismiss the person who feels good, stop, take a deep breath, and recognize what the envy is trying to tell you.
Is this person doing something you wish you could do? Are they moving forward in life and you feel stuck? Are they staring fear in the face while you allow fear to control you?
Don’t create stories about how this person never feels pain or doesn’t know what it’s like to struggle. You don’t know their inner world or all of their experiences. Everyone has pain and comparing isn’t fair or productive.
Not an easy thing to confront, but it’s an important awareness – a way to use an uncomfortable emotion as a signal for growth.
And it creates an opportunity for you to practice a different word, the word that is the complete opposite of schadenfreude:
Mudita – the pleasure that comes from delighting in other people’s joy.
I’ve always loved this Sanskrit word; it’s not the first time I’ve written about it.
It feels light yet powerful, and it speaks to the person we all want to be.
And notice that it’s not all about giving; we get the joy of delighting in other people’s joy. Mudita is actually a self-serving act, because we get to feel joy, too.
When you understand that what you focus on grows, focusing on other people’s joy increases our joy, which creates more joy for the greater good.
For all of you who talk about a kinder and gentler world, noticing schadenfreude and choosing mudita can be your way of making a change. A step toward connectedness, a domino falling in the right direction.
Like last year, when I was helping one of my best girlfriends with an issue. As she thanked me she said, “What can I do to support you?”
I told her that she continuously supports me by being happy for me. I explained how she always shows up and shares my enthusiasm when something amazing happens.
I said I was grateful for the times she held me up when I was struggling, but her ability to stand next to me during my proud moments are the memories I treasure.
And she seemed happy.