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Nadja Geipert
Nadja Geipert

Laugh At Your Own Risk

Why Schadenfreude makes us miserable

I have to admit, when a long-time friend ended his story about an exceptionally crappy day with "And when I got home and got out of my car, a squirrel peed on me," I laughed. Luckily, my friend laughed with me. Together we chuckled at how life can be so relentless and absurd. What else was there to do but laugh? The mishap could easily be fixed with hot water and soap and, my friend knew that my Schadenfreude (German loanword for taking pleasure in other people's misery) came from a place of love and support, not malice.

But Schadenfreude isn't always such fun and games. When we feel glee over others' misfortunes even though people are really getting hurt, Schadenfreude turns destructive. In the most recent example, some people have felt quite a bit of Schadenfreude over Charlie Sheen's public meltdown and what is worse, the media has catered to this by covering every nuance of it.
Initially, I had assumed the Schadenfreude sprang from some misguided sense of justice. After decades of beating on women with little consequence, Sheen was finally getting what was coming to him. I agree that Sheen should be in jail. And, if a misfortune befell him that involved his money somehow getting "re-distributed" to charities that feed the poor and disenfranchised, it would be drinks on me at Happy Schadenfreude Hour. Still, I fail to see how Sheen ending up dead with a coke crust around his nostrils helps any of us (unless of course you're a sadist). Plus, there are four young children caught in the middle of this mess.

Much to my dismay, I discovered that his downfall did not satisfy a need for justice, but instead just pacified some people's jealousy and envy of him. Apparently, many deeply resent the money, success, good looks and endless parade of stunning women to sleep with. Which brings me to my all-time favorite saying about resentment: it's like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die. NOT a great plan for a lifetime of happiness. I don't know about you, but it's the days that I'm consumed with compassion and generosity that are my feel-good days not the ones when I dwell on what others have that I don't.

Many experts will have you believe that jealousy and envy are an inescapable part of life. However ugly and petty it makes us feel, we must all endure it. I disagree. First of all, none of us dreamed of growing up to be petty and jealous adults who like watching other people suffer. I have yet to meet anyone who admits to these feelings with pride. Second, I don't think we should take anything that's a total killjoy lying down. While feelings of jealousy and envy along with their Siamese twin resentment might not actually kill us, they will certainly butcher our joie de vivre.

And last but not least, I feel certain that minimizing feelings of jealousy and envy is not like trying to beat death and taxes: it actually can be done. Call it an occupational hazard, but I believe we should all be cheered on to become who we really want to be. Our time on this planet is shorter than the cosmic blink of an eye; let's try to make the most of it—for the sake of our own happiness and the betterment of the planet.

Stay tuned for my next post on the roots of jealousy and envy and how to overcome them.

"Copyright Nadja Geipert 2011."

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About the Author
Nadja Geipert

Nadja Geipert, M.A. Psychology, is the founder of LA Family Therapy in Los Angeles and a science writer.

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