Joy in the Misfortune of Others: Sports and Beyond

Does joy in the misfortune of others make life worthwhile?

Posted Jun 02, 2011

The German word Schadenfreude means joy in the misfortune of others. Most of us experience such pleasure some of the time, and some of us most of the time. Schadenfreude is an evil relative of the sorts of topics positive psychologists usually study. How close or distant a relative, I don't know, but I invite readers of this entry to consider the issue.

I thought of Schadenfreude during the past week, ever since the news broke that Ohio State University football coach Jim Tressel resigned amid escalating accusations of wrong-doing by his players. I do not know what really happened - what the players did, what the coach knew, and when he knew it - but regardless, as a sports fan, even one of the University of Michigan football team, I felt sad because these events diminished a game that I so enjoy.

I am not saying that those who break the rules should go unpunished, only that punishment, no matter how much it may be deserved, is not an occasion for joy. However, I have been wondering if I am alone in Maize and Blue Nation. To and from work (at the University of Michigan), I often listen to a local AM sports station that features talk. Those who call in are usually Michigan fans, and for the past week, callers have been positively giddy with delight over the misfortunes of the Buckeyes and their coach. If their joy were the result of the reasonable expectation that Michigan would benefit down the road from Ohio State's likely loss of football scholarships and exclusion from bowl games, not to mention the resignation of a very good if tarnished coach, I would be more understanding. Those thoughts crossed my partisan mind. But what I have been hearing from most callers is ungrounded joy, simple and hardly pure.

So what's going on? Positive psychology holds that the positive is genuine. I guess the unstated corollary is that the negative is also genuine, in this case hatred compounded by over-the-top righteous outrage*. There are truly bad things in the world (pestilence, poverty, prejudice) that deserve to be hated. Their demise may be a morally legitimate cause for joy. But here we are talking about football teams, for goodness sakes. Former Coach Tressel's record against Michigan over the past decade was 9-1. Is that a reason to hate him and thus celebrate his fall?

I am a lifelong Cubs fan, but I have never rooted against the White Sox, or the Cardinals, or the Mets, or the Phillies, or the Padres, and so on - a long list could be imagined! I just want my team to do well. Period. Ditto for how I feel about the Michigan football team.

Positive psychology often studies happiness - joy in the extreme case. But happiness about what? Typical survey measures only ask if respondents are satisfied / happy / joyful. I suggest that an authentic positive psychology would take the additional step and ask why someone is happy. If the source of happiness is the misfortune of others - like rival political parties and nations, for example, or celebrities, or people at home and work who annoy us - I doubt that this sort of happiness is really what makes life worth living. Why define yourself by what you hate?  Does anyone want the epitaph on his tombstone to read: "He hated!"


*Sports Illustrated writer Steve Rushin made a great comment on the Ohio State and other sports scandals: "Anyone who feels real moral outrage when reading the Sports section has almost certainly skipped the News ... section."