Matt Hersh, PhD

Dr. Matt Hersh holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with a specialization in child and family clinical psychology. He is a licensed clinical psychologist and mindfulness teacher in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts with a private practice in the Boston area.

The Germans have a word for delighting in the misery and misfortune of others – Schaedenfreude. We might initially react to the concept of Schaedenfreude with a resounding “Not me! That’s horrible to think about. Who would feel good about others’ feeling bad?”

Well, it turns out that Schaedenfreude may not be all that foreign to us if we explore what’s going on under the surface of our everyday thoughts and feelings.

Let’s start this exploration by examining our feelings about others’ good fortune.

The Odd Attraction to Schaedenfreude and Its Counterparts

Sometimes we are fully able to revel in others’ good fortune, excitement, and happiness. Perhaps your child just won a major award or brought a “D” up to an “A” after three months of very hard work.

However, sometimes it simply feels more automatic and perhaps even more authentic to react to others’ wellbeing and good news with something other than unadulterated and unconditional joy, delight, or encouragement.

One reason for this bizarre twist of humanity is that many of us unknowingly are stuck in “not enough” mode of living wherein we constantly have a tugging feeling that we need that “something else” in life to truly be happy. That something else could be a new car, a bigger house, a different marriage, a thinner body, or even a child who has a different personality. The list is endless.

This endless list can transform, very much out of conscious awareness, into a constant and nagging feeling of dissatisfaction with our lives.

Enter someone else’s good fortune…

Let’s pause for a moment and try a little thought experiment to really get a sense for what we are talking about. Imagine that a friend (maybe not your best friend in the whole world) just landed the ideal job. She gets to work from home three days a week, gets paid over-time, gets six weeks of vacation, and has a starting salary that is triple yours.

Any feelings arising right now? If you are like the rest of the human race, you might feel some initial sense of “Wow. That’s awesome. Good for her! I’m so happy for her!” This may evolve at some point into tinges of envy. We might feel a heaviness, wistfulness, jealousy, or simple deepening of the dissatisfied feeling we carry around with us. And to top it all off, because we may feel envious of our friend for her good fortune, we then likely feel guilty.

If you are truly feeling unconditional joy and delight for your friend’s news, then you perhaps don’t need to read any further. But you might want to continue anyway.

So what’s really happening here within the average person’s set of conditioned reactions? Could it be related to that general, pervasive sense of dissatisfaction with how things are for you? Maybe, maybe not.

If you are willing to entertain that there is a link between your own “not enough” mode of living and the longing feeling you might experience in response to hearing your friend’s good news, then let’s dive in.

Chasing Your Own Tail

When we are bogged down in the “not enough” mode of living that keeps us feeling dissatisfied with what we do have and longing for what could be, we can easily become envious of what others have. And we can also more easily become somewhat pleased, in some seemingly bizarre way, when others fall or fail.

It’s almost as if there’s an unwritten rule that says: “If I can’t have that, they shouldn’t be able to either.” A corollary to that rule is: “ If they have that, then I should be able to have it too.”

This unspoken rule can lead to the feeling like we are chasing after happiness and never really finding it. And no wonder we can’t find it. We are often looking in the wrong places. (It’s like the proverbial story about constantly searching for your missing keys under the lamplight. When asked where your keys were likely dropped, you motion in the direction away from the lamplight. Upon further inquiry as to why you keep searching under the lamp, you reply: “that’s where the light is.”

Beginning the End of Schaedenfreude

How do we release ourselves from this all too common trap of chasing after happiness in all the wrong places? How do we curb the envy for others’ good news and the secret delight when someone falters a bit (particularly when they have had such good fortune)?

One of the most effective ways to deal with this pattern is to confront your own dissatisfaction with life. Your unhappiness may be quite subtle and under your radar or it could be as large and looming as a billboard ad on a highway.

When you truly examine your “If only I could…then I’d be happy” beliefs, you are beginning the end of the habit of chasing your own tail or looking under the lamplight for keys you lost in the dark (if you like that metaphor better).

Cultivating appreciation or gratitude for what you currently do have and what positive qualities you already do possess has a funny way of bringing us more calmly back to the present moment. And when we reside more in the present moment, we are much less likely to feel overly nostalgic for what once was or yearn for what could be.

Sympathetic Joy: The Antidote to Schaedenfreude

Another undervalued but highly effective way to deal with Schaedenfreude and its companions is to intentionally cultivate what is called sympathetic joy. This is the artful practice of sharing others’ joy, of rejoicing when others get good news, of being happy for someone else’s happiness.

Sharon Salzberg, world-renown practitioner and teacher of mindfulness and loving-kindness, refers to sympathetic joy as a practice of generosity. And practicing generosity is a wonderful way to cultivate one’s own happiness as well as feelings of connection to and love for our fellow human beings.

In addition, when we cultivate compassion for others’ lives, we get a widened perspective on both their suffering and their happiness – that they are simply human, just like us.

To this point, I am reminded of a Facebook post I read a little while ago from an old high school friend I had learned was now quite wealthy. He seemed to have it all – a lovely family, a huge house, tons of disposable income for awesome vacations, etc. (Perhaps I was delighting in his good fortune but then felt just a bit jealous and then felt guilty).

I later learned of some great misfortune and suffering that had befallen his family. My heart sank, and my sympathies went out to him and his loved ones. What I initially thought was a life to be envied and sought after became a life to be respected and honored for all of its joys and sorrows.

This was quite humbling and sobering. And it made me connect more deeply with and find more sympathy for both the Hawaiian vacations as well as the great suffering that he and his family had to endure.

When we truly realize that all hearts and minds are connected in overt and also subtle ways, we then more fully appreciate that others’ happiness affects us and our happiness affects others.

So, why not work toward feeling true joy for others’ joy? This might just make your own life really rich, where it truly counts.

Learn more about the happiness-raising effects of kindness, generosity, and the art and practice of Loving-Kindness.

Be well, and may you be joyful in the presence of others’ joy,

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