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27 April 2011

Schadenfreude and Gluckschmerz

How do we feel when someone else gets the short end of the stick? Do we enjoy seeing old Bubba get what’s coming to him? Do we laugh when someone in a different socioeconomic class than ourselves takes a beating, either physically, financially, or emotionally? Well, welcome to the world of schadenfreude.

German speakers might recognize this word as meaning the phenomenon of taking pleasure in another’s suffering. It has no common, English equivalent, though there is one English word, "epicaricacy," which is similar but less luciferous than schadenfreude.

I admit I once thought it was pretty cool when military planes flew over their respective targets and blew the hell out of them, knowing full well there were people dying. Some of my friends tended to get pumped, too, when they saw the guns and bombs raining down on a city thousands of miles away. Of course there are those who get all warm and fuzzy when watching the nightly news of a serial killer being executed. These individuals are all experiencing schadenfreude in its quintessential state.

There is another German word somewhat tangential to schadenfreude, gluckschmerz. Gluckschmerz means the unhappiness one feels due to the success of others. We move from enjoying the suffering of others to the loathsome feelings we have for ourselves when others succeed.

An example of gluckschmerz which comes to mind almost immediately is what I like to call the “beauty queen syndrome.” A pretty girl wins some beauty pageant, and then the BBW cry, “Oh Lord, why can’t I look like her.” They cannot seem to find a way to be happy for the girl who won the most recent meaningless judging criteria pageant, but instead, it makes them unhappy to see the other girl win.

We found it necessary to concoct such words for these phenomena; should we not ask why? Is it some sort of survival mechanism? Did it help our ancestors cope better with the rigors of their environment thereby giving the gene supporting it some sort of preference in its selection? Is it something that is handed down culturally to our offspring? Or, is it a pathological response to certain stimuli and thus an unhealthy reaction on the part of sufferers?

There is surely some middle-ground somewhere between loving it and dreading it, but finding it is another story altogether. Regardless, rather than allowing another’s good or bad fortune to affect our happiness or let it make us sad in the first place, maybe we should direct that energy somewhere else, like finding a way to accept ourselves and others simply for who we are.

Someone once said the English language did not have as much panache as other languages. I would agree with that statement to an extent. But I must admit, English offers the means by which to express ourselves if we are not too slothful to learn it.

As a matter of fact, at this time of the year a lot of us catch ourselves looking to the English language for words to fill the lines of all those heinous assignments coming due for college students around the country. To those who still have some to write, as well as a few who still have some to read, well, I must admit I am feeling a touch of schadenfreude for you.

© 2011 Don Lovell
© 2011 The West Georgian

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