"Schadenfreude: The Joy Of Another’s Misfortune"

Wisconsin author Jay Gilbertson reviews "Schadenfreude: The Joy Of Another’s Misfortune" by Tiffany Watt Smith.

Who isn’t fascinated by human emotion? Pair that with a person you admire in that complex, envious-nearly-coveting way while they are showing you their brand-new pricy pickup, then it suddenly rolls down the driveway, smashing into a parked car.

No one is hurt. And you laugh and laugh, tears rolling down your cheeks.

Sound like something you might do? That is what the German word schadenfreude means.

“The Japanese have a saying: The misfortunes of others taste like honey. The French speak of joie maligne, a diabolical delight in other people’s suffering. In Hebrew enjoying other people’s catastrophes is simcha-la-ed.”

Cultural historian and author Tiffany Watt Smith, in her awesome TED talk, clearly demonstrates exactly how all over the globe, when it comes to really cranking up the happy, we humans find nothing more hilarious than the fails of our ex-wives/office mates/movie stars/hunting buddies/mothers-in-law.

You know you do. And that kind of laughter is not only the kind where you double over and the tears start to flow, it’s the one situation you never forget.

The cool dude at your place of work, swings back on his chair, and it tips over. You bust a gut.

And now, today, think of all those video clips on your phone: cats and dogs and babies. The one that sticks in your mind is the one that doesn’t end so well. Admit it. You watch it over and over and maybe you don’t tell anyone how much you enjoyed it. You found it that funny.

Think maybe you’re a bad person after all? Nah, just a human person. The reasons we react as we do is what compelled Smith to delve further and me to share this with you. That and to make you squirm a little.

“We might worry that a taste for other people’s misery will corrupt our souls, yet this emotion is far from simply ‘bad.’ It touches on things that have mattered most to human societies for millennia: our instincts for fairness and hatred of hypocrisy; our love of seeing our rival suffer in the hope that we might win ourselves; our itch to measure ourselves against others and make sense of our choices when we fall short; how we bond with each other; what makes us laugh,” Smith writes. “If we peer more closely at this hidden and much-maligned emotion, liberate ourselves from its shame and secrecy, we will discover a great deal about who we really are.”

Though this book is small, it reveals a truth: The awkward reality that we all enjoy a little schadenfreude now and again.

That sneaky laughter as someone takes a wrong step and life deals them a blow.

Which does several things, one of which makes you shake with delight, the other, more complicated, makes you look around and see if anyone witnessed that seemingly callous response.

Then you watch the video again. You know you do.

  • Favorite schadenfreude?
  • Book club fodder
  • Humans are something

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Jay Gilbertson is the Wisconsin author of The Madeline Island Series. His website is www.jaygilbertson.com; “Like” him on Facebook, too. Feel free to contact Jay at jay@jaygilbertson.com


Dunn County News editor

Barbara Lyon is the editor of The Dunn County News in Menomonie, WI.

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