If the Schadenfreude Fits...
We've had sunshine; they've had snow. Can you blame us for smiling?
Impossible as it sounds, I think I may have exhausted my schadenfreude over the horrendous winter still being suffered, at this writing, by the denizens of the eastern US and the upper Midwest. Of course, schadenfreude — a German term for which there is no one-word English translation, which says a lot about both them and us — means taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others.
Sounds awful, doesn't it? But be honest, you've done it, too. Even if it's as simple and fleeting as chuckling over a pratfall, that's schadenfreude. When a Red Sox fan rejoices over a Yankees loss, or a Democrat snickers over a Republican faux pas (or vice versa), or you suppress a grin when your office arch-rival fails to make his quarterly budget targets... that's schadenfreude.
The musical Avenue Q even has a song about it: "Right now you are down and out and feeling really crappy/ And when I see how sad you are, it sort of makes me... happy!" As the song goes on to explain, it may not be very nice, but it's simply human nature: "Schadenfreude! Making me feel glad that I'm not you."
Who among us in the sunny and warm Southwest, where winter was even more a laugher than usual this year, didn't feel just a touch of schadenfreude at those endless TV news reports of blizzard after blizzard sweeping across the rest of the nation? How fun was that "polar vortex," as long as you're not in it? When a few inches of snow shut down Atlanta and frustrated motorists simply abandoned their cars on the freeway, didn't you think, "Glad it's not me!" — as you headed out in shirtsleeves to walk the dog? The Great Lakes were almost completely frozen — but not our little backyard fountain! Minneapolis shivered in below-zero temperatures for day after day, while we complained about any day that didn't top 60.
This is one reason why we live here, after all — especially those of us who are refugees from colder, snowier climes. Heck, my own map of traipsing about the country reads like a where's where of wintry pain: South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin. Even Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, where we also lived, can get pretty nasty in the winter; I recall trekking through knee-deep snow from the bus stop in Pittsburgh, and once we returned from a Caribbean cruise to find our Cincinnati house blanketed by an ice storm. (Caribbean glow gone, instantly!) Our one southern experience prior to New Mexico, 13 long months in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, nonetheless included a cold snap, ice storm and power outage — the only time, we often say, we feared freezing to death, huddled in the dark in our insulation-less apartment. (We'd interpreted the "Ritz" sign on the door as connoting luxury, not a cracker box. How wrong we were!)
So, yes, I confess to a small thrill of satisfaction when the evening news shows how awful things are in places we formerly lived. I don't actually wish suffering on the poor bastards who still reside there, of course — I'm not a monster! But it's not my fault that some idiots continue to subject themselves to the winters of places like Minneapolis or Milwaukee. Even lakes so big they're called "great" freeze over... hello! Maybe people were not meant to live in these places, at least not year-round.
And, it's true, the sunshine in southern New Mexico feels a little brighter, the no-need-for-a-coat temperatures seem even a touch warmer, when I think of others shoveling snow, bundling up like yeti, sliding off the road and all the other woes winter brings elsewhere. There are just some things that all the hot cocoa in the world can't compensate for. Go ahead, Minnesotans, top off with an extra marshmallow — if you can pry the frozen bag open at 30 below.
Scientists have actually investigated the phenomenon of schadenfreude, albeit in that creepy, Pavlovian way social science tries to quantify what we already know. Richard H. Smith, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, even wrote a book about it, titled The Joy of Pain. (The S&M crowd who snapped up this book quickly returned it to Amazon, alas.) One reason we take pleasure in others' misfortunes, he writes, is that "much of life involves competition." True, but Midwesterners slip-sliding away doesn't really help me get more cheese in the rat race.
Schadenfreude can come from identifying with competitors even when you're not personally doing the competing, however. Smith also cites research using scanners that found Red Sox fans' brains lit up with pleasure when watching the Yankees lose, and vice versa. So perhaps I simply identify with "Southwesterners" now, and enjoy seeing my new "team" outperform my old team, weather-wise.
Another study, by the wonderfully named Wilco W. van Dijk at Leiden University in the Netherlands, identified schadenfreude with low self-esteem. Prof. Wilco, as we'll opt to call him because it's much cooler than "Prof. van Dijk," had 70 undergraduates read about a high-achieving student likely to land a plum job. Those assessed with low self-esteem at the study's start were more likely to take pleasure in then reading about the high achiever suffering a setback. They agreed with statements such as "I couldn't resist a little smile." (The non-social-scientific term "Mr. Smarty-Pants" was not used in this study, but you get the gist.)
When those with low self-esteem were given a little boost to their own ego, they were less likely to report schadenfreude. "They didn't need the misfortune of others to feel better anymore," Prof. Wilco opined grandly.
"Our society thrives on compassion and empathy," he went on to sermonize after his study was published in the journal (I kid you not) Emotion. Easy for someone to say who has a cool name like "Professor Wilco." Although when he was growing up with a last name, "van Dijk," that probably sounds as much like a slang term for a male body part in Dutch as it does in English, he likely wished for more compassion and less schadenfreude from his schoolyard peers....
So is that it, we simply have low self-esteem and must boost it by chuckling when Pittsburghers slip on the ice and land on their butts? (For that matter, who among us doesn't feel a little schadenfreude at the misfortune of being labeled anything-burgher?)
I don't think so, van Dijk. Nor is that why YouTube's "Stupid People Compilation of 2013" has racked up 7.2 million views to date. How "America's Funniest Home Videos" and its endless shots to the crotch can still be on TV. Or even why shows like "Survivor" continue to be popular — can you believe how stupidly the so-called "brains" tribe started off?
It's not that we enjoy others' suffering, not exactly. Rather, since life lacks as obvious a scoreboard as Jerry Jones' overwrought Dallas Cowboys stadium, others' misfortunes and wrong turns sometimes help validate our own choices in the game of Life. Weren't we smart to move here, honey? We sure did a better job raising our kid than the parents of that doofus on YouTube snowboarding down the stairs. I may have made some career mistakes, but nothing like that guy who just got voted off the island!
So go ahead, as the Great Lakes still shimmer with ice and the dirty snow slowly melts in all those New York parking lots, enjoy a little schadenfreude. Maybe the Germans are onto something. (But not too much, given Germany's history with others' misfortunes.)
And if you're reading this in one of those still-frozen places, hoping April brings enough of a thaw that you can find your mailbox, take heart! That "Avenue Q" song has some solace for those on the other end of schadenfreude, too:
"The world needs people like you and me who've been knocked around by fate./ 'Cause when people see us, they don't want to be us, and that makes them feel great.... We provide a vital service to society!... Making the world a better place to be!"
So, thanks, Minneapolis. Take a bow, Connecticut snow shovelers and Raleigh residents still searching for your cars! You've spent all winter making us in the Southwest feel better, through the magic of schadenfreude.
See you in December. Or, if we're lucky, when a Halloween blizzard hits.
Desert Exposure editor David A. Fryxell
is not really a bad person.