At first, schadenfreude sounds downright mean. But if you think about it a little bit, haven’t you ever felt the teensiest…okay fine, let’s be real here and start over. Haven’t you ever felt loads and heaps and bounds better about your flabby tummy after spotting your friend’s thunder thighs and batwing arms? Or what about when you hear that your annoyingly overachieving college blockmate was actually retrenched? Or when your gorgeous family friend gets a giant zit on her nose just in time for the family reunion? Admit it, you may not have said it out loud, but something inside you wanted to throw a little party.
Well, you’re not alone. There is actually a term for it, and even a song about it (look for it on YouTube for some laughs). According to psychologist and professor Kathleena dela Rosa, “It's really human nature to compare ourselves to others. We tend to judge our successes and failures based on others' successes and failures. So, it is natural that we tend to feel a bit of happiness at others' misfortunes as that would mean, at that point, we have the upper hand.”
Does feeling this way make you a bad person? No it does not. As dela Rosa points out, it’s normal. However, just because it’s a common occurrence doesn’t mean it can’t get out of hand. “What is not normal is not feeling the tiniest bit guilty, or worse, causing the misfortune!” she warns.
One complication of schadenfreude is falling into the trap of always comparing yourself to others. While women can’t help falling prey to the “Who’s prettier?” affliction that plays over and over in our minds when we meet other women—especially in the presence of our men—we also know that it is not a healthy mindset. Even if some situations pan out in your favor, you know that always being on the lookout and judging others is not just tiring, it can also be debilitating. It can make one unnecessarily self-conscious and bitter. But dela Rosa says not to panic. There is a way to end both the comparison trap and schadenfreude.
Bridge the gap
“While we cannot totally stop that inner ‘comparer’ from being a teeny bit happy at others' misfortunes, what we can do is help out,” shares dela Rosa. “The more we know and get involved with our friend that's going through a rough time, the more we feel for them.”
In the musical Avenue Q, the puppets are shocked when they realize that helping others makes them feel good about themselves. Of course, this is dealt with in a comical way, but the message is clear. When you shift the focus on someone else and take yourself out of the equation, you also remove the selfishness and pettiness.
According to dela Rosa, another way to rid yourself of comparison and gloating over the unhappiness of others is to accept yourself. “At certain points in our lives, we tend to wish we were living another's life,” she explains. “So, if that person goes through a rough time, it makes us feel better about ourselves. If we were more accepting of ourselves, or we try to better our own situation, we would find ourselves more sympathetic of others.”
Instead of looking at what your friend is doing or buying, why not focus on becoming a better you? Maybe that way, you’ll realize that you never needed someone’s misfortune to feel good about yourself.
Olivia has been writing ever since she can remember. She has written for health, teen, parenting, and children's magazines. Her latest endeavor is being a mom to her three-year-old daughter—her toughest assignment yet. Swap stories with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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