Four Possible Ways to React to Other People's Happiness or Misery by@roxanamurariu

Four Possible Ways to React to Other People's Happiness or Misery

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There are four possible ways in which we can combine our reactions when we observe another person’s happiness or unhappiness: we can feel pleasure at another’s unhappiness (schadenfreude), displeasure at another’s unhappiness (compassion), displeasure at another’s happiness (envy), or pleasure at their happiness (mudita).
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Roxana Murariu

Web developer writing essays about mindset, productivity, tech and others. Personal blog: https://roxanamurariu.com/

There are four possible ways in which we can combine our reactions when we observe another person’s happiness or unhappiness: we can feel pleasure at another’s unhappiness (schadenfreude), displeasure at another’s unhappiness (compassion), displeasure at another’s happiness (envy), or pleasure at their happiness (mudita).


Schadenfreude is a word borrowed from German, composed by Schaden (“damage/harm”) and Freude (“joy”). Thus, schadenfreude means tingling or even waves of pleasure noticing another’s misfortunes. The critical difference between schadenfreude and sadism is that sadism gives pleasure by inflicting pain. In contrast, schadenfreude is observing somebody else suffering and considering that perhaps the other deserved the punishment.


In the misfortune of our best friends, we always find something which is not displeasing to us.

François Duc de la Rochefoucauld



Sure, we put on our best sad face when our infuriatingly attractive friend gets dumped. But behind the commiserations, there’s just a little pulse of excitement, making our eyes gleam and the corners of our mouths twitch. Admitting that they too could occasionally feel a stab of pleasure on hearing of other people’s suffering, the Greeks called it epichairekakia (literally, rejoicing over evil), and the Romans, malevolentia, giving our own word malevolence.

Tiffany Watt Smith – The Book of Human Emotions


Perhaps schadenfreude wears masks of relief when we hear that somebody was made redundant: “Phew, it didn’t happen to me!”


And there are shades of delight bordering envy or resentment when somebody with the aura of success experiences failure. When a thriving colleague finally bites the dust, we feel, perhaps incorrectly, that their loss will soon become our win. Or consider the scandals of celebrities or all the gossipy drama about superstars with wrinkles, cellulite, and grey hair. How the mighty have fallen! For once, we, the laypeople, feel superior watching the tribulations of the rich and famous.



Few of us care to admit it, but we get a kick out of hearing about other people’s bad decisions and errant spouses and ungrateful children. It reminds us that it’s not only our own hopes that get dashed. Everybody else’s do too.

Tiffany Watt Smith – The Book of Human Emotions


But schadenfreude is also a highly charged moral feeling. We get a thrill of justice when we see something terrible happening to immoral people. It gives reassurance that everything will be right with the world. Because when anger eats your throat and pain stabs your eyes, somebody must pay. And that payment brings relief when villains get their fairy-tale-like punishment.



When somebody else goes through misfortune, we can feel compassion instead of schadenfreude.


And when I finally run into S [a hypothetical person that causes us trouble], and he tells me how scared he’s been of telling anyone he’s HIV positive, all the resentment vanishes, and his grief and terror become mine too. For as long as these fragile moments last, I inhabit a world where all living things are united by their yearning to survive and be unharmed. I recognize the anguish of others not as theirs but as ours.

Stephen Batchelor – Buddhism without Beliefs


From the Latin com (with) and patior (to suffer), compassion endures the pains of others. We discover our relatedness with others between our pains, memories, flaws, and vulnerabilities. Despite our cultural, social, or personal differences, we learn that we speak the same language of suffering and care.

But sometimes, as much as we want to help and be compassionate towards others, we keep away, overwhelmed by the responsibility of caring for another’s burden. What words should we choose? How should we express our desire to help?



According to Mandy Reichwald, a former nurse who for most of her working life has helped care for terminally ill patients and their families, true compassion is about supporting and sustaining people so they can find their own strength. She cautions against the instinct to rush in, to throw your arms around a person to comfort them, as this takes away someone’s ability to gather themselves for the situation ahead. Listen. Be interested. Be still. Guard against your own eyes welling up. ‘It’s not about you, it’s about them.’ If you do feel overcome, be honest. She suggests that saying ‘I feel really shocked by what you’ve just said, I need to take a minute’ or ‘that’s so sad’ can have a surprising effect […] Even ringing someone up and admitting, ‘I just don’t know what to say, but I wanted to see how things are,’ is better than avoiding them altogether.

It’s not selfish to take care of our own interest first; in fact, this is the measure of true and mature compassion. Because if you become overwhelmed by other people’s problems, you won’t – or won’t be able to – help. For Reichwald, it’s those emergency instructions on an aeroplane which ring in her ears like an alarm when she’s feeling a little frayed: ‘You must put on your own oxygen mask before helping other people with theirs.’

Tiffany Watt Smith – The Book of Human Emotions




“What is wrong with doctors [feel free to replace with family, friends, neighbours, people, etc.]? Why don’t they understand the importance of sheer presence?” she asked me. “Why can’t they realize that the very moment they have nothing else to offer is the moment they are most needed?”

Irvin D. Yalom – Momma and the Meaning of Life




“What do you wish people would say?” I ask. Julie [a woman with terminal cancer] thinks about this. “They can say, ‘I’m so sorry.’ They can say, ‘How can I be helpful?’ Or ‘I feel so helpless, but I care about you.’”

“One person blurted out, ‘I have no idea how to say the right thing here,’ and I was so relieved! I told her that before I got sick, I wouldn’t have known what to say either.

Lori Gottlieb – Maybe You Should Talk to Someone


Following the cycle of emotions, we reach envy. Etymologically, envy derives from Latin invidus (envious), which in turn, comes from in (upon) and videre (to see). What better way to describe envy than its original roots, where it is associated with looking? Perhaps, more than ever, we are caught in a trance of comparing ourselves to the seemingly little perfect lives of others, falling prey to layers upon layers of deception, wanting their possessions, their advantages, forgetting we live and believe in the smoke and mirrors magic tricks of social media.


Envy? Oh yes. Wanton. Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.

Novelist and essayist Wilfrid Sheed 



Sometimes, it is not enough that we might have a good life or possessions of our own. Like the Irish epic the Táin Bó Cúailnge tells us, a war was started because of envy. According to the story, Queen Medb and her husband Ailill decided to compare their wealth. Gold, gorgeous clothes, flock, Medb and Ailill matched their possessions and found them equal. Until a bull was brought over to Ailill, and what follows is perhaps, one of the most eloquent descriptions of envy:

Medb had no equal to this bull, and her spirit fell as if she hadn’t a penny as she realised that Ailill had the better of her.



And then, we have jealousy. Whereas envy describes the feeling of something we want but do not have, jealousy describes the feeling of something we have but are afraid of losing. Again, we find the metaphor best suited for jealousy within the etymological strata. Derived from the French jalousie, which comes from Low Latin zelosus (full of zeal), which finally brings us to the root of the Greek word ζήλος (zēlos), connoting, among other meanings, “to boil, ferment” or “yeast”. Jealousy is a fermenting threat of losing control when somebody dares to touch something that is ours and only ours.

If envy is mostly linear (me versus you), Tiffany Watt Smith remarks that jealousy is triangular: me (the victim), you (the traitor), and the other (the thief).



A classic example where these notions of envy and jealousy are misinterpreted is the following clip from Friends, where Rachel and Phoebe are so happy and perhaps 10% jealous (but envious, really) of Monica and Chandler’s engagement.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ir6vIaCdVJU




Coming full circle, after discussing schadenfreude, compassion and envy, we arrive at mudita. A word from Sanskrit and Pali, mudita means the sympathetic joy of watching another’s well-being and achievements. According to Buddhist teachings, joy is not a scarce resource reserved only for a select group. Instead, feeling mudita is evidence that someone’s else good fortunes don’t decrease our reserves of joy but increase them.


Mudita does not have any nuances of pride (for example, the pride of a parent observing their child’s successes and accomplishments), as when we experience mudita, we don’t have any benefits or other self-interest services from the achievements of others. A parent being happy for a friend of their child doing well, and perhaps that friend even defeated the parent’s child in the process, is mudita.



Sharon [Salzberg, author and teacher of Buddhist meditation practices] happened to give a very timely talk on the subject of mudita, the Buddhist term for sympathetic joy. She admitted that sometimes her first instinct when trying to summon this feeling was, “Ew, I wish you didn’t have so much going for you.” The meditation hall erupted in laughter. Sharon said the biggest obstacle to mudita is a subconscious illusion, that whatever success the other person has achieved was actually somehow really meant for us. “It’s almost like, it was heading right for me,” she said, “and you just reached out and grabbed it.” More laughter, as everyone in the room enjoyed one of the most satisfying of all dharma delicacies: an accurate diagnosis of our inner lunacy.

Dan Harris – 10% happier




Children at play go through all the phases of schadenfreude, compassion, envy, or mudita in less than a few minutes: “Haha, you will fall! Oh no, you really did fall. Does it hurt? Why is your toy shinier than mine? Yey, you did it!”


And it is the same with adults. We can show mudita to some but schadenfreude to others. As seasons float, we discover that our schadenfreude from the past becomes mudita. Or vice versa. Who am I to judge? Feelings come and go.


Equilibrium and inner peace are quite challenging to attain regularly, even for those who practice different schools of thought (mindfulness, Stoicism, etc.). Accepting that we shouldn’t chase mudita or compassion and that envy or schadenfreude will come our way is yet another fact from the unfolding of our days.


Also published here.

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