When I See How Sad You Are, It Sorta Makes Me… Happy

On Tuesday evening, I was lucky enough to be featured on a local radio show to talk about friendship and MWF Seeking BFF. The host of “Extension 720 with Milt Rosenberg” was the head of the social psychology department at the University of Chicago for a number of years, and was one of the most well-versed in the science of friendship of all the people I’ve ever spoken to. I was just happy to keep up!

One of the topics that Milt focused on a lot was the idea of schadenfraude, or the notion that we sometimes take pleasure in other people’s misfortune. Then he quoted Oscar Wilde: “Anybody can sympathize with the sufferings of a friend, but it requires a very fine nature to sympathize with a friend’s success.”

I’m guessing everyone out there has experienced these emotions once in a while. You get sick of hearing about a friend’s amazing life and suddenly it’s easier to be there for her when things go badly than it is to listen, again, when the next great success comes her way. Or, deep down, you do a little dance of joy when she calls to report her recent breakup.

It’s a weird and disturbing phenomenon. For me, though, it has largely faded with time. When I was in high school, I certainly had moments when I couldn’t stand to hear about a friend’s latest conquest. But, really, it had nothing to do with the friend and everything to do with me—I was jealous, I was unhappy with my own lack of success in whatever arena (usually boys), and so it was hard to hear about how well others were doing. In the same vein, I’ve sometimes kept successes to myself because I didn’t want to get accused of bragging or seeming insensitive.

As I’ve gotten older, and, perhaps, happier, it’s a rare occasion when I’m not excited to hear of a friend’s accomplishments. And I feel confident that I can share my successes with pals and get honest excitement from them in return.

Of course, when a friend is going through a hard time, sensitivity is key. I’m not trying to be like “Oh you’re in the hospital and feeling like crap? Well listen to how fabulous my life is!” I mean, common sense people.

So while yes, schadenfreude exists, I don’t think it’s a sentiment that rears its ugly head between real friends. Just between frenemies.

Yes, with frenemies, schadenfreude is more or less what binds us together. It’s so sick, but so true.

Are you familiar with the glee that schadenfreude brings? Ever had a hard time being happy for a friend? Don’t worry, it doesn’t make you a bad person. Just a normal one.

Book clubs! Interested in reading MWF Seeking BFF with your group? Get the discussion questions! (Or check out the new “For Book Clubs” page on this site.) If you’d like, I’d be thrilled to join via Skype or in person for the discussion. Just shoot me an email with the subject “book club visit.”

8 Comments

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8 responses to “When I See How Sad You Are, It Sorta Makes Me… Happy

  1. When I got engaged, the first person I called was my BFF, because I knew that he was the only person who would have nothing but sheer joy for me. And he did. Everyone else I called, I’m pretty sure they had some kind of mixed emotions, because almost all of them either weren’t in serious relationships OR were already planning weddings for the same summer. So I think it depends on the kind of friendship you have, but also the specific situation.

  2. It’s sad that jealousy is considered “normal.”

    I’m always happy when great things happen to my friends. There is so much bad stuff in life, even if you are the most positive person in the world (illness, death, unemployment) — that I can’t get enough of hearing how great someone is doing!

    And I am so blessed to have friends of the same mindset. If someone is negative towards my good fortune, I do not want to be bothered with them. And people who complain all the time drain your soul, so I find myself avoiding them.

  3. kayelam

    As someone much older (50’s) than your typical reader, I think it is an issue of maturity and life experience. I want others to succeed. Yes, I want to succeed too, but your success has nothing to do with mine. You are absolutely right in saying it’s all about the person feeling it, not the person targeted. As we mature and become more comfortable in our own skins, I think the “either/or” mindset mostly goes away. At least I hope so.

  4. Kristen A.

    If I’m doing a mental dance of joy over somebody’s breakup, it’s probably because I’ve long thought that the significant other was no good and was treating my friend like garbage and I’m glad that s/he’s out of the picture. Same goes for any mixed emotions I have for friends “successes” – only if I’m not sure if it’s really a success, like the friend who gets engaged to somebody she knows has cheated on her not that long ago, or the one who’s pregnant who is at a stage in life when I’m afraid she’s going to have trouble supporting a child.

    Anyway, I mostly wanted to say that Avenue Q is awesome.

  5. I have been thinking about this topic a lot recently. When I am speaking with my friends they are supportive and helpful. However when I have taken those same topics to a public forum like facebook, I don’t get the same results.

    Everyone has been quick to rally around me on Facebook when I had a devastating set-back, but when I actually need help to start a project I get virtually no assistance or feedback.

    I have been disappointed by the lack of responsiveness from my closest friends. I am not sure why they aren’t more supportive and I am not sure how to ask them without sounding mean.

    • I agree with this, which is why I left Face Book. If you talk to people via email, on the phone, or in person you can tailor the conversation to what they can or can’t handle. I know from experience you can’t cast your jewels before swine, meaning to not discuss anything that is important to you with those who are indifferent towards it. Share those precious moments with people who will be excited to listen :)

  6. Jeanne

    I recently had a conversation about this with an acquaintance/possible BFF and as kayelman says, the jealousy does tend to fade with age, experience, becoming comfortable –and secure–with who you are. I feel like over time I have turned what would have been feelings of jealousy after hearing of someone else’s success into self-motivation to accomplish my own personal goals. It is also very true about frenemies..while it’s always hard to break up with friends, I’ve learned it’s not worth wasting your time with people who can’t honestly be happy for you or always feel the need to one up you. With them I feel like I can’t mention anything good that happened to me without offering something negative, just to make them feel better.

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