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.”