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No one likes to think about their flaws, but in them so much of what makes us human is revealed. Then there is the self-righteous satisfaction I get when hypocrites are exposed: a politician accidentally tweets a picture of his erection he meant to send it directly to his intern. And of course, there is the inner triumph of seeing a rival falter. No, I said. And I noticed, at the corner of his mouth, the barely perceptible twitch of a grin before the tumble of commiserations.

Oh bad luck. Ah, their loss, the idiots. Because when he loses out — as he sometimes does — I know I experience a happy twinge, too. Far harder to acknowledge are those spasms of relief which accompany the bad news of our successful friends and relatives. They come involuntarily, these confusing bursts of pleasure, swirled through with shame. And they worry us — not just because we fear that our lack of compassion says something terrible about us — because they point so clearly to our envy and inferiority, and how we clutch at the disappointments of others in order to feel better about our own.

And then I saw his Facebook status: it rained. Today schadenfreude is all around us. But these heady pleasures are shot through with unease. Moralists have long despised schadenfreude. He also said that anyone caught enjoying the suffering of others should be shunned from human society. Which made me sweat a bit. I have come to believe that Schopenhauer was wrong. When the word schadenfreude first appeared in English writing in , it caused great excitement. His fellow Victorians adopted the word for a range of pleasures, from hilarity to self-righteous vindication, from triumph to relief.

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In the s, animal-rights campaigner Frances Power Cobbe wrote a manifesto entitled Schadenfreude , identifying the emotion with the bloodlust of boys torturing stray cats for fun. We still associate many different pleasures with this word, unclear perhaps exactly what it means in the original, or where its perimeters lie. But looking at how the word has been used in English it is possible to identify repeated themes.

We usually think of it as a furtive emotion, and no wonder. We might be worried not just about looking malicious, but that our schadenfreude exposes our other flaws, too — our pettiness, our envy, our feelings of inadequacy. Another feature of schadenfreude is that we often feel entitled to it when the suffering can be construed as a comeuppance — a deserved punishment for being smug or hypocritical, or breaking the law.

So we relish our moral superiority usually only at a safe distance. In , US pastor Tony Perkins said that floods were sent by God to punish abortion and gay marriage. And then his own house flooded and he had to escape in a canoe. Schadenfreude is usually thought of as glee at discomforts and gaffes rather than at tragedies and deaths. We are willing to see celebrities, or people from the remote past, endure horrors that would dismay us if they were happening now or to our friends.

Sometimes we judge wrongly, and our schadenfreude leaves us feeling morally awkward. First, he sees the shop empty of customers, then Flanders turning out his pockets, then Flanders begging the bailiffs.


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But arguably the urgency to understand schadenfreude has never been so great as today. Similar phrases have appeared since on blogs and in op-eds. There has been an explosion of research. Now even a cursory search throws up hundreds, from neuroscience to philosophy to management studies. What is driving all this interest? No doubt it is partly motivated by our attempts to understand life in the internet age, where sniggering at other people, once often socially inappropriate, now comes with less risk.

Just as important, in my view, is our growing commitment to empathy. And the more important empathy becomes, the more obnoxious schadenfreude seems.

It is not just Victorian moralists who recoil from it. Yet schadenfreude has its benefits — a quick win which alleviates inferiority or envy; a way of bonding over the failure of a smug colleague. But it is also a testament to our capacity for emotional flexibility, our ability to hold apparently contradictory thoughts and feelings in mind simultaneously. When, in Crime and Punishment , Marmeladov is brought, bloodied and unconscious, into the St Petersburg tenement where he lives following an accident, all the residents crowd round.


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We may well be living in an age of schadenfreude, and fear that this emotion is leading us astray. The world made it feel weird. My friends gave me grief. Even my parents thought it was strange. But despite how awkward it made me feel, it was always one of those "something wrong shouldn't feel so good" situations.

Later in life, I became more confident about it. After high school I traveled a lot overseas, alone. I worked in New York as a waiter, in Japan as a teacher. I would often go to the cinema to kill time waiting for buses or flights, or as an escape from bad service jobs taken to make ends meet. I quickly found out the solo cinema day trip was the absolute best, and it was my job to preach the gospel. The cinema day trip feels like skipping school. Going to the cinema at night, with a date or a rowdy horde of friends, is business as usual.

It's what you're supposed to do. It's practically a job in and of itself. Going to the cinema during the day feels like a much-needed vacation from the harsh realities of real life. Like calling in sick from work, a tiny pointless rebellion. A sly indulgence. Day drinking without the evening hangover.

When I was a teenager I went to the cinema to hide, essentially. From exams, pressure, the zit on my forehead. As a year-old man it's more like a release valve. From mortgages, Trump, global warming, trolls on Twitter, my noisy overbearing children. It's a beautiful thing. The movie finishes. You emerge bleary-eyed. It should be nighttime, but no. Broad daylight.

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Because you forgot you went into the cinema at 1 p. What a joyous discovery. It's p. It's like waking up early and going to the gym. Without the exercise. Win the morning, win the day. You are an inspired human being, and you stride purposefully toward the sun. Time to go home and write that novel, finish that script, buy an easel and take up oil painting. You know what? I will apply to medical school.

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Movies seen during the day feel different. Nowadays, default daytime consumption of media is the binge, accompanied by the "second screen" and perennial veneer of brain-twisting anxiety. A mind-numbing, multitasking hellscape that has you mainlining Netflix while live-tweeting your third rewatch of Mad Men in a pair of loosely fitted jogging pants, eating an oversized bowl of Lucky Charms.