Schadenfreude: The Bittersweet Pleasure of Others' Misfortune

I recently found myself rewatching "Modern Family," a delightful sitcom with episodes that run around 20 to 22 minutes. The show's focal point is the Pritchett-Dunphy-Tucker family, an extended clan with diverse family structures. What makes the show truly captivating is the ensemble of wonderful characters, each with their own unique and intriguing personalities. The beauty of it lies in how these distinct personalities come together, creating a dynamic that's both amusing and endearing. Initially, I started watching it as a way to pass the time or simply as background entertainment while eating. However, I soon found myself genuinely intrigued, particularly by the character of Claire Dunphy.

Claire's character in the series is a caring yet somewhat uptight housewife, particularly evident in the first four seasons. She's well-known for her role as the quintessential overachiever and competitive mom. What's fascinating about Claire is her peculiar enjoyment of witnessing moments of embarrassment, both for herself and those around her. Occasionally, she employs tactics that lead to others feeling self-conscious, and her desire to always be right is undeniable. Given my interest in psychology, I couldn't resist delving into her character. It didn't take long to recognize that Claire fits the profile of a Type A Personality. She's exceptionally organized, detail-oriented, and often driven by a relentless pursuit of perfection in various aspects of her life.

Claire Dunphy - Schadenfreude Example

What truly captivated me was her unique "sense of joy or celebration" when she witnessed others facing failures or experiencing embarrassment. Importantly, this isn't portrayed in a malicious or hurtful way in the show. Instead, these moments serve to bring the characters closer together, shedding light on their imperfections and emphasizing the humor in their differences.

Then I started looking for any specific term for such feelings and to my surprise there actually is a word for it. It's called Schadenfreude (though admittedly, it can be a tongue-twister). So what does this word actually mean and where did it come from?

Schadenfreude is a unique German term that has seamlessly integrated itself into the English language, it expresses a complex and frequently frowned-upon emotion. This phrase refers to the satisfaction or excitement that one might feel when they see other people struggle or fail. It's a peculiar blend of sympathy, humor, and even a hint of vindication that says a lot about the nature of the human psyche. There is a lot of visible vindication in Claire’s mind, her dynamic with her husband Phil, who is her complete opposite in terms of personality, creates a source of perpetual humor and demonstrates the importance of balance in a partnership which includes a number of instances where she tries to make him realize that “she knows better” but but Phil remains steadfast in not heeding her advice Then, when events unfold exactly as she predicted, a fleeting but unmistakable sense of joy graces her face, which is essentially Schadenfreude. One such instance can be found in Season 3, Episode 24, titled "Baby on Board."

In this episode, the strain and worry that come with a family road trip are recognized by Claire. She grows irritated with her husband, Phil, and his unconventional and casual approach to the journey which is in stark contrast to her meticulous planning and desire for a flawless experience. The clash of their personalities reaches its peak when Phil's spontaneous and lighthearted antics lead to an unexpected and chaotic calamity.

As she witnesses Phil's blunder and the ensuing chaos, Claire, who has been trying to maintain order and perfection throughout the trip, can't help but be overwhelmed by a sense of Schadenfreude. She enjoys seeing him fall short of her expectations for a moment. This situation exemplifies how Schadenfreude can be a feeling that develops when someone's demand for order and control is momentarily satisfied by observing someone else make a mistake or have an accident.

During my quest to unravel the meaning of Schadenfreude, I stumbled upon a phrase that perfectly mirrored Claire's expressions. That is, "Schadenfreude is like a fine wine; best enjoyed in moderation, but occasionally, it's just too tempting to resist."

Let's delve a bit deeper into this word. This German term has a fascinating etymology, it comprises two words: "Schaden" meaning harm or damage, and "Freude" meaning joy. So, if one combines these two words it literally means “harm-joy”. This word is indeed intriguing and reflects the richness and diversity of German culture. The fact that they named a feeling like this speaks to its significance in their culture. Upon closer examination, finding some form of joy in the misfortunes of others is a universal human experience, and the Germans were the first to encapsulate it in a single word.

Why do we feel it?

While Schadenfreude may appear as a somewhat dark or complex emotion, it's important to realize that it's a part of the intricate web of the human psyche. For instance, if you've ever watched a show like "The Office," rife with humorous instances of characters facing embarrassing or unfortunate situations. Michael Scott's antics often induce a mix of empathy and amusement in viewers. Even during shows or movies where the demise of any hated character such as “Hamza” from Darlings for some viewers might evoke a sense of satisfaction, illustrating instances of Schadenfreude.

The Physiological and Psychological factors of Schadenfreude

To gain a deeper insight into why people experience this emotion and the neural mechanisms behind it, neurobiologists have delved into the brain regions associated with Schadenfreude, differentiating it from similar emotions. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which connects the limbic system with the prefrontal cortex and is situated in the medial surfaces between the brain's hemispheres, is shown by imaging data from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). This region comes into play when people experience envy.

Another study discovered that while empathy and schadenfreude involved equal activation of social cognition-related brain regions, schadenfrefreude was associated with greater activation of the nucleus accumbens (located within the ventral striatum).

There are other psychological contributing factors which are also present such as:

Social Comparison and self-esteem :

People with low self-esteem have been reported to exhibit greater activity. By using a negative social comparison between the individual and another, the feeling seems to offer a chance to improve one's own self-esteem. Witnessing someone else's misfortune can also make us feel better about our own situation, leading to a fleeting sense of satisfaction.

Feeling of Karma:

When someone we dislike and think that they are deserving of misfortune faces it, we might experience Schadenfreude as a form of cosmic justice being served. Like it was Karma (the idea that what goes around comes around). It can be highly present in people with a “just-world belief,” who are extremely focused on the importance of justice and retribution.

In-Group vs. Out-Group Dynamics:

Schadenfreude often intensifies when someone from an out-group, someone we perceive as different or opposed to our own group, faces a setback. This phenomenon can serve to strengthen group identification, as it reinforces a sense of "us versus them" and can heighten the bonds within one's own group.

Coping Mechanism:

Schadenfreude can also be used as a coping strategy to assist people deal with their own anxieties, doubts, or difficulties in life. Even momentarily feeling superior to others can provide a boost to one's self-esteem.

Personality Traits:

Individuals who possess traits such as jealousy, a propensity for Schadenfreude, and high levels of competitiveness may be more prone to experiencing this emotion. For example, a highly competitive individual might be more inclined to feel Schadenfreude when a rival makes a mistake. This observation can certainly be gleaned from many episodes featuring Claire in "Modern Family."

Competitiveness and Envy:

Schadenfreude can also be related to competitiveness and envy. When a rival or someone we envy experiences a setback, we may feel a sense of satisfaction, validating our feelings of competitiveness. These episodes continue to highlight Claire's character's complexity, showcasing her tendency to find satisfaction in the shortcomings or challenges faced by those around her.

Schadenfreude in Real Life

Schadenfreude is not just for books and other forms of entertainment.

As Friedrich Nietzsche famously put it, "Humour is just Schadenfreude with a clear conscience." It is a part of our daily life and can be observed in a variety of contexts. According to Nietzsche, when a successful out-group fails, people experience the joy of schadenfreude as a result of their emotional agony over their in-group's perceived inferiority. Nietzsche also believed that the anguish of domain inferiority could only be temporarily alleviated by schadenfreude.

Comedy roasts are constructed on the foundation of good-natured ridicule, where friends and colleagues playfully mock one another. The audience derives humor from observing the targets' reactions of discomfort and embarrassment.

This sentiment is also prominently evident in sports rivalries, notably in the context of matches between India and Pakistan. These contests have fans at the edge of their seats, eagerly awaiting the outcome, and then expressing their enthusiasm on social media through taunts, jests, or even celebratory gestures like bursting crackers. In long-standing rivalries, there can be an immense sense of delight in witnessing the defeat of a despised rival.

If one pays attention to social media or the media outlets which famous celebrities call “paps”, it's easy to spot Schadenfreude when viral videos capture the missteps of celebrities or public figures. The collective enjoyment derived from their mistakes can lead to trending hashtags and memes. The usage of schadenfreude to humiliate and disparage certain politicians can help better understand our social behavior. If schadenfreude explains why individuals enjoy discussing these embarrassing blunders, it might even shed light on political outcomes, such as election triumphs.

Dark side of Schadenfreude

Schadenfreude can often lead to intense feelings which can come across as narcissistic or even psychopathic. When utilized to take pleasure in the true misery of others, this complicated emotion has the potential to produce negativity and division. Some believe that they are doing justice to the world, others might simply just enjoy it. It has been very closely associated with Dark Triad Traits (i.e., Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and Psychopathy), as well as Sensational Interests, including those in occult and true crimes.

Dealing with Schadenfreude

Schadenfreude probably ranges from episodic to trait-like. In other words, schadenfreude is so pervasive in some people that it might as well be a personality feature. Since this is a very complex emotion, there are ways to deal with them as well:


Practice empathy by putting yourself in the other person's shoes. Try to understand their perspective and the challenges they face. Psychologists have observed that schadenfreude arises when there is a lack of empathy, such as when it is possible to dehumanize the person who is unfortunate.


In order to manage Schadenfreude, self-reflection requires taking a moment to consider your own thoughts and desires when taking pleasure in the suffering of others. It demands a sincere inward evaluation of the reasons for your feelings and whether they line up with your values. Self-reflection enables you to be aware of your responses, enabling both personal development and more peaceful interpersonal relationships.

Positive Role Models:

Observing people who put others' needs ahead of their own can cause one's own viewpoint to change. Role models assist us internalize the worth of uplifting others rather than taking pleasure in their suffering by demonstrating the effectiveness of compassion. Their behavior influences our responses to others in a more empathetic manner and fosters healthier social dynamics, which eventually encourages a more peaceful and considerate attitude to interpersonal relationships.

Cultivating compassion:

One can reduce the harmful impacts of enjoying other people's suffering by engaging in acts of kindness and empathy. With this strategy, the emphasis is encouraged to switch from enjoying the suffering of others to actually caring about their well-being. People can replace their tendency towards Schadenfreude with a desire to connect and serve others through acts of compassion, which will inevitably lead to more uplifting and sympathetic connections.


One can reduce the harmful impacts of enjoying other people's suffering by engaging in acts of kindness and empathy. With this strategy, the emphasis is encouraged to switch from enjoying the suffering of others to actually caring about their well-being. People can replace their tendency towards Schadenfreude with a desire to connect and serve others through acts of compassion, which will inevitably lead to more uplifting and sympathetic connections.

Schadenfreude can be viewed as a form of social evolution. It might have given our ancestors a benefit in competitive group dynamics. For instance, if one group member constituted a threat or was an obstacle to the group's progress, taking pleasure when that person encountered difficulties may have helped the group remain cohesive and survive. The role of Schadenfreude is evolving, or perhaps should evolve, in the modern world where there's a growing emphasis on creating more peaceful and compassionate societies. However, in reality, the prevalence of social media has sometimes only amplified this sentiment. The easy sharing of videos or reels that capture people facing embarrassing situations has contributed to its persistence in the digital age. It's a reminder that as we strive for more empathy and understanding, our interconnected world continues to grapple with the complexities of human emotions.

On an extremely interesting note, Schadenfreude is a testament to the complexity of human emotions and social dynamics. It serves as a reminder that humans are sometimes motivated by instincts of competition and self-preservation rather than purely altruistic or empathic motives. Schadenfreude is a natural human emotion, but how we choose to express and control it says a lot about who we are as people. It affects all facets of our life, ranging from literature and entertainment to everyday events, and is anchored in our psyche while also being influenced by social dynamics. It has the capacity to promote negativity and divisiveness while also offering momentary satisfaction. For individual development as well as the creation of a more compassionate and empathic society, recognizing and controlling Schadenfreude is essential. Understanding Schadenfreude enables us to accept the full range of our emotions and work towards a more peaceful and compassionate society as we negotiate the complexity of human nature.


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