Last week I was tutoring with Choden on the Level 2 Compassion Retreat. Whilst planning for one of my sessions – Sympathetic Joy – I recognised that I had experienced the total opposite. Instead of rejoicing in others joy I found myself having negative feelings about others. The feeling I had has a word – Schadenfreude! Schadenfreude, a German word, describes a complicated psychological phenomenon where we find joy in the discomfort of others.
So here is what happened. Last year I moved to a new house and am blessed with a beautiful view with peace and quiet in the countryside. The only real noise I hear are cows, sheep and birds. As a nature lover this suits me just fine. I can see fields and the sea from my house, and I feel very lucky as for my entire life up to then I have lived in an urban environment.
Having gone out to get some shopping, on my return I was a bit miffed to see that the field right next to my house was filling with campers, where the cows usually mooch about. On top of that – a chemical toilet had appeared in the middle of our view. There have been the occasional events before in the buildings near my home, but never campers and never just a few metres from my house. Using my mindfulness practice I could immediately recognise an internal twist of annoyance in my solar plexus. The campers kept me awake with drunken screaming until 3am. Still, I recognised how I was feeling and allowed it to be there, remembering a commitment I made to myself earlier this year to be kind wherever possible. However being kind was beginning to prove challenging. I later began planning the Sympathetic Joy session – Rejoicing in the success and happiness of others!
The MA manual for the level 2 training describes Sympathetic Joy as this: “This quality comes from rejoicing in the happiness or prosperity of others. It is an antidote to the jealousy and envy that block us from seeing the good qualities of others. It is based on the understanding that the happiness of others is inseparable from our own happiness. It is also based on the common sense understanding that if we are jealous of other’s happiness, we become miserable and resentful, while they remain happy; but if we rejoice in their happiness, we share in it and both of us are happy”!
So I felt my challenge was to let my annoyance go, acknowledge that the crowds of people, tents and chemical toilets and now thudding music, reminiscent of my festival going days (actually not that long ago), and that it was probably a wedding or birthday celebration and I should rejoice in their happiness. So I did a compassion practice for myself and let it go.
The next morning the sea mist we occasionally have here had set in in earnest and I couldn’t see beyond my garden gate. Furthermore, the mist had bought a heavy rain. And, I noticed that my sympathetic joy with the revelling campers vanished into the mist with them. The feeling I sensed was a little bit of joy at the fact they were immersed in fog and rain! And I secretly laughed! The next feeling I had was shame. Oh My Goodness!! ‘I am about to teach Sympathetic Joy and other compassion practices today and here I am enjoying the fact that the campers are soggy and can’t see beyond their tents!’
So here I was, experiencing schadenfreude. I was relieved to find out that this feeling of pleasure at another’s mild misfortune has some fairly solid science behind it. Evidence from a study conducted by Princeton University reveals that “people are actually biologically responsive to taking pleasure in the pain of others.”
Apparently there are 4 stereo types that impact the intensity of our schadenfreude response and why, sometimes, we fail to empathise with others. Researchers found that people smile more when they experience others misfortune.
This might account for why I, among many others, enjoy comedies which involve the discomfort and misfortune of some of the characters we are encouraged to dislike. I distinctly remember completely losing it whilst watch “Home Alone” with my children years ago – where the ‘baddies’ get their comeuppance at the hands of a young boy who is home alone, while the baddies are trying to steal the family silver. We might have all laughed at the seemingly cruel antics of Tom and Jerry cartoon and if we go back further – Laurel and Hardy. It might even account for why some people enjoy reading accounts of celebrities having a hard time or revealing photos of glamorous film stars without their make up!
Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was quoted as saying: “To see others suffer does one good….This is a hard saying, but a mighty, human, all-too-human principle.” The whole phenomenon of Schadenfreude is too complex to go into here, but basically it is triggered by our own feelings of envy or inadequacy and more importantly, feeling justice has been brought to bear when the suffering can be seen as a comeuppance – something deserved from acts of smugness, law breaking or, in my case, being thoughtless and not considering others.
I realised then that I had been angry at the campers, and more so the owner of the land, because of their thoughtlessness about the impact of their actions on others. Happy I had worked it all out and that I was just experiencing yet another hardwired evolved human trait, I was able to go back to the retreat, “knowing what was happening while it was happening” and allowing some compassion for myself for feeling this way.
Choden was guiding the next practice and I found my mind just refused to still. The chemical toilet became my pink elephant. Every time I relaxed and came back to my support up popped the image of the chemical toilet and devious ways in which I could destroy it. Maybe a bazooka – exploding the contents over the campsite and owners house…. No no no… went my mind. Back to the breath…. Joy for others…. Kindness to self…. Then in comes the bazooka again….
We just can’t help the mind. The undercurrent of thoughts, feelings, images, stories playing on the movie screen in our brains. I smiled, put my hand on my heart and breathed into the difficulty, breathed out from it and gave my self comfort for the fact that I am just a human being in this crazy world, with this crazy mind, without a manual, and it’s ok.
The next day, I finally guided the Sympathetic Joy practice, taking in the good of everything we appreciate, and finally I found that I was able to be happy that someone had celebrated a special birthday, even though, for a short while, the impact had annoyed me. And just like everything else, it passed in the mists of time.
Three guesses what the weekly challenge is this week??
Yes, you guessed it!! I invite you to bring to mind a time when you experienced schadenfreude and how it made you feel. Can you bring some kindness to yourself using one of the compassion practices such as the self compassion break or soften soothe allow? Is it possible to then rejoice in the happiness of others? I really would love to hear how you get on so please do write to me at email@example.com.
Take care everyone
Jacky will be teaching on the Access to Compassion Course starting 14th September and the new Stillness Through Movement Course on 5th October, 2021. She will also be running a practice day Compassion Through Stillness & Movement on 3rd October.
She has contributed a chapter to the Mindful Heroes Book entitled “Turning Empathic Distress into Compassion – A Hero’s Journey for Family Carers”. You can hear an extract from the chapter where she talks about the results of her MSc Studies in Mindfulness on Compassion & Family Carers. You can download a free sample of Jacky’s chapter here.
Mina Cikara and Susan T. Fiske. Their pain, our pleasure: stereotype content and schadenfreude. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 2013. Vol. 1299 Sociability, Responsibility, and Criminality: From Lab to Law. Pages v–x, 1–100. Article first published online: 24 SEP 2013. DOI: 10.1111/nyas.12179
Smith, R.H., Powell, C.A., Combs, D.J. and Schurtz, D.R., 2009. Exploring the when and why of schadenfreude. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 3(4), pp.530-546.