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The Joy of Another's Misfortune
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You might feel schadenfreude when… the boss calls himself “Head of Pubic Services” on an important letter a cool guy swings back on his chair, and it tips over. a Celebrity Vegan is caught in the cheese aisle. an aggressive driver cuts you off — and then gets pulled over. your co-worker heats up fish in the microwave, then gets food poisoning. an urban unicyclist almost collides with a parked car. someone cuts the line for the ATM — and then it swallows their card. your effortlessly attractive friend gets dumped.
We all know the pleasure felt at someone else’s misfortune. The Germans named this furtive delight in another’s failure schadenfreude (from schaden damage, and freude, joy), and it has perplexed philosophers and psychologists for centuries. Why can it be so satisfying to witness another’s distress? And what, if anything, should we do about it?
Schadenfreude illuminates this hidden emotion, inviting readers to reflect on its pleasures, and how we use other people’s miseries to feel better about ourselves. Written in an exploratory, evocative form, it weaves examples from literature, philosophy, film, and music together with personal observation and historical and cultural analysis. And in today’s world of polarized politics, twitter trolls and “sidebars of shame,” it couldn’t be timelier.
Engaging, insightful, and entertaining, Schadenfreude makes the case for thinking afresh about the role this much-maligned emotion plays in our lives — perhaps even embracing it.
Times I feel pleased at things going wrong for other people:
When a news correspondent gets tangled up in her scarf in strong winds on live TV.
Seeing an urban unicyclist almost collide with a parked car.
At the shops, when the person in front of me is rude to the cashier and then their card is declined.
When I hear about satnavs sending lorries down narrow country lanes where they get stuck.
When my coworker was training for a marathon, boring us all with his training plans and special diet, ostentatiously checking his Fitbit and tweeting his stats, wearing his tiny, shiny red running shorts into work, festooning said shorts over his desk chair to dry, stretching by the photocopier, talking about his groin injury, always smelling of sweat and then not completing his marathon.
Tattoo fails (no regerts!).
And once, in my twenties, when my effortlessly attractive friend got dumped.
Falling over, diarrhea and other disasters
Tree surgeon saws through the branch he’s sitting on.
Trousers fall down during tea with the vicar.
Woman sneezes while adding final touches to house of cards.
In the weeks after my second child was born, when I was half delirious with sleeplessness and pinned to the sofa by a snoozing baby, a video appeared on my Facebook feed. It was called “Man Jumps into Frozen Pool.” It had over four million views. I clicked play.
Imagine the scene: a back garden in Germany, or Lithuania or somewhere. The air is misty. There is a rockery, some fir trees, a short jetty leading to a swimming pool, its water so cold that it seems to have frosted over in patches. A muscly guy in his early twenties wearing a black speedo stands barefoot on a rock, shivering and hugging his chest. He appears to be psyching himself up to jump in. Then he turns to the camera, kneels, gives the rock metal salute (the hand horn: index finger and pinky up, middle fingers down), gives his best gangsta monologue in what appears to be some combination of German and English, and then runs across the jetty and cannonballs into the water. But there isn’t any water. It’s just thick, hard ice, and he lands smack on his arse and skids across it.
I tried stifling my giggles so I wouldn’t wake the baby in my arms. I shook and snorted. I must have appeared like someone having a particularly weird seizure. I was in pain from laughing, but I didn’t care. I watched that video again and again. “Man Jumps into Frozen Pool” made me feel euphoric.
It didn’t take long for me to start roaming around the Internet for more. I googled “Fail Videos,” “Epic Fail Videos,” “Best of Epic Fail Videos,” “Faceplants,” “Bloopers,” “Epic Faceplants.” The best of these collections would run for ten minutes or so. They would feature keep-fit enthusiasts bouncing right off their trampolines and into the nearest hedge, grooms farting during the vows, glamorous TV presenters tumbling backward over their sofas and security cam footage of people texting who walk head-first into shopping mall fountains and bus shelters. I became au fait with the subcategories: “terrible drivers,” “spray tan disasters,” “YOU ONLY HAD ONE JOB”…
In these odd early weeks, where nights and days were indistinguishable, these videos were my secret, my salvation.
There is a difference between fail videos and slapstick, don’t get me wrong. And there were nights when I turned to the latter, thinking it more highbrow and edifying. I rediscovered my love for the beautiful, solemn Buster Keaton, and sighed with pleasure as he battled cyclones and dodged collapsing buildings, only to be knocked out by a flying cardboard box. I snorted watching Laurel and Hardy spend hours maneuvering a piano up to the top of a staircase, only for it to fall all the way back down again. I put the “Make ’Em Laugh” sequence from Singin’ in the Rain on repeat, and surrendered to the clockwork perfection of its pratfalls and backflips.
But these were all stunts. No match for the cheap thrill of people really dropping priceless ornaments or being menaced by ostriches or chased by bees. The bloopers kept drawing me back. I craved bigger and better.
Reading the comments, I could see people got very exercised about whether a fail was genuine, their gaze sharpened for clues—a quick glance to the camera, a sense of preparedness. Even the faintest whiff of a setup was met with scorn, not just for the people who made the video in a cynical bid for viral fame and cash, but for those viewers who had been taken in. What excited the fail connoisseurs was not so much that another person had experienced something really painful, but the fact that they were not expecting it. It was the surprise of it. The sense that a person had been undone.
Fail videos are the cultural pinnacle of our Age of Schadenfreude. Let’s be clear about their popularity. The most-watched TED talks—inspiring talks about education, leadership and creativity, by global leaders and Harvard academics—currently clock around 30 million views. A clip of a dad being kicked in the nuts by his toddler daughter has been watched by over 256 million people around the world (so far). Perhaps you find this dispiriting.
But these pleasures are not new, or an invention of the Internet. Before fail videos, there was You’ve Been Framed and America’s Funniest Home Videos. And before home video cameras, there were letters, diaries and pranks. In the third century AD, the emperor Elagabalus liked to sit some of his dinner guests on airbags, which then deflated so they fell under the table. There is an ancient Egyptian tomb from the fifteenth century BC that depicts one of its sculptors dropping a mallet on a coworker’s foot. And many cultures have their traditions of slapstick: from Punch and Judy and clowns (one theory is that this word comes from Scandinavia—in Icelandic, klunni, in Swedish kluns, meaning clumsy person), to the Turkish Karagöz, a shadow puppet with a penchant for boasting and absurd violence—in one story he attempts to stop a fight by banging both parties over the head with an oversized watering can, which he ends up swinging so violently that he then knocks himself out.
In 2011, a group of evolutionary psychologists at the University of Oxford studying the relationship between laughter and our ability to withstand pain noticed a peculiar thing: people only tend to really guffaw, that I-think-I-might-die-it-hurts-so-much laughter, in response to slapstick. In the course of their experiments, they showed a series of short comic clips of sitcoms, stand-ups, cartoons and so on (and also, the most boring clips they could think of, which turned out to be a game of golf—sorry golfers). It was the childlike, disaster-prone Mr. Bean who caused the real gut-wobblers. For them, this was intriguing: belly laughing, which involves the lungs completely, and painfully, emptying, appears to be unique to humans, who also tend to laugh more vigorously in groups (hence, the contagion effect of canned laughter). These belly laughs create a mild euphoria that other kinds of laughter do not—and the experiment found they were capable of dulling our sensitivity to pain by up to 10 percent.
Laughing at someone else’s pain might lessen our own, yet across many cultures these uninhibited belly laughs have been laden with social anxiety, and not only because they suggest a lack of compassion. Some have snobbishly regarded noisy guffawing as uncouth, linking it to uneducated lower classes incapable of self-control. In seventeenth-century Dutch painting, for instance, peasants laugh open-mouthed, displaying rotten teeth and stringy saliva, while the aristocrats remain tight-lipped. A similar connection between styles of laughing and class is found in western India in the early sixteenth century: the Sanskrit poet Bhanu Datta, in his Rasatarangani (River of Rasa), compares audience responses to a comic play—the upper classes snicker, the middle classes chuckle and the lower classes bellow and guffaw, tears streaming down their cheeks. In some cultures, belly laughter is not just distasteful but downright dangerous: the Warlpiri of Yuendumu, in central Australia, believe the stomach is the seat of all passions, and because of this, think painful laughter at another’s accidents leads to emotional upset.
There may be caution about belly laughs in some cultures, but based on their findings, the University of Oxford scientists ventured that this kind of laughter has been crucial to our survival. Laughing heartily at people falling over or being whacked on the head by a mallet must have its roots in our furthest prehistory, our pleasure in the mishaps of others helping us survive, allowing us to cope better with physical hardship and, more crucially, bonding us together in the groups that have protected us. And if this reaction is hardwired in us, how young does it start?
I am sitting in a laboratory at Goldsmiths, University of London, in a small cubical draped with black curtains. There are two seats. One is for me. The other, which has a child’s booster seat attached to it, is for E, my by-then nine-month-old baby. There are cameras positioned at various points on the curtains, all directed at us. And in front of us sits Dr. Caspar Addyman. Shaking a rattle.
Caspar is a developmental psychologist and founder of the Baby Laughter Project, whose aim is to understand what makes babies laugh and why. It sounds like a project of great charm and whimsy—and Caspar, with his bright-blue hair, has the air of relaxed geniality you might expect from someone whose job it is to make babies laugh all day. But to Caspar, studying the origins of laughter, its point zero, is crucial if we want to understand not only laughter itself, but how we bond with one another, learn and survive.
We try one of his experiments. E giggles as Caspar blows raspberries and I tickle him. It’s all very lovely.
“Do babies experience Schadenfreude?” I ask, glancing a little nervously toward the chubby, sparkling-eyed E, who is now sitting on my knee grinning delightedly at a dinosaur sock puppet.
“Well Freud thought so, didn’t he,” Caspar says, and grimaces.
Freud has this theory in The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious that children don’t really have a sense of humor. What they have instead is a taste for gloating and triumph, which emerges in those rare moments that they feel superior to the adults around them. “The child will laugh out of a feeling of superiority or Schadenfreude,” writes Freud, “you’ve fallen down—I haven’t.” “It is the laughter of pure pleasure”—pleasure, for Freud, being the gratification of all urges, but especially the desire to overpower, or triumph over, others, and especially others who wield some power over you.
“It’s horrible,” says Caspar. “It’s very Freud. I think it’s completely wrong.”
I point out that my three-year-old is always very excited to see me or her father mess up, when we mispronounce something or get confused about a friend’s name. Sometimes we deliberately make mistakes, just because it brings her such joy to laugh at us. Most parents of preschool children are familiar with this (aren’t they?). Caspar agrees that there might be pleasure, but not for the reasons Freud suggests. Children “aren’t very aware of their own limitations… they’re not obsessing over their failures in the way Freud assumes they’re going to be.”
Caspar opens his computer and shows me two graphs relating to what parents and caregivers say their babies laugh at. When asked how often the baby laughed when they themselves fell over, the overwhelming majority of parents answered “often” or “very often.” When asked how often the baby laughed when someone else fell over, the answer was unanimous: “never.”
This makes sense—seeing another child fall, hurt themselves and cry would be frightening for a baby, never mind if the person who hurt themselves was one of their caretakers. But to Caspar, the fact that babies don’t laugh when other people fall over is about not simply fear, but morality: “Historically, everyone thought babies were amoral, and you had to teach them right from wrong, but they do have a sense of fairness and a strong sense of empathy—if someone has hurt themselves, babies can see that and are concerned.”
But what about less dramatic failures? I tell Caspar a story about a friend of mine who once tried to entertain his baby by juggling, imagining the child would be delighted by all the colors and movement. The baby showed no interest whatsoever, until my friend accidentally dropped the balls, sending them bouncing across the floor, and he went scurrying after them. The baby enjoyed that greatly, and unleashed a peal of raspy giggles (the merciless bugger). If babies don’t enjoy adults actually falling over, how about seeing them mess up once in a while?
Caspar chuckles, and tells me about the director of Theatr Iolo, Sarah Argent, who makes theater for babies and very young children. “She told me the one thing guaranteed to get all the babies laughing was when one of the performers accidentally dropped something. They really love that.”
Older children do develop a taste for more serious injuries (as we’ll discover in Chapter 3). But if babies aren’t laughing because they feel superior, as Freud thought, then why do they find our incompetence so amusing? For Caspar, laughter is interesting because it is connected to learning, and so much of what makes babies laugh is to do with surprise: games like peekaboo or things suddenly being turned upside down help them learn about the world, their laughter—as it is with adults—a sign of seeing the world afresh.
Cool Guy swings back on his chair, and it tips over.
A barman drops a tray of glasses in a busy pub.
When BBC Radio 4 Today program presenter James Naughtie accidentally introduced his next guest, then culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, as Jeremy Cunt—and then valiantly attempted to deliver the morning news bulletin amid fits of gasping giggles, at one point pretending he was having a coughing fit, which just made everyone laugh even more.
A burst water pipe sends water fifty feet into the air. The seams of a flour sack burst. An empty car, hand brake off, rolls back into a lamppost. The sociologist Roger Caillois knew all about the exciting delirium we feel witnessing destruction. He called it “Ilinx,” from the Greek word for “whirlpool,” and considered its disorientation akin to the euphoria created by mystical trances. As studies of vandalism have found, this pleasure is increased with an element of unpredictability. Think about Beyoncé’s video for “Hold Up.” She walks along the street smiling and mock swinging a baseball bat (will she, won’t she?), and then suddenly smashes a car window.
The human brain requires a great deal of predictability, without which we would quickly become overwhelmed. We search for patterns and learn how to anticipate how the world will behave. So when it surprises us, with its unexpectedly high curb stones, abandoned garden rakes and manholes masquerading as puddles, we get a giddy turn. Minor accidents can be liberating and leveling. They remind us of the absurdity of living in a world which continually thwarts us. They diminish us too. The Japanese senryū poem is a comic relative of the haiku. And even in this eighteenth-century example, with its pared-back style, it is possible to detect a wicked glint of mockery at the person’s vain illusion of control punctured:
Robbed of his umbrella
PRAISE FOR THE BOOK OF HUMAN EMOTIONS
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—Roy Peter Clark, author of Writing Tools and The Art of X-Ray Reading
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- On Sale
- Nov 20, 2018
- Page Count
- 176 pages
- Little Brown Spark