Have you ever laughed when someone fell down? Have you ever resented someone who has success that you want for yourself? Is it hard to feel joy for someone to whom you compare yourself? One of the premises of a new book by Richard H. Smith, The Joy of Pain, is that these feelings are part of what makes us human. Often referred to as schadenfreude – a German term meaning both harm and joy – the emotion we experience in that situation allows us to feel better about ourselves.
One of my husband’s favorite movie quotes is from a scene in “The African Queen,” starring Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. Bogart plays Charlie, a hard-living, cynical riverboat captain, and Hepburn’s character is Rose, a prim and proper missionary. At one point during their many arguments, Rose says to Charlie, “Human nature is what God put us on earth to rise above.”
When my kids were little, I told them countless times that it was wrong to “laugh at the misfortunes of others.” Even at a young age, we compare ourselves to other people, and maybe the laughter comes from nervous relief that the embarrassment happened to someone else. But even if it is human nature to take pleasure in someone else’s downfall, I don’t think it comes without another distinctly human emotion: shame.
In the novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, the main character says, “I know something of shame…How can we not all feel it? We are all small-minded people, creeping about the earth grubbing for our own advantage and making the very mistakes for which we want to humiliate our neighbors.” At some point, the experience of schadenfreude has to make us feel hypocritical, knowing that we are playing a mental game of one-upmanship. The neighbor or co-worker’s failure somehow makes us more likely to succeed, or at least to feel superior, no matter how temporary that might be, or how undeserved.
Is human nature something we can rise above? Even Smith admits that humans are also wired for compassion. And practicing compassion can probably help us downplay those feelings of glee when something bad happens to someone we don’t like or with whom we compete. What is infinitely harder, I think, is actually being able to feel glad when something good happens for the person we don’t like. How can I summon genuine feelings of happiness for the kid who was mean to my child, or for the person who made a cutting remark to me, or for the politician who betrayed the public’s trust?
Among the Buddhist meditation practices known as brahmaviharas is one called mudita. Mudita is essentially a practice of sympathetic joy. It helps to counter feelings of jealousy and envy, and increases one’s capacity to feel joy and happiness for others’ good fortune. Practicing mudita calls for bringing to mind various people, and then mentally wishing them continued happiness. Since this feeling needs to be actively cultivated in most people, it helps to start the practice of mudita by calling to mind your own goodness and happiness, followed by people you love, and finally, the people who are difficult for you.
The Yoga Journal web site has a very thorough article that explains mudita and how to practice it. The concluding wishes go like this:
“May your happiness and joy increase. May the joy in your life continue and grow. May you be successful and met with appreciation.”
Mudita asks that we stop thinking of life as a zero-sum game, and recognize that our own happiness increases when others are happy too, even our enemies. That’s how the human spirit rises above the human nature.