PART OF VICE MONTH, where we look at the science on some of the ‘racier’ things people use to seek happiness. Or in this case just a very subtle one.

OK let’s take a quick quiz to see if you are a good person or not. For each item below would you feel sad, neutral, or glad? NOTE: substitute whatever gender is appropriate. If you cheat I will know. When you are done you can scroll down to the bottom of the page and turn the computer or phone upside down to read the correct answers*.

  1. Your mother’s car is stolen.
  2. Your boyfriend’s car is stolen.
  3. Your ex-boyfriend’s car is stolen.
  4. Your ex-boyfriend (who cheated on you with your younger sister and your best friend AND that horrible girl Rachel, and told you he would love you forever on the same day he asked someone else to marry him)’s car is stolen.

In practical terms, these four events are exactly the same: a person you know has experienced a hardship and your reaction should be exactly the same in each case. And if it is, congratulations, as you have now far surpassed my level of maturity, and you may skip to the advanced course. Come back next week. We love you. Shalom.

(Aren’t you glad those people left?). Now for the rest of us, let’s talk about the real deal here. Bottom line is this: many of us feel really sad about Mom, fairly sad about our boy/girlfriend, a little sad or neutral about our ex-, and Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah’s couch ecstatic about that cheating good-for-nothing piece of garbage in #4. Ditto for all of these other evil workers of iniquity:

  • That lady at work who torpedoed your promotion, then got fired for stealing donuts from the break-room and selling them in a nearby park.
  • Your next door neighbor who refuses to rake his leaves. Every year they blow into your yard and you have to rake them up…until that glorious day last fall when a huge gust of wind blew the tree over onto his house.
  • The guy in the monster pickup who cuts you off in traffic, gives you the one-finger symbol of friendship as he speeds by, then rear-ends a police car.
  • These people.

What is that thing that we feel when someone “gets what’s coming to them” or “what they deserved”? It’s an exquisite sensation, deeply satisfying, and it appeals to us on many levels (all of them immature), including the sense that someone behaved badly, there was nothing we could do to punish them, and then the universe stepped in and slapped them down for us! Amazing!

This experience we are discussing has a name: schadenfreude. This word was coined by the Germans, whose language is considered the second most beautiful in the world, coming in only behind the sound of zebras braying as they are eaten by wild dogs. German is best spoken by someone with a permanent sinus infection, as it includes a variety of nasal snorts and barks and snot sucking sounds you make when you have the croup like this child, who is named Adolph and was born with his lungs on the outside of his overalls:


In addition to being beautiful, German words are often generously long:

  • English                                                       German
  • General                                                       Oberst gruppen führer
  • President                                                    Der Oberste Führer der Schutz staffel
  • Insurance companies                              Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften
  • Invasion practice area                            Frankreich (technically France)
  • Cheap taxi with eclectic driver             über

Those little dots above the letter u represent the horns of a moose, or müs. And if you are going to use the word schadenfreude to impress your friends, at least pronounce it correctly: shodden froy duh. Just say it quickly and confidently and they won’t know the diff. And if they ask how you spell it, just roll your eyes in der Ekel (disgust).

The word has always had a bit of a bad boy reputation: a British writer in 1920 observed that there was no English equivalent for the German term because, basically, nobody but a German could feel such a thing. Coming on the heels of World War I that sentiment is understandable, if a bit arrogant. Today this idea of well-deserved punishment goes by numerous names, including “Karma,” “Comeuppance,” and “Martha Stewart.”

OK so what about you and your brain? If you watched the video clip of people wrecking super expensive sports cars and enjoyed it, think about how bizarre this is: you don’t know the people involved, you didn’t experience the wreck in person, and for all you know it could be a totally faked up movie clip and not even real, yet you experienced satisfaction over it. This study says that you can experience schadenfreude just as strongly by viewing a movie clip or reading a story about strangers as you do with actual acquaintances and real events, which means this experience is coming from the deep, deep, dumb, dumb part of your brain that mostly reacts and doesn’t really think at all. For lack of a better term, this is your ‘animal’ brain, the part that needs to be herded back to the closet and locked in so it doesn’t do things that screw up life for the rest of your brain and other parts.

This study took it even further. The authors wanted to study two groups that truly, deeply hate each other, like the Crips and the Bloods, or Team Edward and Team Jacob, or people who roll the toilet paper over the top and the infidels who do not, or the Germans. They chose Yankees fans and Red Sox fans. They used clever tests to identify hard-core, devoted, obsessed fans, loaded them into a brain scanner, and showed them game footage. Like the previous study this one found that the fans experienced actual pleasure or pain while watching the clips, despite the fact that nothing real was even happening.

But here’s where the animal brain started to cause real problems. The fans who felt the most pleasure or pain over the clips reported being more likely to act out those feelings. The more schaud (I’m tired of typing out the whole word) a person felt, the more likely he or she (you assumed they were all men, right?) was to throw something at an opposing fan, like a $9.00 hot dog, or an F-bomb, or a fist. In other words, people who derive the highest levels of enjoyment from others’ misfortune are more likely to behave in ways that actually harm those people. The animal brain slips into the driver’s seat and starts cutting off other drivers and mooning them out the rear window. I mean, what kind of moron pays $9.00 for a hot dog and then throws it?

Jesus talked about something along this line. That same chapter where he talks about not killing people (check) and not cheating on your spouse (got it) and telling the truth (mostly got it), he wraps up with a troubling question: if you love only those who love you, or do nice things only to people who are nice to you, what good is it? Even the most corrupt people do that. And he has this crazy idea that you should actually pray for your enemies, and I am 100% sure he did not mean to pray that they would be hit by a meteorite. Or a $9.00 hot dog.

That dumb part of your brain spends all day, every day, feeling things and thinking things and every so often you let it off the chain and it goes out and performs, and then you have to live with the results. It’s important that you train that animal brain to behave, since it does not know the difference in imaginary and real experiences and if it spends all its time thinking the wrong things inside your head it will lead you to do the wrong things in real life. Every time you enjoy a little schaud, you strengthen the wrong perspective and you shape how you see other people.

This is hard for me to write, since I deeply savor such ‘deserved’ disasters (at least when they happen to others, which is always, since my disasters are never deserved but only the result of cosmic bad luck). I included this post in vice month because not all vices are physical, and many of the ways we pursue happiness are internal and at times quite subtle, and seemingly harmless. I remind myself from time to time that disaster and misfortune are disastrous and misfortunate, regardless of whether they happen to me or you or some legitimately annoying celebrity. I hope you are more successful with this one than I have been so far.

*And now, as promised…

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