We feel Schadenfreude  at painful surprises, or when we think we might win. We feel it when we see someone who deserves their comeuppance, and when smug people suffer. We feel it toward our siblings, and sometimes even strangers let us feel it on their behalf.

But few things elicit such guilty spasms of delicious Schaden- freude as the disappointments of our most successful friends.

It’s hard to imagine anyone gloating when a close friend meets catastrophe — a bereavement, a messy divorce, a child’s illness. But at some point or another, most of us have experienced a tiny, guilty spasm of delight when something a friend has been showing off about has gone wrong. Their glamorous,  freshly tiled bathroom leaves you feeling instantly inadequate. Until, that is, you notice their husband’s special deodorant to counteract excessive sweating. Or they insist on demonstrating how their new blender, with the 3.0-horsepower motor and five variable-speed settings, BPA-free touchpad interface and illuminated LCD screen, makes the perfect fish stock. And forget to put the lid on properly. When their new car makes spooky groans, or their cashmere jumper is being snacked on by moths. When they’re super-cool and take their kids off to a music festival (“No big deal!” “It’ll be fun!”), and then come back ashen-faced and looking as if they’ve  been fighting at the Somme. Or their cat, toward whom they lavish attention befitting a despot leader of a small country, rejects their lap for yours. All of these relatively inconsequential misfortunes are salvations for you.

Of course, of course,  you want the bathroom and the blender, the car, the cashmere and the cat. Yes, you too want to be the sort of person who goes to music festivals with your kids. We envy in others what we desire for ourselves, and the life we imagine is, by rights, ours (“envy pits potter against potter” wrote Aristotle). The intense glee of Schadenfreude   is a momentary compensation for everything they have that we lack. And it leaves us that bit more sprightly as a result.

Excerpted from the book SCHADENFREUDE by Tiffany Watt Smith. Copyright © 2018 by Tiffany Watt Smith. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.


  • Dr. Tiffany Watt Smith is a cultural historian and author of The Book of Human Emotions. In 2014, she was named a BBC New Generation Thinker, and her TED talk The History of Emotions has over 1.5 million views. She is currently a Wellcome Trust research fellow at the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London. In her previous career, she was a theater director.