The Fascinating History of Schadenfreude

Were you aware that Schadenfreude is a term used to describe the “pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others”?

Have you ever found yourself scrolling through YouTube videos and laughing at someone’s misfortune, such as a skateboarder falling or a cat missing a jump?

Although we all enjoy a good laugh at these videos, the Germans have a specific word for this feeling, and it’s known as Schadenfreude.

The Definition of Schadenfreude

Schadenfreude is the experience of pleasure, joy, or satisfaction that comes from witnessing the troubles, humiliation, or failures of another person.

For instance, during the 2018 World Cup, I felt pure Schadenfreude watching the German soccer team lose to the South Korean team and exit at the Group Stage while defending their title.

Translated literally, the word Schadenfreude means “harm-joy,” as it is a compound word made up of the German words “Schaden,” meaning “damage” or “harm,” and “Freude,” meaning “joy.”

The Origins of Schadenfreude

The word Schadenfreude dates back to German texts from the 1740s and wasn’t used in English texts until 1852 and 1867.

While Schadenfreude has equivalents in other languages, such as Arabic and Hebrew, there is no commonly used precise English equivalent.

There is a direct equivalent borrowed from Greek, which is “Epicaricacy,” but it is relatively unknown and unused by English speakers.

“Roman Holiday” as a Synonym for Schadenfreude

The phrase “Roman holiday” is also used to describe the scenario, stemming from Lord Byron’s poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” in which a gladiator in Ancient Rome expects to be “butchered to make a Roman holiday,” pondering how the gladiatorial audience would take pleasure in watching his suffering.

Although Schadenfreude can be sadistic, it is usually light entertainment, nothing as sinister as a “Roman holiday.”

So, the next time you and your friends are watching YouTube and laughing at someone’s misfortune, make sure to tell them that their laughter is Schadenfreude in action!


1. What is Schadenfreude?

Schadenfreude is a German word that means taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune or suffering. It’s the feeling of joy or satisfaction that some people experience when they witness another person’s failure or downfall.

2. Is Schadenfreude a universal emotion?

While Schadenfreude is not unique to any particular culture, it’s more prevalent in some societies than others. Researchers have found that people who live in individualistic cultures tend to experience Schadenfreude more often than those who live in collectivistic cultures.

3. What are the origins of Schadenfreude?

The origins of Schadenfreude can be traced back to ancient times. The Roman philosopher Seneca wrote about the pleasure that people derive from watching gladiators fight to the death. However, the word Schadenfreude itself didn’t come into existence until the 19th century.

4. Is Schadenfreude a negative emotion?

While Schadenfreude is often considered a negative emotion, some psychologists argue that it can have positive effects. For example, Schadenfreude can help people feel better about themselves and boost their self-esteem when they see someone else fail. However, taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune can also be harmful and lead to feelings of guilt or shame.

5. Can Schadenfreude be harmful?

Schadenfreude can be harmful when it leads to actions that harm others. For example, if someone takes pleasure in seeing a co-worker fail, they may sabotage that person’s work or reputation. Schadenfreude can also damage relationships and lead to negative feelings like resentment and bitterness.

6. Why do people experience Schadenfreude?

There are several reasons why people experience Schadenfreude. Some psychologists believe that it’s a way for people to feel superior to others and boost their self-esteem. Others argue that it’s a natural human response to seeing injustice or wrongdoing. Still, others suggest that Schadenfreude is a way for people to cope with their own insecurities and failures.

7. Can Schadenfreude be overcome?

Yes, Schadenfreude can be overcome with self-awareness and empathy. When people recognize that they’re experiencing Schadenfreude, they can try to understand why they’re feeling that way and work to overcome it. Developing empathy and compassion for others can also help reduce feelings of Schadenfreude.

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