The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature

The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature

by Richard H. Smith
     
 

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Few people will easily admit to taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others. But who doesn't enjoy it when an arrogant but untalented contestant is humiliated on American Idol, or when the embarrassing vice of a self-righteous politician is exposed, or even when an envied friend suffers a small setback? The truth is that joy in someone else's pain-known by…  See more details below

Overview

Few people will easily admit to taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others. But who doesn't enjoy it when an arrogant but untalented contestant is humiliated on American Idol, or when the embarrassing vice of a self-righteous politician is exposed, or even when an envied friend suffers a small setback? The truth is that joy in someone else's pain-known by the German word schadenfreude--permeates our society. In The Joy of Pain, psychologist Richard Smith, one of the world's foremost authorities on envy and shame, sheds much light on a feeling we dare not admit. Smith argues that schadenfreude is a natural human emotion, one worth taking a closer look at, as it reveals much about who we are as human beings. We have a passion for justice. Sometimes, schadenfreude can feel like getting one's revenge, when the suffering person has previously harmed us. But most of us are also motivated to feel good about ourselves, Smith notes, and look for ways to maintain a positive sense of self. One common way to do this is to compare ourselves to others and find areas where we are better. Similarly, the downfall of others--especially when they have seemed superior to us--can lead to a boost in our self-esteem, a lessening of feelings of inferiority. This is often at the root of schadenfreude. As the author points out, most instances of schadenfreude are harmless, on par with the pleasures of light gossip. Yet we must also be mindful that envy can motivate, without full awareness, the engineering of the misfortune we delight in. And envy-induced aggression can take us into dark territory indeed, as Smith shows as he examines the role of envy and schadenfreude in the Nazi persecution of the Jews. Filled with engaging examples of schadenfreude, from popular reality shows to the Duke-Kentucky basketball rivalry, The Joy of Pain provides an intriguing glimpse into a hidden corner of the human psyche.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Tiger Woods caught in a sex scandal; a would-be pedophile humiliated on TV; a wealthy Jewish neighbor persecuted by the Nazis. In his latest, Smith, a University of Kentucky psychology professor, claims that these seemingly disparate cases can all elicit the same emotion: schadenfreude, or “pleasure derived from someone else’s misfortune.” We enjoy these awful stories, whether because we’re uplifted by the “downward comparison” with a formerly envied individual or group, or because we feel that justice has been served to hypocrites and other “deserving” miscreants. A master at exploring humanity’s darker instincts, Smith (Envy: Theory and Research) crafts ingenious experiments to tease out the feelings we won’t admit to having, and explains the adaptive reasons for them. We wouldn’t be able to survive without these shameful traits, but, according to Smith, it’s a slippery slope—schadenfreude and empathy are opposite poles of human emotion, and we must be careful which way we lean. This is an accessible, fun, schadenfreudean romp through pop culture (a contestant embarrasses himself on American Idol), sports (an opponent suffers injury), politics (an economic crisis during the other guy’s term), and, of course, religion (the downfall of an ultramoral Christian evangelist), but with a focus on the causes and effects of what philosopher Henri Bergson called an “anesthesia of the heart” and its possible antidotes. Illus. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
"[An] enjoyable book... worth reading for its insights into the dark side of human nature and the delightful drawings that turn up periodically in the text. Created by the author's daughter, Rosanna Smith, these depictions — a tortoise raising its arm in victory, Aesop's ant and grasshopper sharing a meal — give the same sense of delight as those drawings that pepper the pages of The New Yorker" —IThe New York Times

"The Joy of Pain presents an enjoyable mix of evidence from experimental psychology, pop culture and literature." — Wall Street Journal

"Smith's portrait of this complex response combines experimental studies with many well-chosen examples drawn from political scandals, biographies, reality-television shows, literature, sitcoms, cartoons and the observations of comedians and satirists. The Joy of Pain is a real joy to read — and completely painless." —Nature

"Smith's The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature, just out from Oxford University Press, is an entertaining explanation of the phenomenon, told through accounts of research as well as Smith's personal experiences and observations of popular culture." —Chronicle Review

"An accessible, fun, schadenfreudean romp through pop culture (a contestant embarrasses himself on American Idol), sports (an opponent suffers injury), politics (an economic crisis during the other guy's term), and, of course, religion (the downfall of an ultramoral Christian evangelist)." —Publishers Weekly

"Richard Smith's long-awaited book is a profound, thoughtful meditation on one of the most puzzling and disturbing forms of human emotion. Mixing scientific research, popular culture, striking anecdotes, and personal reflection, it is a stimulating, enjoyable, yet unsettling read. I recommend it to anyone with a serious interest in human emotion and motivation — and to anyone with an abiding curiosity about the peculiar twists and turns of human nature." —Roy F. Baumeister, author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength

"A very enjoyable read; this is the most comprehensive collection of Schadenfreude research to date. Interweaving the science with historical and fictional anecdotes, Smith contextualizes and thereby humanizes the experience of Schadenfreude — a feat unto itself. Readers will undoubtedly relish learning more about when and why another's pain can be cause for pleasure." —Mina Cikara, Assistant Professor, Department of Social and Decision Sciences, Carnegie Mellon University

"Richard Smith's wonderful book gives us new insight into ourselves, and the 'dark' emotions of envy and schadenfreude that we all feel, but like to deny. The book is fun and easy to read, even as it gives us insight into some of our darker emotions. You will learn more about yourself and the world from this book than most any book you have read recently. If you want a book that can improve you as a person, this book is it. Although it focuses on dark emotions, it shows the reasons for these emotions, how very pervasive they are, and how they can be overcome." —Ed Diener, Distinguished Professor of Psychology (Emeritus), University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

"Erudite. Enviable. Engaging stories from popular culture, fiction, history, daily life, sports, and science. This will be the book you wish you had written. But instead of schadenfreude, you will feel admiration and gratitude to the author for his profound contribution." —Susan Fiske, Eugene Higgins Professor, Psychology & Public Affairs, Princeton University, author of Envy Up, Scorn Down

"In The Joy of Pain, psychologist Richard Smith, one of the world's foremost authorities on envy and shame, sheds much light on a feeling we dare not admit... Filled with engaging examples of schadenfreude, from popular reality shows to the Duke-Kentucky basketball rivalry, The Joy of Pain provides an intriguing glimpse into a hidden corner of the human psyche."
—Science Book a Day

Library Journal
This book explores the causes and manifestations of the negative but common human emotion labeled schadenfreude, a word borrowed from German that can be rendered literally in English as damage-joy or fail-joy. Simply understood, schadenfreude is experienced as delight in the misfortunes of others. Author Smith (psychology, Univ. of Kentucky; Envy: Theory and Research) describes how the concept is related to a continuum of social emotions from simple envy to malice and revenge. The unique character of the concept may lie in its positive roots—a sense of justice and deservingness. The author reviews research on social comparison theory that explains how individuals and groups benefit from schadenfreude. He dissects exemplary cases that have widely evoked the emotion, including Martha Stewart's imprisonment, Bernie Madoff's capture, and Tiger Woods's downfall. He also analyzes its much more tragic contribution to the Holocaust. Finally, the author suggests how empathy can function as a powerful antidote to this dark but natural sentiment. Research findings are conveyed in a readable manner and insightfully applied to contemporary social phenomena like the popularity of reality TV, tabloid fodder, and sports fanaticism. Notes accompany the text. VERDICT An engaging but specialized work suited to students and devotees of evidence-based social commentary.—Antoinette Brinkman, formerly with Southwest Indiana Mental Health Ctr. Lib., Evansville

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780199753093
Publisher:
Oxford University Press
Publication date:
07/02/2013
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
File size:
4 MB

Meet the Author

Richard H. Smith is Professor of Psychology at the University of Kentucky. He has published articles on various social emotions such as envy and shame and has pioneered experimental work on schadenfreude. His book Envy: Theory and Research was published by Oxford University Press in 2008.

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