I’m going to be honest with you: I love watching fail videos on the Internet. You know which ones I mean. The videos where people film themselves jumping off buildings or skateboarding down a flight of stairs and inevitably wind up hurting themselves, usually in an unintentionally hilarious fashion. Every time a skateboarder bashes his testicles off a stair-rail, I laugh until I cry.
Perhaps that just proves that I am the bug-eyed sociopath my girlfriend says I am. But I don’t think I’m alone. Many other people across the Internet love watching these videos as well, and there’s a word for that. Schadenfreude (pronounced shaw-den-froi-deh), a cool little loanword from our friends the Germans. The only thing in English that comes close is gloating (to gloat over the misfortune of another).
Schadenfreude is looked down upon by the moralists among us. Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer is famously quoted for saying that, “To feel envy is human. To savour schadenfreude is devilish.” And perhaps he is right, at least partially. To take delight in our fellow man’s suffering does sound cruel. But ol’ Arthur wasn’t around when the Internet was invented, so he never saw such gems as “Man Sets Hair on Fire,” and the classic “Skateboarder Nut-Shot”. I think even he would get a chuckle out of those.
Schadenfreude has been around since the rise of humanity. Gladiators fought and died in the Coliseum for the enjoyment of the crowd. White slave-owners had their slaves fight to the death over wagers. Today we watch wrestling and boxing and the UFC, to watch muscled juggernauts pummel each other’s faces into mush. And with each spray of blood the crowd cheers.
So it turns out schadenfreude isn’t something to be ashamed of; it’s just another quirk of human psychology. Even the noblest among us feel it to a certain extent. But if you’re feeling aghast at your own guilty pleasures, there is hope. The Buddhist concept of mudita is an example of the exact opposite of schadenfreude. The concept is “joy at the good fortune of others”. So if you laugh at a fat guy sitting down and breaking his toilet, you can console yourself with the fact that you feel great mudita at your sister’s wedding.
Jacob Rennick was born in Hamilton, Ontario in 1993. He has lived in several cities during his life, and made the move to Ottawa in the summer of 2012, where he’s currently studying Professional Writing at Algonquin College. He lives with several roommates and his two cats, Virgil and Maximus. He has written several short stories and is working on a longer piece called Cleaning House.
You can friend him on www.facebook.com/jakob.rennick