Saturday, May 10, 2008

Positive Schadenfreude

An early draft of Schadenfreude, Baby! took a mildly inspirational approach to the topic. My thesis was that people take solace in reading about people who have it worse than they have. If you're going through a divorce, for example, it can put your own situation in perspective to read about some of the most rancorous divorces in history.

Sometimes, no matter how much talent, energy and work you put into your dreams, you can’t seem to get beyond running in place. You won’t hear it from motivational speakers or daytime talk show hosts—but here’s the truth—that’s normal. That’s life. So stop beating yourself up with comparisons to the winners. It’s time to compare yourself to the losers for a change. These are the folks who would be singing “I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me,” if they could only carry a tune and remember the words.

This aspect of Schadenfreude-- more a relief than a joy at another's bad luck-- is not as often discussed, but it is something we all recognize. Today I came across a story in The Guardian with the modest title: This Column Will Change Your Life.

It's author, Oliver Burkeman, reflects on this positive form of Schadenfreude while discussing how the story of Samuel Johnson's anxiety has been used to help people suffering from "toxic worry" in the modern era.

"Self-help authors love few things more than calling on the wisdom of great historical figures, and happily, great historical figures seem only too keen to oblige," he writes. "Maybe I'm guilty of schadenfreude, but it's far more invigorating to discover that some past icon was as insecure and fretful as the rest of us."