It’s impressive to be able to recognise schadenfreude and identify its harmfulness. We’re all guilty of it, every day. We love seeing pop cultural icons and public figures slip up. We revel in their humiliation. But it takes guts to admit that we enjoy seeing someone fail – and to acknowledge that we don’t like that aspect of ourselves.
But it’s one thing to celebrate the misery of the famous, and quite another to be pleased about the failures of a friend, like Shaheda. Why would anyone be happy because an acquaintance is sad? It’s possibly because we’ve all been enveloped in a culture of comparison since we started school – earlier, if you have siblings. We want to rank ourselves, and we need a context to judge our activities, successes and problems- and we look to the people around us to provide that. The trouble with any ranking system is that when someone moves up within it, other people are left behind. Conversely, when the people around you fail, you’re boosted – or at the very least, your position in the table is cemented.
The trouble with this approach is it can be fatalistic. If the universe were to assign us all gifts and opportunities based on our talents and good nature, it would be a reasonable way to think. But we’re not all starting from the same set of blocks.
As a writer, I constantly compare myself to other people in the industry. My first book was released shortly before Pippa Middleton’s. I was jealous of her enormous advance and the blaze of publicity surrounding her title. And quite disgustingly gleeful when I read about her disappointing sales. But when I thought about it a bit more, I realised that the feelings were destructive and pointless. She’s a public figure – I’m someone who writes silly things about TV for a living. If she doesn’t do so well, that’s not going to give me a career boost. You might as well compare a penguin to an aardvark.
Trying something new takes courage. When you put yourself on the line, you’re taking a big chance. You might be applying for a promotion, asking someone on a date or just trying to persuade a friend to do you a favour – if you’re naturally risk averse, it’s much easier watching someone else give one of these things a try and getting it wrong. It saves you from humiliation and proves what you had hoped all along – that there’s no point trying. Shaheda admits that whilst she has a good job, it’s not “exactly” what she would like to be doing. If Shaheda were to apply for the job of her dreams, she might not get it – and if she did, she could discover that it wasn’t what she had hoped for. Taking risks makes us feel very vulnerable. It’s natural to feel some subconscious jealousy when someone close to you does something daring when you’ve been playing it safe. Shaheda’s friend’s failure has shored up her belief that it’s right to stay in her comfort zone.
A peer’s failure gives you permission to rest on your laurels for a bit. A moment to think “well, this could be worse” and stop pursuing your own dreams, because you don’t have to worry about being outranked. So once you’ve identified the sensation as a bad thing, you can use it to identify your own insecurities – and figure out how to fix them. If someone else’s sadness brings you joy, think about how you’d feel in their position – and how you’d feel if you’d achieved what they had set out to do. Take action. If, like Shaheda, you realise that schadenfreude makes you feel ashamed, you’re ready to start finding joy in your own positive decisions rather than someone else’s negative ones.
Daisy Buchanan’s The Wickedly Unofficial Guide to Made in Chelsea is out now.