152: The Joy of Pain by Richard H. Smith

by Gerard


152.4: Smith, Richard H. The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013. 187 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-973454-2.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 100: Philosophy and Psychology
  • 150: Psychology
  • 152: Perception, movement, emotions, and physiological drives
  • 152.4: Emotions

There is a feeling for which no word exists in English. Imagine you are watching your favorite football team on television and the opposing team is threatening to drive the ball down the field in order to make a winning score. Play after play, they grind it out for more yardage. On one play, the quarterback falls back in the pocket and is immediately creamed by the defensive linebacker. He whoops and hollers and congratulates himself on a great play, but then everybody notices that the quarterback still hasn’t gotten up. He’s injured and while the folks on the field all want to make sure he’s OK, you cheer in your living room. Your team will win. And it’s all because someone was hurt. You feel joy in another’s misery. This is called schadenfreude (leave it to the Germans to have a wonderful word for this) and Richard Smith’s The Joy of Pain helps us look into the psychological motivation behind this feeling.

Smith’s premise is that schadenfreude involves many different emotional and social contexts. At its root is an inequality that is established between two or more people or entities. One side is better than the other and so the worse person can either look elsewhere for a self-esteem boost or be delighted when the higher person is brought low by a painful or embarrassing experience. Smith also integrates the concepts of deserved misfortune, justice, and envy into the schadenfreude model. Because we live in a highly socialized environment, we constantly make comparisons between ourselves and the selves of others. It’s these relationships that set up the initial inklings of downward social comparison, revenge fantasies, and the current TV genre of humilitainment.

This book is meant for the popular psychology audience and for that I was grateful. There are no intricate meta-analyses of psychological studies, but Smith does offer details from many of them to highlight his theories. The author also uses a fair amount of popular culture references to frame his arguments. There’s the Tiger Woods scandal, interesting analogies using To Catch a Predator, the famous Millgram experiments, a lot of references to Homer Simpson’s and Ned Flanders’s relationship, as well as mentions of Martha Stewart and Bernie Madoff. The book does not try to preach ways to mitigate this feeling, but rather seeks to explain its mechanisms, and that’s what I liked. It’s just a simple book trying to peel back the layers of a complicated feeling.