Mel Brooks once famously said, "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die."
Certainly, we can all relate to this, whether we like to admit it or not. When something unlucky happens to us, we feel it more deeply than those around us do, and we wonder why people do not immediately recognize the calamity. Equally, we take pleasure when an opponent is beaten or find it a little rewarding when our enemy is cut down.
The joy we experience from the pain of others is known as “schadenfreude” in German and is translated as “harm-joy”.
According to Richard H. Smith, a psychology professor at the University of Kentucky, schadenfreude is an adaptive function that evolved from our need to make social comparisons. These comparisons, he argues in a new book called The Joy of Pain, allow us to asses our strengths and weaknesses in the social order and thereby determine our social status. Comparisons, though, can invoke envy, insecurity, and a sense of inadequacy if we find ourselves lacking in one dimension or another compared to someone else. These feelings can then trigger a desire to compete with or knock down those perceived to be superior. When these desires are fulfilled organically, through no fault of our own, schadenfreude arises.