I started seriously thinking about schadenfreude in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. In conservative Utah, it's a given that I'm surrounded by Trump supporters all the time, and I'm used to being drowned out, talked over, condescended upon, insulted by, and being routinely micro-aggressed to as I walk the steps of my daily life. It's just how reality is for those liberals choosing to plant their roots in a blood red state where political conviction stands tall upon the shoulders of Heavenly Father. For example, the Mormons here all believe the United States constitution was divinely inspired. I'm not even sure what that means, but what I do know is that god had nothing to do with it any more than god had to do with Harry Potter. Great minds are perfectly capable of coming up with great works without any intervention of the divine.
So I started googling articles to get to the bottom of this phenomenon...to educate myself as it were on why people love to see others suffer. I for one have come to realize that I have a great deal of empathy. I don't like to see people suffer and take no pleasure from it. I've had to adopt emotional blinders to keep the awful reality of what it takes to survive every day in this world from getting to me. Until we get beyond an economy of scarcity (Star Trek anyone?) this will be the norm for our speck of a blue dot hurtling through the universe. Where does my food come from? It's best not to think about that. Are there people starving to death in Nigeria? Well, it won't emotionally cripple me if I put on blinders and watch a movie on Netflix. It sounds horrific, and to be honest, it totally is. But this world is so filled with misery and terribleness that one person cannot process it all. It would totally shut you down. So you have to cherry pick your battles in order to remain functional. Whether or not any of us will admit to this, it's a thing that most emotionally healthy people take part in every day.
But what about those people that revel in suffering? That's a different thing entirely. So why does it happen? Do they have something to gain in the misfortune of others? Does it make them feel powerful? Are more resources made available for those who don't have the misfortune? Or is it simply a way to assuage those feelings of envy and contempt usually stemming from low self-esteem? Maybe it's all of these things. I know only one thing for certain: it's been going on for a long time. For example, Romans used to feed Christians to lions in front of a crowd of people gathered to have fun at seeing such events. What about witches burned at the stake? This being god's will was a great rationalization to avoid feeling guilty about the horrific nature of the crime. Taking joy from someone else's misfortune fills some people with feelings of power and of control, because what's happening doesn't involve you. Mel Brooks said it best: "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die." Perhaps a lot of this has to do with deeply seated ideals revolving around justice and fairness. The fact that life isn't fair makes us all acutely aware of the transgressions that life deals us, and many of us derive pleasure when (certainly) someone that we perceive as having it too good gets their comeuppance.
The reason I think that schadenfreude may be more dangerous, more insidious than anger (or any other emotion for that matter) is because of the reward (positive feelings) one gets when another is inflicted with misfortune. In fact, I postulate that on a widespread scale, it could tear a society or civilization apart at the seams. For example, it's arguably one of the driving forces behind polarization, where one side of a debate tries to get the upper hand to achieve an agenda and then laughs at the misfortune of those on the losing side (because they obviously have something to gain in another's misfortune). But why is this destructive socially? Because you have one team in a society hoping that another side actually fails. The only thing is, everyone is in the same boat, and if one side fails, it's likely that the other side will too.
Until we can all embrace the idea that someone else's failure is a failure for us too, I doubt that we'll solve any of our world's enormous problems. Just like in that popular Billy Joel song from the early nineties, the fire will keep on burning despite the fact that we never started it in the first place (and can enjoy a good laugh at the expense of those particularly close to the flames).