Taking pleasure from the misfortunes of others

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On a recent visit to a primary school – I was there voluntarily rather than carrying out community service for crimes against journalism – I was asked what my favourite word was.

Mindful of the fact my audience was a room of fresh-faced 11-year-olds, I had to watch my ps and qs, but after a moment’s hesitation, I came back with ‘schadenfreude’.

Explaining to a room full of bright, well-behaved kids that my favourite word describes the pleasure some people derive from the misfortune of others is a tricky business because, at the age of 11, human beings are, generally, still nice.

At that age everything is lovely: stress is a largely alien concept and the only mortal enemies you have appear on a flat screen and are made up tiny pixels. So having an ‘old’, overweight, jaded-looking man telling them he took great pleasure from others coming a cropper must have been a baffling experience.

Sadly, it won’t be long before they appreciate how rewarding it can be.

Whether we like it or not, schadenfreude is a sensation enjoyed by so many of us.

How else can we explain why millions of TV viewers habitually vote to have the contestant perceived to be the most unpleasant in the jungle humiliated time after time on ITV’s I’m A Celebrity? Or why a nation celebrated when Britain’s Most Smug Man, Piers Morgan, lost his dream job on American television?

It is why a study from US academics which concludes that the cool kids at high school don’t have it all their own way in life has been so warmly greeted by many of us.

It is no secret that I usually take such studies with a huge pinch of salt but I am willing to make an exception on this occasion – because it is a report which has a conclusion I am happy to believe.

The 10-year study by academics at the University of Virginia informs us teenagers who appear cool, usually making the lives of others difficult in the process, end up getting involved in criminality and become far less cocky as they seek to convince others they are still cool.

Of course, I don’t wish anybody any harm but I defy anybody who has been pushed down the steepest hill for miles in a shopping trolley by a gang of ‘super cool’ older lads not to experience even the smallest of thrills on years later learning life has not been a bed of roses for them.

So while my choice could well be viewed as mean-spirited, I am pleased to know that I am not the only one who feels this way.