Check Out My Perpetual Happy Machine

Dear Will:

I cannot deny that sometimes, when I learn that my school’s rivals are losing a game they were expected to win, I have flipped over to their radio feed just to hear their announcers whine about it. I’m not proud to admit that listening to the losers’ consternation has brought me a sort of wicked satisfaction. It’s just one more example of how, even years after her death, I continue to disappoint my mother.

The Germans have a word for this—schadenfreude—which Merriam-Webster defines as “enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others.” That there’s a word for it suggests pretty clearly that I’m not the only one afflicted with it. And if it’s true that “misery loves company,” then for sure there’s someone reading this right now taking pleasure from my affliction—which provides a sort of elegant symmetry when you think about it. Schadenfreude may also help explain why bad news spreads so much more quickly and widely than good news and why gossiping is so much fun. Perhaps we see schadenfreude as an antidote for envy—albeit one with nasty side-effects. (Ask your doctor if schadenfreude is right for you.)

Here’s a possible side-effect that had not previously occurred to me: A recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that Covid-19 news reports in the United States have been significantly more negative than those from sources outside of the US. That negative tilt is apparent in US news outlets from across the political spectrum, and the gap is enormous. Last year, 51% of international news reports about the virus were negative, compared to 87% in the US. Why the difference? Researchers aren’t sure, but their number one theory is this: News outlets are simply giving Americans what they want.

Ouch. The implication is that our national media are more likely to report on a handful of anti-maskers than on the vast majority of good citizens who are masking up to help combat the virus. I guess we would rather read about ICU overload and increasing death tolls than about neighborhood fundraisers and successful vaccine research. If that’s true (and apparently it is), there must be a lot of disappointed mothers out there.

A friend of mine recently asked me: “What’s the opposite of schadenfreude?” The question stopped me short. I had never thought about it. Apparently the Germans do have another word—gluckschmerz—which refers to “pain at another person’s good fortune.” But that’s not what my friend had in mind. He was asking, in all sincerity: What is a word for enjoyment obtained from the enjoyment of others?

It turns out that Buddhists have just such a word—mudita—which is “sympathetic or vicarious joy.” The classic illustration is a parent delighting in the accomplishments of a child. Beyond that I couldn’t tell you, because everything I know about Buddhism I learned from reading The Tao of Pooh, and if mudita was in there, I don’t remember. But I love the idea of cultivating mudita, which Buddhists apparently do. Making a more conscious effort to enjoy the joy of others can only be a good thing, right?

Jesus was neither German nor Buddhist, but I think it’s safe to say that He was a mudita kind of guy. (Schadenfreude? Not so much.) Nevertheless, it seems like we Christians probably spend more energy talking about Jesus suffering for us than about how He celebrates our joy (as surely He does). We often teach the importance of weeping with them that weep; but perhaps we could spend a little more time on the other half of the scripture, “rejoicing with them that do rejoice” (Romans 12:15). Clearly I could use that sermon, in any case. Especially during football season.

If we all started practicing mudita on each other, think of the possibilities. Your happiness would increase my happiness which would, in turn, increase yours. It would be like some sort of Perpetual Happy Machine. As opposed to whatever it is we have now. Wouldn’t that be something? Just thinking about it is making me happier already.

PW