From the Fyre festival to Brexit, schadenfreude is the emotion that defines our times

Arwa Mahdawi
Wish you were here? Tents and a portable toilet set up for the Fyre festival. Photograph: AP

Even Mother Teresa would have felt a glimmer of glee. Pretty much everyone else did. Over the weekend the internet erupted into spasms of schadenfreude when a luxury music festival descended into what a lawsuit described as closer to The Hunger Games and Lord of the Flies.

The inaugural Fyre festival had promised, not just an edgy approach to vowels, but an indulgent, Instagram-worthy experience. Tickets cost between $1,000 and $125,000 (£845-£105,000) depending on how gullible you were; in exchange, you were supposed to get meals cooked by celebrity-chefs, luxurious accommodation, live music, and the chance to mingle with models and “influencers” on an island in the Bahamas. As you’re probably aware from the extensive coverage the Fyre fiasco has garnered in the past few days, none of that transpired. When the moneyed millennials turned up they found only soggy cheese sandwiches and disaster-relief tents. Twitter was soon abuzz with the wailing of the 1% and the cackling of everyone else.

While schadenfreude may be one of the more ignoble emotions, there is no denying its delights. We are biologically wired to find joy in other people’s misfortunes: schadenfreude activates a part of the brain involved in processing reward. According to one study that set out to identify “schadenfreude face” (undertaken by German scientists, natch), it is physically indistinguishable from other sorts of joy. The pleasure you get from eating a good dessert is the same pleasure you derive from seeing someone get their just deserts. Even toddlers feel schadenfreude, research tells us. It’s part of being human.

Our underhanded enjoyment has an evolutionary underpinning. It plays into our natural competitiveness and boosts our sense of self-worth. But while schadenfreude has long been part of the human condition, lately it seems to be on the rise and worryingly rife. Traditionally, we have tended to be a little shy about our schadenfreude, a little ashamed of it. But, in recent years, that has changed. Schadenfreude has become a loud and proud part of culture. Indeed, schadenfreude may be the emotion that most defines our times.

The booming popularity of reality TV over the past few decades is partly to blame for the current spitegeist. From Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares to The Apprentice, there’s an endless smorgasbord of what media researchers have called “humilitainment” available. Instant schadenfreude is available on hundreds of different channels; its ubiquity means it no longer seems so shameful.

Social media, of course, is another contributing factor in the rise of schadenfreude. Infinite information about other people’s lives means we’re constantly comparing ourselves with our peers. It seems that we mediate the dissatisfaction and envy that this can sometimes cause by self-medicating with remedial shots of schadenfreude. A 2014 study from Ohio State University found that when people are in a bad mood they seek out “the less attractive, less successful people” in their social networks to try to make themselves feel better. Or, you know, they go on Twitter to laugh at people who are more attractive and more successful, but who are stuck on a desert island.

The stratification of society has also had an impact on the spread of schadenfreude. Studies show that people who strongly identify with a group (for example, a political party or a socioeconomic class) can experience schadenfreude in situations that are objectively bad for society if they feel their group still derives some benefit. For example, someone who identifies as a Brexiter might feel schadenfreude from the gradual economic collapse of Brexit Britain, if they felt it was making some stuck-up Londoners very miserable. The more you identify with a group, the more pronounced the schadenfreude.

One explanation for the seeming incongruity of finding satisfaction in misfortune that also affects you is that it’s the only opportunity you’ve got if you’re not the dominant group. Nietzsche talked about this as a “vengefulness of the impotent”. If religion is the opium of the people, schadenfreude is its Jägerbomb. An easily accessible blast of pleasure that leaves a lingering bad taste in your mouth.

There is much vengefulness of the impotent around at the moment. Indeed, it seems to be the core characteristic of populist politics. Brexit and Trump are both the ultimate expressions of this: people seemingly voting against their best interests to stick it to the other side. Now that the power tables have turned, Remainers and anti-Trumpers are finding their own solace in schadenfreude. Remainers seem to be getting a certain grim satisfaction from the debacle that is the Brexit process and the media has enjoyed seizing on tales of Trump supporters who have suddenly realised that they are now facing an imminent loss of their healthcare. There seems to be a constant to-ing and fro-ing of “I told you so-ing”; a steady stream of schadenfreude camouflaged as concern that serves only to deepen existing divides. If you’re wondering what happened to the attendees of Fyre festival, by the way, they eventually got off the island and have now filed a $100m lawsuit against the festival. The lawsuit argues that, while the Fyre festival organisers have offered ticket refunds, this isn’t adequate compensation for them “being lured to a deserted island and left to fend for themselves”. If only recourse to a $100m lawsuit were available to everyone who has found themselves lured to Brexit island and been left to fend for themselves. Schadenfreude may have its satisfactions but, ultimately, it is an impotent sort of vengeance.

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