When Eugenie George learned that her friend had passed a financial counseling exam, her heart sank at first. She had failed the same test weeks earlier and she needed the title to advance her career.
“My inner child got angry,” recalls Ms. George, a financial journalist and educator from Philadelphia. But then, instead of simmering, she called her friend: “I told her I failed and admitted I was jealous,” she said. Ms. George knew that being candid would defuse her envy, but she was surprised when it changed her attitude so she could share her friend’s happiness and experience hers in turn. “I congratulated her and told her she inspired me.”
Finding joy in another person’s good fortune is what social scientists call “freudenfreude,” a German term that describes the happiness we feel when someone else succeeds, even if it doesn’t concern us. directly. Freudenfreude is like a social cement, said Catherine Chambliss, professor of psychology at Ursinus College. It makes relationships “more intimate and enjoyable.”
Erika Weisz, an empathy researcher and postdoctoral fellow in psychology at Harvard University, said the feeling closely resembles positive empathy — the ability to sense someone else’s positive emotions. A small 2021 study looked at the role of positive empathy in everyday life and found it propelled acts of kindness, like helping others. Sharing someone else’s joy can also promote resilience, improve life satisfaction, and help people cooperate during conflict.
Although the benefits of freudenfreude are many, it does not always come easily. In zero-sum situations, your loss can really sting, making freudenfreude feel out of reach. If you were raised in a family that associated winning with self-esteem, Dr. Chambliss said, you might misinterpret someone else’s winning as a personal shortcoming. And factors like mental health and general well-being can also affect your ability to participate in someone else’s joy. Still, indulging in freudenfreude is worthwhile—and there are ways to encourage that feeling.
If freudenfreude is so great, why does schadenfreude get more attention?
To better understand freudenfreude, it may be useful to demystify its better known counterpart, schadenfreude: the pleasure one experiences in witnessing someone’s misfortune.
In a 2012 study, Dr. Chambliss and colleagues looked at freudenfreude and schadenfreude scores in college students, some of whom had mild depression and some of whom did not. Freudenfreude scores were higher, and Schadenfreude scores were lower, among those who were not depressed. Mildly depressed students, however, had a harder time adopting a joy-sharing mindset. “When you’re feeling down, it’s natural to punch positive news with negativity,” Dr. Chambliss explained.
Even when people aren’t feeling mental distress, moments of schadenfreude, like when a movie villain gets his reward or an enemy comes under scrutiny, can be comforting and serve a purpose.
“Schadenfreude is a way we try to deal with jealousy and vulnerability,” said clinical psychologist Emily Anhalt, co-founder of Coa, a mental health app. It is an “ego protector” that shields people from pain and strengthens social bonds within a group, such as when joy erupts among sports fans after their rival suffers a humiliating loss.
However, indulging in too much schadenfreude can backfire. A study found that schadenfreude on social media can chill empathy, making people less compassionate towards those who differ from them. Other research suggests that reveling in the mishaps of others can actually lower a person’s self-esteem, especially when compared to high achievers.
Is it possible to live more freudenfreude?
“Empathy isn’t always an automatic reflex,” Dr. Weisz said. “It’s often a motivated process.” To help people strengthen the muscles that share joy, Dr. Chambliss and his colleagues developed a program called Freudenfreude Enhancement Training (FET), which includes two exercises. They found that depressed students who used the practices for two weeks had an easier time expressing freudenfreude, which improved their relationships and mood.
If you want to enjoy a little more freudenfreude, try some of the tips below, taken from FET and other experts.
Show an active interest in someone else’s happiness.
One way to invoke good feelings for others is to ask questions. Dr. Chambliss and his colleagues call this FET practice “SHOY,” or sharing the joy.
To begin, invite the bearer of good news to discuss their experience. Even if your heart isn’t in it, research by Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California Riverside who studies happiness, suggests that happiness can blossom when you make a sincere effort to engage in positive activity.
So when talking with your friend, make eye contact and listen to their story. It motivates you to keep going and gives you the feeling that your efforts will pay off.
Think of individual success as a collective effort.
“When we feel happy for others, their joy becomes our joy,” said psychologist Marisa Franco, author of “Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make – and Keep – Friends.” To this end, freudenfreude encourages us to view success as a community achievement.
“No one gets to the top alone, and when we lift others up, we often get carried away with them,” Dr Anhalt said.
Jean Grae, an artist and self-identified “multipotential”, supports her friends and colleagues by embracing this mindset. When someone gets a new opportunity or reaches a milestone, she makes sure to celebrate them, she explained. As a non-binary person of color, Grae said she gets emotional when someone seen as “other” succeeds. “It’s really inspiring because it uplifts us all and makes us shine.”
Share the credit for your successes with others.
Because emotions are contagious, showing appreciation can increase freudenfreude for both the giver of gratitude and the recipient. That way, you can think of freudenfreude as something you can broadcast when you experience personal joy.
To do this, try a FET exercise called “bragiture,” which involves expressing gratitude when someone else’s success or support leads to your own. Start by sharing your victory, then tell the other person how they helped. If your friend’s accountant advised you to accumulate more money, for example, you might say, “My savings are growing, thank you for recommending your excellent accountant.”
Practicing bragitude is like sharing a dessert: both parties enjoy the sweetness of the moment, which enhances freudenfreude for both of them.
Become a spectator of joy.
“Too often we think passively about joy,” Dr. Franco said. “We see it as something that comes to us, instead of something that we can generate.” But you don’t have to wait for someone else’s good news to practice freudenfreude, she explained.
Cultivate joy by inviting others to share their victories. You might ask, “What was the highlight of your day? or “I could use some good news. What’s the best thing that’s happened to you this week?” Asking questions about other people’s wins makes you a cheerful spectator, giving you a chance to see them at their best. .
Living more freudenfreude doesn’t mean you’ll never root against a villain again, but being able to achieve happiness is inherently beneficial. “As delightful as it may be to rejoice in the defeats of our enemies, celebrating the success of our friends – young and old – helps us all triumph in the end,” Dr. Chambliss said.
Juli Fraga is a psychologist and writer in San Francisco.