Scha·den·freu·de: \shä-d n-froi-d \n.: taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others—esp. boastful friends, unscrupulous colleagues, billionaire bankers, and celebrities who are famous for no good reason.

guy and girl with cardboard boxes over their heads with painted smiley faces
(Image credit: Kutay Tanir)

Marie first heard the rumors circulating around the industry last spring: Callie's head was on the chopping block. "But it wasn't until the official announcement came that I let myself celebrate," says Marie. Nine months earlier, the 34-year-old New York publicist had been up for a job, and Callie, her best friend and maid of honor designee, stole it out from under her. "I didn't even know she'd interviewed for it. When she said to me, 'It must be upsetting, but we both went for it fair and square—they just liked me better,' something altered in my chemistry." So when she got the news that Callie had been canned, supposedly for incompetence and for abusing her underlings, Marie joined the gleeful e-mail threads. "I shouldn't be proud, but her betrayal had hit me hard, and the news of her dismissal brought an instant wave of relief. A peaceful feeling swept over me. It was blissful."

What Marie was experiencing has a name, of course: schadenfreude. A handy word we stole from the Germans, it combines schaden (damage) and freude (joy) to describe the pleasure we take in the misfortunes of others. Think of it as envy inverted: Rather than feeling bad about our neighbor's successes, schadenfreude pays our psyche a happy visit when she fails.

The concept isn't new: Aristotle could accept it in moderation. Schopenhauer called it "devilish"—and he was an atheist. Nietzsche thought it was inevitable and would balance out in the end. (Today you're the recipient, tomorrow it will be another's turn and you'll get to enjoy it.) Gore Vidal embodied it: "It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail." But today, as our culture grows ever more competitive and the recession slogs on, we experience schadenfreude's pang almost daily, whether while bonding at the watercooler over a colleague's comeuppance, drinking in the tabloids' latest dose of Jon-and-Kate hate, feeling a rush when the pervy perp is brought to justice on CSI, or gawking at sites like the cathartic micro-confessional, to read of others' low moments and vote on whether they had it coming. Schadenfreude has become a go-to descriptor for the all-American pursuit of celebrating the falls from grace of those who probably deserve it.

"Bonding isn't the story of this recession," says Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and author of Born to Be Good. "Unlike during the Great Depression, there's more of a recognition of gross financial inequality. When the guy who made $27 million last year running a bank into the ground takes a hit, schadenfreude abounds." John Portmann, Ph.D., author of When Bad Things Happen to Other People, says it's no matter that we're seeing signs of recovery. "We hear about the Goldman bonuses and how JP Morgan is doing great, but as some guys start to rake it in again, most of us would rather focus on the losers," says Portmann, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia. "Their failure was their gift to us, offering us some pleasure in a dark time."

Hollywood has been generous in this respect. Who doesn't break into a smile when condescending would-be lifestyle guru Gwyneth Paltrow's perfect marriage is reported to be on the rocks, or Perez Hilton, who has made a career out of being nasty, gets punched in the face after posting one too many attacks on Fergie? "We are at base pack animals, like rats," says Portmann. "We're fascinated by people who pull out in front, but we hate them as well. So if Renée Zellweger is outed for having work done on her face, we feel vindicated. She's brought back down to earth, and we can all feel better about ourselves." At the heart of schadenfreude is comparison; as ultra-social animals, we find our place by looking at others. Thumbing through US Weekly, we find endless opportunities to boost our self-image by drinking in telephoto shots of celebs' cellulite, their unmade-up skin, their poor choice of wardrobe for the grocery store.

The theory was supported last year by an MRI study that found that when a person we envy suffers a misfortune, dopamine floods the emotional rewards portion of our brains. "It's the same feeling as when you take drugs, laugh, have sex," says Dean Mobbs, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at Cambridge University and a coauthor of the study. "Schadenfreude is our psychological immune system kicking in to make us feel better." Similar studies show, however, that the punishment must fit the crime. So if a young, foolish, and badly parented starlet drives her car off a cliff, we're sympathetic. But if evil Bernie Madoff gets shivved by his cellmate, we'll do the cabbage patch.

The greatest targets of our schadenfreude won't be found on the cover of People, however. They're the folks with whom we have the most in common—siblings, friends, and colleagues. The flip side of women's relatively recent social advances is a new sense of cutthroat competition: We're now supposed to own our apartments, make senior VP by 30, maintain wrinkle-free foreheads and 26-inch waists, have a closetful of updated classics, and sponsor a school in Liberia. Oh, and did we mention that unless we land the love of our life and raise three bilingual children, the rest doesn't mean squat? The pressure to achieve can be so great, the competition so stiff, that instead of striving even harder, we just hope for others to fall down a peg.

Bad habit, says Keltner, who reminds us that life is not a zero-sum game. "The big resources—affection, trust, respect, appreciation—are available in endless quantities," he says. But even if you're not the type to hug it out, nor should you beat yourself up when schadenfreude strikes. "It was crafted by hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, when resources were limited and cheats had to be punished to preserve the group," he says. And we still need the group to survive.

Marie is happy to have moved past her schadenfreude for Callie. "I don't want that hate in my body," she says. "Besides, you max out. It's like sex. Once you reach the great orgasm, you can't make it any better. Oh! That reminds me—I heard Callie got engaged to a guy she hates having sex with!" Let the healing continue.