There is no English translation for the German word schadenfreude—that small, private rush of glee in response to someone else’s misfortune. But everyone recognizes the emotion, even if he or she might not have a word for it (or admit to feeling it). Tabloids have long relied on people’s fascination with public failures: moralizing politicians or entitled actresses disgraced for their peccadilloes. And in recent years schadenfreude has become a prime-time staple, with models, boyfriends, parents, overweight people and recovering addicts, among others, routinely humiliated on cable television.
Scientists who study schadenfreude are learning that this secret happiness at another person’s loss has biological underpinnings. The feeling registers in the brain as a distinct form of pleasure, a satisfaction comparable to that of eating a good meal.