Is embracing freudenfreude the key to better friendships?
BY Juli Fraga
20th Sep 2023 Inspire
5 min read
Freudenfreude means finding joy in others' good fortune, which could improve your friendships and life satisfaction. Experts share how to cultivate the feeling
When Eugenie George first heard that her friend passed a financial counselling exam, her heart sank. She’d failed that test weeks earlier, and needed the credential to advance her own career.
“My inner child got upset,” recalls George, a financial writer and educator from Philadelphia. But then, instead of stewing, she called her friend. “I told her I failed and admitted I was jealous,” she says.
George knew that being upfront would defuse her envy, but she was surprised when it shifted her attitude so she could share her friend’s happiness and experience her own, in turn.
“I congratulated her and told her she inspired me,” she says.
What is freudenfreude?
Finding pleasure in another person’s good fortune is what social scientists call freudenfreude, a term (inspired by freude, the German word for “joy”) that describes the bliss we feel when someone else succeeds, even if it doesn’t directly involve us.
Freudenfreude is like social glue, says Catherine Chambliss, a professor of psychology at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania. It makes relationships “more intimate and enjoyable.”
Erika Weisz, an empathy researcher at Harvard University, says the feeling closely resembles positive empathy—the ability to experience someone else’s positive emotions. A study in 2021 examined positive empathy’s role in daily life and found that it propelled kind acts, such as helping others.
"Sharing in someone else’s joy can also foster resilience"
Sharing in someone else’s joy can also foster resilience, improve life satisfaction and even help people co-operate during a conflict.
While the benefits of freudenfreude are plentiful, it doesn’t always come easily. Sometimes, your loss might really sting, making freudenfreude feel out of reach.
If you were raised in a family that paired winning with self-worth, Chambliss says, you might misread someone else’s victory as your own personal shortcoming. And other factors such as mental health and overall wellbeing can also affect your ability to participate in someone else’s joy.
Still, indulging in freudenfreude is worthwhile—and there are ways to encourage the feeling.
Freudenfreude vs schadenfreude
To better understand freudenfreude, it can be helpful to demystify its better-known counterpart, schadenfreude: the pleasure we feel when witnessing someone’s misfortune.
In a 2012 study, Chambliss and her colleagues examined instances of freudenfreude and schadenfreude among college students, some of whom were experiencing mild depression.
Freudenfreude scores were higher, and schadenfreude scores were lower, among those who were not depressed. The mildly depressed college students, however, had a harder time adopting a joy-sharing mindset.
“When you’re feeling down, it’s natural to puncture positive news with negativity,” Chambliss explains.
Even when people aren’t experiencing mental distress, moments of schadenfreude—when a film villain gets what he deserves, for example, or a nemesis faces scrutiny—can be comforting and serve a purpose.
"Schadenfreude is one way we try to cope with jealousy and vulnerability"
“Schadenfreude is one way we try to cope with jealousy and vulnerability,” says clinical psychologist Emily Anhalt, co-founder of Coa, a mental health app. It’s an “ego protector” that shields people from pain and reinforces social bonds within a group—like when joy erupts among sports fans after their rival team faces a humiliating loss.
Indulging in too much schadenfreude, however, can backfire. One study found that schadenfreude on social media can push empathy aside, making people less compassionate toward those who differ from them.
Other research suggests that delighting in the mishaps of others can lower people’s self-esteem, especially when they are comparing themselves to particularly high achievers.
Is it possible to experience more freudenfreude?
“Empathy isn’t always an automatic reflex,” Weisz says. “It’s often a motivated process.”
To help people strengthen joy-sharing muscles, Chambliss and her colleagues developed a programme called Freudenfreude Enhancement Training (FET), featuring two exercises.
They found that depressed university students who used the practices for two weeks had an easier time expressing freudenfreude, which enhanced their relationships and improved their mood.
If you’re interested in enjoying more freudenfreude, try the tips below, culled from FET and advice from other expert sources.
Show active interest in someone else’s happiness
One way to summon good feelings for others is to ask questions. Chambliss and her colleagues call this practice “shoy”—or sharing joy.
To start, invite the bearer of good news to discuss the experience. Even if your heart isn’t in it, research conducted by Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California Riverside, suggests that happiness can flourish when you make a heartfelt effort to engage with a positive activity.
So when you speak with your friend, be sure to maintain eye contact and listen attentively. This should motivate you to keep going and make you feel as if your efforts will pay off.
View individual success as a communal effort
“When we feel happy for others, their joy becomes our joy,” says psychologist Marisa Franco, author of the book Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make—and Keep—Friends. To that end, freudenfreude encourages us to look at success as a community achievement.
“No one gets to the top alone, and when we elevate others, we’re often carried up with them,” Anhalt says.
"No one gets to the top alone, and when we elevate others, we’re often carried up with them"
Jean Grae, an artist and self-identified “multipotentialite,” supports friends and colleagues by adopting this mindset. When someone gets a new opportunity or reaches a milestone, she makes sure to celebrate.
Grae says she’s especially moved when anyone considered “other” succeeds. “It’s truly inspirational,” she says, “because it lifts us all up and makes us shine.”
Share credit for your successes with others
Because emotions are contagious, showing appreciation can increase freudenfreude for the gratitude giver and the recipient. In this way, you can think of freudenfreude as something you can spread when you’re experiencing personal joy.
To do this, try a FET exercise called bragitude, which involves expressing gratitude when someone else’s success or support leads to your own.
Start by sharing your win, then tell the other person how you appreciate their help. Be specific. If your friend’s accountant advised you to save, you might say: “My savings are growing. Thanks for recommending your great accountant.”
Practising bragitude is like sharing dessert: both parties enjoy the sweetness of the moment, which enhances freudenfreude for both.
Become a joy spectator
“Too often, we think of joy passively,” Franco says. “We see it as something that comes to us, instead of something we can generate.” But you don’t need to wait for someone else’s good news to exercise freudenfreude.
Cultivate joy by inviting others to share their victories. You might ask: “What was the bright spot of your day?” or “I could use some good news; what’s the best thing that happened to you this week?”. Asking about other people’s wins turns you into a joy spectator, giving you a chance to witness them at their best.
"Experiencing more freudenfreude doesn’t mean you’ll never cheer against a villain again"
Experiencing more freudenfreude doesn’t mean you’ll never cheer against a villain again, but simply being able to reach for happiness is inherently beneficial.
Says Chambliss, “As delicious as it is to delight in our enemy’s defeats, celebrating our friends’ successes—big and small—helps us all triumph.”
Originally published in The New York Times (November 28, 2022), Copyright © 2022 The New York Times Company
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