When Eugenie George heard that her friend had passed a financial counseling exam, her heart sank at first. She had failed the same test weeks before and she needed the credential to further her career.
“My inner child got upset,” recalled Ms. George, a Philadelphia-based financial writer and educator. But then, instead of complaining, she called her friend: “I told her that I failed and admitted that she was jealous,” she said. Mrs. George knew that being honest with her would calm her envy, but she was surprised when she changed her attitude so that she could share her friend’s happiness and experience her own in turn. “I congratulated her and told her that 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 directly involve us. Freudenfreude is like social glue, said Catherine Chambliss, a professor of psychology at Ursinus College. It makes relationships “more intimate and pleasurable.”
Erika Weisz, an empathy researcher and postdoctoral fellow in psychology at Harvard University, said the feeling is a lot like positive empathy: the ability to experience another person’s positive emotions. A small 2021 study examined the role of positive empathy in daily life and found that it prompted acts of kindness, such as helping others. Sharing another person’s joy can also build resilience, improve life satisfaction, and help people cooperate during conflict.
While the benefits of freudenfreude are plentiful, they are not always easy to come by. In zero-sum situations, your loss can really hurt, making freudenfreude feel out of reach. If you were raised in a family that combined winning with self-esteem, Dr. Chambliss said, you might mistakenly interpret someone else’s victory as a personal flaw. And factors like mental health and general well-being can also affect your ability to participate in someone else’s joy. Still, freudenfreude is worth enjoying, and there are ways to encourage that feeling.
If freudenfreude is so good, why does schadenfreude get more attention?
To better understand freudenfreude, it may help to demystify its better-known counterpart, schadenfreude: the pleasure we get from witnessing someone’s misfortune.
In a 2012 study, Dr. Chambliss and her colleagues examined freudenfreude and schadenfreude scores among college students, some of whom experienced 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 college students, however, had a harder time adopting a joy-sharing mindset. “When you’re feeling down, it’s natural to criticize positive news with negativity,” explained Dr. Chambliss.
Even when people aren’t experiencing mental anguish, moments of schadenfreude—such as a movie villain getting his comeuppance or a nemesis facing scrutiny—can be comforting and purposeful.
“Schadenfreude is a way that 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 shield” that protects people from pain and reinforces social bonds within a group, such as when joy erupts among sports fans after their rival faces a humiliating defeat.
However, indulging in too much schadenfreude can backfire. One study found that schadenfreude on social media can freeze empathy, making people less compassionate towards those who differ from them. Other research suggests that taking delight in the mishaps of others can actually lower a person’s self-esteem, especially when compared to high achievers.
Is it possible to experience more freudenfreude?
“Empathy is not 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 her colleagues developed a program called Freudenfreude Enhancement Training (FET), which includes two exercises. They found that depressed college students who used the practices for two weeks found it easier to express freudenfreude, which improved their relationships and lifted their mood.
If you’re interested in enjoying a little more freudenfreude, try some of the following tips, curated by FET and other experts.
Show active interest in the happiness of another person.
One way to invoke good feelings for others is to ask questions. Dr. Chambliss and her colleagues call this practice FET “SHOY,” or sharing joy.
To get started, invite the bearer of good news to comment on 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 a positive activity.
So when you talk to your friend, look him in the eye and listen to his story. Doing so motivates you to keep going and makes you feel like your efforts will pay off.
Consider individual success as a community 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 that 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 are often taken with them,” Dr. Anhalt said.
Jean Grae, an artist and self-described “multipotential,” supports her friends and colleagues in embracing this mindset. When someone has a new opportunity or reaches a milestone, he makes sure to celebrate it, he explained. As a non-binary person of color, Grae said he is moved when someone considered “other” succeeds. “It’s truly inspiring because it lifts us all up 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 and the receiver. In this way, you can think of freudenfreude as something you can spread when you experience 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 victory, then tell the other person how you helped. If your friend’s accountant advised you to save more money, for example, you might say, “My savings are growing, thanks for referring your great accountant.”
Practicing bragging is like sharing dessert: both parties enjoy the sweetness of the moment, which increases freudenfreude for both.
Become a spectator of joy.
“Too often, we think of joy passively,” said Dr. Franco. “We see it as something that comes to us, rather than something that we can generate.” But you don’t have to wait for someone else’s good news to exercise freudenfreude, he explained.
Cultivate joy by inviting others to share in their victories. She might ask, “What was the bright spot of your day?” or “I could use some good news. What is the best thing that has happened to you this week? Asking about other people’s victories makes you a joyous spectator, giving you the opportunity to witness the best of them.
Experiencing more freudenfreude doesn’t mean you’ll never face a villain again, but being able to achieve happiness is inherently beneficial. “While it is delightful to revel in the defeats of our enemies, celebrating the success of our friends, great and small, helps us all succeed in the end,” said Dr. Chambliss.
Juli Fraga is a psychologist and writer in San Francisco.