I’ve always been a collector of anchor words—a phrase for my curated list of words that center and encourage me.
In college, I first fell in love with hygge, or the Danish word for cozy. After reading The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well, I invested in cozy blankets, decorated my space with candles, baked snickerdoodle cookies, and took more tea breaks with friends.
Next, I re-discovered the word gezellig—a word my grandma taught me when I was young (read “Gezellig, The Dutch Secret To Happiness, Is The Wellness Trend You Need In Your Life“). Looking back at my grandmother’s childhood in the Netherlands, I reconnected with my Dutch heritage and found ways to spark gezellig in my everyday life.
Since then, I’ve cycled through other anchor words that I’ve loved, ranging from Japan’s wabi-sabi to South Africa’s ubuntu. Each word filled me with delight at the thought of a culture coming together to coin a new word.
And now, there’s my most recent obsession: freudenfreude—a word for the act of deriving pleasure from another person’s success. Pop psychology’s newest buzzword, read on to discover freudenfreude’s unique origin story and how to incorporate it into your everyday life.
Freudenfreude’s Schadenfreude Origin
Unlike the origin of my other favorite anchor words, freudenfreude’s origin story is not one of true cultural heritage. A neologism based on the German word schadenfreude (or deriving pleasure or satisfaction from another person’s misfortune), freudenfreude is a made-up word, often accidentally considered an actual word in the German language.
In a schadenfreude-esque twist, Rebecca Schuman, author of Schadenfreude, A Love Story, wrote an article quick to point out a New York Times article’s error about the origin of freudenfreude, noting the words lack of traditional German cleverness and linguistic accuracy. In Schuman’s article, she also writes that even the concept of freudenfreude is not particularly German in nature. A German translator, Kerstern Horn, states “Germans are generally not in the habit of showing happiness at another person’s happiness.”
Still, for all the backlash and hate that freudenfreude’s misunderstood origin has received, there have been just as many responses quick to celebrate the new phrase. Because whether German or not, freudenfreude as a concept does hold significance in our society and culture. It’s significant when your friend gets engaged after you just broke up with a partner. Or the moment your partner gets promoted while you stagnate at work. It could be the moment your sibling gets that new shiny car that you wanted. In all those moments, you have a choice to make.
To Freudenfreude or to Schadenfreude?
In one universe, you can experience intense jealousy in these moments, which clinical psychologist Emily Anhalt claims is our natural response. You can wait for the moment when that person’s life takes a negative twist and experience schadenfreude-esque joy. Anhalt considers this response an “ego protector” that shields us from pain and is often our default response.
In the other universe, however, you can celebrate the success, separating their success from the perception of your own. This may not be the automatic reflex. But psychologists have linked this with mental health benefits for both you and the person that you’re celebrating. According to Jana Lembke, a social psychologist, ‘active and constructive capitalization responses’ (or the act of telling others about our successes and getting a positive reaction) are linked with increased intimacy, relational stability, and stronger emotional ties. When one partner shares a moment of success and the other responds warmly, it creates a mutual joy.
This sharing of joy, notes empathy researcher Erika Weisz, closely resembles positive empathy, or “the ability to experience someone else’s positive emotions.” According to a 2021 study, positive empathy encourages kind acts such as helping others and improves overall life satisfaction and joy.
How to Incorporate the Practice of ‘Freudenfreude’ into Your Everyday Life
If freudenfreude sounds great in theory, but difficult in practice, there are techniques that can help.
Dr. Catherine Chambliss, author of Empathy Rules: Depression, Schadenfreude and Freudenfreude Research on Depression Risk Factors and Treatment, created a program called “Freudenfreude Enhancement Training” (FET) which seeks to do just that. Her two main techniques for enhancing freudenfreude are described as:
- “Shoy” – the practice of ‘sharing joy,’ particularly in relation to another person’s success
- “Bragitude” – the art of intentionally weaving words of gratitude for others when sharing personal successes
By sharing in joy and gratitude, participants reported feeling increased generosity. They also experienced lessened jealousy, and a decrease in irritability compared to control group.
Every day, we make decisions about how we care and treat those around us. May freudenfreude be the anchor word you need to inspire you to lead a more loving, empathetic life.
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