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COMMITMENTS : THE HUMAN CONDITION : Is Bad News Good News? : Ever take a little guilty pleasure in the hard luck that befalls others? Not to worry. It's a common reaction--and it doesn't mean you're rotten.

November 21, 1994|JOHN MORELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A man finds a genie who tells him, "I will give you anything you want, but then I must give your neighbor double." The man says, "OK, cut off my hand."

--Russian joke

*

You pick up your college alumni magazine and find that the guy who slept through history lectures while you took copious notes is now CEO of a multinational corporation. You grind your teeth and turn the page.

That's envy.

But what causes that private sense of elation, that smile hidden behind your lips, as you read that the Phi Beta Kappa football hero of years past has lost his career and family to a cocaine addiction and is living out of his car?

That's Schadenfreude.

Schadenfreude is the pleasure we deny in public and feel guilty about in private.

"It's a German word that literally means feeling joy over someone's misfortune," says Joshua Halberstam, a professor of philosophy at New York University. "It's a very common feeling, although most people would probably say they don't experience it."

In his book, "Everyday Ethics" (Penguin, 1994), Halberstam outlines Schadenfreude as "part of the human condition." It becomes especially sensitive when we feel it toward our friends, making us wonder what kind of friends we are to others. "It doesn't necessarily mean you don't like the other person, or you don't care about their misfortune, you're just enjoying that it's not you," he says.

Schadenfreude drives gossip. If a couple in your group of friends announces a separation, that situation becomes the main topic of conversation.

"It feels good to talk about it, to look at who's right and wrong," Halberstam says. "And the higher they are, the couple that seems to have everything together, the harder they fall and the better you feel."

If Schadenfreude were water, the city of Newport Beach would have been flooded in February, 1993, during one of the area's most notorious society scandals.

Daniel and Susie Hernandez appeared to have it all. A successful sales representative for a company that refined precious metals, Daniel, his wife and two children traveled the world, were active in the Orange County social scene and were known for their lavish lifestyle. Their money came from real estate and precious metals investments, they told friends. They donated money and time to philanthropic causes, such as the Newport Harbor Art Museum where Susie served as a board member.

When Daniel turned 40, Susie threw a party at the Four Seasons Hotel in Newport Beach, inviting 110 people and giving each a souvenir bottle of champagne with Daniel's picture on the label. When Susie turned 40, Daniel presented her with a red Ferrari convertible. She opened the glove box and found a diamond bracelet.

The Hernandezes were popular, which made the news one quiet Sunday morning so shocking. Daniel and Susie were arrested and charged with skimming money from Daniel's firm to pay for a lifestyle they couldn't otherwise afford. They pleaded guilty to tax evasion, mail fraud and money laundering.

"My first thought was that the phone lines throughout Newport must be jammed," says Susan Shaw, who was at a society function with the Hernandezes shortly before their arrests.

If you're close to someone who's taken a fall, the feelings of Schadenfreude may be more intense.

"The closer you are, the more difficult those feelings can be," says Irene Goldenberg, a professor of psychology at UCLA. "If the lady down the street gets a purse you can't afford, you may feel distressed. If her purse is stolen, there's a sense of balance, the 'competition' between you has been evened up."

David Peete of Glendale knows about Schadenfreude all too well, even though he just learned the term. "So that's what you call it. I've always thought it was 'just deserts.' "

Peete, a marketing manager for a clothing manufacturer, received his MBA three years ago from a Midwestern university. While in school, he and two members of his study group would dream about the companies they would start up and run when they got out. After graduation, Peete came home to Southern California and brought his dreams with him.

"I didn't get any offers out of school, but I just thought I'd land a job fairly quickly."

Instead, he landed in the California recession and joined the ranks of other unemployed MBAs. He kept getting letters from his study pals about their great new jobs.

"I began to hate opening the letters. I was really envious. I hungered for the chances they had."

But as the shine wore off his friends' jobs, Peete began to take some pleasure in their woes.

"One began having problems with his new boss and was eventually demoted. The other was put in charge of a big marketing project and failed miserably."

Peete, ironically, began to get some confidence from his friends' experiences.

"That made me feel that maybe they weren't better than me, they were just luckier to get a good job before I did."

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