The wild headline is intentional because the audience for this article will most likely arrive here by search engines, as people are trying to find "the opposite of schadenfreude," but not the obvious opposite. Of these visitors only a few will appreciate this little word adventure here, but hopefully for them it will be worth it.
Schadenfreude, as is commonly known to English speakers, is a German word meaning "joy in the misery of others," and speaks of a particular kind of cruelty which is rather unpleasant to discover in oneself or others. It is a telling aspect of the dark triad type of personality.
Literally, schadenfreude translates as something like "DamageJoy," which is why its most obvious opposite, its antonym, would be something like "JoyJoy," or Freudefreude, as discussed in a recent article in the New York Times. I said "most obvious opposite" however, because schadenfreude is composed of a mashup of two concepts, and thus there is another legitimate way to build its opposite, inverting the joy rather than the damage aspect. This would be more like DamageSorrow, or perhaps SorrowSorrow, meaning something like "sorrowful compassion for the misery of others." But in a way, the word "compassion" itself fulfills this quite nicely without wordsmithery.
However, it's too simple for what I'm looking for.
What I'm aiming for is an obscure twist on this concept that has to do with a rare condition -- a real paradox of conflicted motives -- that comes from a circumstance which sometimes happens within the human condition. It'll take a moment to set this up, so bear with me:
I was thinking the other day about the situation in which Winston Churchill found himself after Alan Turing's computer broke the German Enigma code. It's a famous story, but less famous is the psychological state that this put Churchill into: He, and a very small handful of others who were aware of the Enigma codebreaking, had to make sure that Germany did not discover the code was broken.
The fact would become obvious if every time Germany planned some secret action communicated in code, England intercepted it and pre-empted that action. For example, if Germany discovered a group of English spies and planned to capture them, but instead the spies suddenly changed all their patterns or retreated back to England... this would be a surprise once, enough to be suspicious: how did England know? But if such a pre-emptive action happened several times, Germany would begin suspecting their code was broken, and they might change it to something requiring a whole new set of massive resources to break.
This is just one example: there would also be times when secret English plans were discovered by Germans, but rather than aborting, such plans had to be executed as if England did not know Germany knew. This could involve the lives of many more than a handful of spies, and I'm sure some WWII historians could give a few grim examples of this happening.
So in order to hide the fact that the Enigma code was broken, Churchill had to make many decisions which risked the lives, or sometimes even sacrificed the lives, of English soldiers, rather than reveal the codebreak. This rare collision of motives occurred to me years ago when I was reading a biography of one of the English codebreakers. The same problem was reiterated later while reading The Man Who Knew Too Much, a biography of Alan Turing, who was in a similar position as Churchill (in fact, the title of this book, and the mysteries surrounding Turing's death, reference the problem in an oblique way).
Over the years, the pain of this unique psychological state has haunted me from time to time as I occasionally remembered the difficult position into which this placed Churchill, Turing, and others. Then, a few days ago, while randomly thinking about this again, I realized: "there is no word for that condition." Perhaps there is a word, but it is obscure?
I wondered how I could even begin to search for a word to describe this psychological state, and could not come up with an answer. "That state of mind which Churchill was in when... blah blah blah" was not going to find any hits by any search engine I could imagine. Even something like ChatGPT would be hard-pressed to find such a vaguely-described concept.
I thought about how to search for this for a few days, and finally this morning, I realized: "Oh! It's the opposite of schadenfreude!"
I rather quickly realized ... no ... it's not the opposite, it's an opposite, and a rare one at that. But this was enough to break me free from the logjam of my own kind of etymological stumpification -- that of trying to find a word which captures a concept so elusive that you can't exactly search on it with normal means. I began searching for antonyms and opposites of schadenfreude, and began a fascinating journey into a territory created by others searching for such opposites.
Now that the logjam is broken, it occurs to me that there may be a concept within Game Theory which talks about this rare condition, but that's a search for some other day: I've already gone down the rabbithole of opposites, and, after rejecting several possibilities, finally invented the word "schadenmitgefühl," as the appropriate opposite to schadenfreude to describe "sorrow for the misery of others" in a specific way: It is a kind of sorrow that one is causing that misery (or enabling it somehow), but cannot do anything to relieve that misery, due to adherance to a conflicting principle which would cause more misery.
It's a state of having compassion for people that you're hurting, put most simply. This definition oversimplifies, but it does convey the essential elements.
Now that I write it that way, it strikes me that this is a condition that parents sometimes encounter with their own children: they feel empathy for their child's temporary suffering while they also hold firm to a course of action which is teaching a kind of lesson whose result will be that the child will soon no longer be suffering, and will have learned something which makes them more wise.
With that said, here are some words and concepts I researched before coming up with the word schadenmitgefuhl:
- Reddit came through with a detailed discussion of Freudenfreude, including how it is not a "real" German word, but comes out of modern English-speaking psychology. The post also talks about some of the next words on this list as well. Freudenfreude got a full New York Times article not long ago (here is the link to the non-paywall version).
- The Sanskrit word Mudita is a wonderful word for the "common opposite" of schadenfreude which I mentioned above: It means "sympathetic, vicarious joy; happiness rather than resentment at someone else's well-being or good fortune; the opposite of schadenfreude." It's a beautiful concept, and I want to find ways to inject this word into everyday conversation.
- StackExchange came up with a good discussion, and talked about Mitgefuhl: "sadness derived from the sadness of others" which seemed like what I wanted, but a closer review of the original German shows that it's more directly a replacement for the word "compassion," and doesn't carry the peculiar twist which I described above. This same discussion also mentioned Mudita and Mitfreude.
- Wiktionary has the wonderful word epicaricacy, a centuries-old term that means exactly the same as schadenfreude, but uses Greek (literally "rejoicing at the misfortunes of others"). The word goes back to at least 1721, although it is structurally pure Ancient Greek. While this is a great find which I'll start using instead of schadenfreude -- at least with my wordgeek friends -- it's not the antonym I was looking for, but rather the synonym.
- Quora turned up with a link to another obscure opposite of schadenfreude: "Vicarious Embarassment," which is known as fremdscham in German. Although interesting, this again was not what I was looking for. Quora also linked to a more detailed NPR article about this word.
- Antonym.com's entry on Schadenfreude was rather disappointing.
After reviewing all of these and a few more obscure links, I knew that what I was looking for doesn't exist in the realm of "opposite of schadenfreude." So to be able to have a word to use to simplify my own private thought experiments, I created a mashup out of two of the words I'd encountered: schadenmitgefühl, or "compassion for people whose misery you may be enabling, cannot relieve because doing so would cause more suffering, but can have private compassion for."
As I conclude, I should say this reminds me of a Shakespeare line from Henry IV: uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, as it is one of the kinds of things people with crown-like power experience more than the average person.
Hopefully, this little excursion helps someone else looking for a word for this state of mind. I remain open to suggestion, especially for anyone who knows of an existing word which captures this little paradox.
- ^ On further reflection, and after trying to research this concept as it may be found within game theory which I understand only in the most general terms, I realize that game theory may contain a rather technical description of this confluence of forces (and I found terms like Incomplete Information and Information Asymmetry which appear to be working with such structures), but will likely lack the compassion and misery aspects. As far as I know, game theory doesn't dig so deeply into emotions and internal motivations as it does into externally-measureable behaviors and actions. I don't know enough game theory to be able to identify the particular flavor of Information Asymmetry which will discuss this, so maybe I'm wrong on this assessment (here is one link from arxiv which looks like it comes close but is not exactly spot-on). I would enjoy a conversation with someone who could talk more about this, though.
- ^ Even saying this, though, I realize that sometimes there is a variation of schadenmitgefuhl similar to what a king with a heavy crown experiences, but possibly more painful by an order of magnitude because of lack of power. It would be described as: "Compassion for someone whose misery you are aware of but you have no power to help," although this is a loose description. A great example is given in the Wikipedia article on the book I linked earlier, Between Silk and Cyanide. In this book, the codebreaker interprets an encrypted message containing information that he is unable to convince his superiors to act upon, which causes the torture and death of others -- which could have been prevented if only his superiors would have listened. Here is the sad quote from Wikipedia: "A major theme is Marks's inability to convince his superiors in the Special Operations Executive (SOE) that apparent mistakes made in radio transmissions from agents working with or in an alike role as the Dutch resistance were their prearranged duress codes, which it transpired they were as he alleged, and which fact haunted him. SOE management, unwilling to face the possibility that their Dutch network was compromised, insisted that the errors were attributable to poor operation by the recently trained Morse code operators and continued to parachute in new agents to sites prearranged with the compromised network, leading to their immediate capture and later execution by the order of the command of Nazi Germany."