Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Schadenfreude and "Revolutionary Road"

In a recent New York Times editorial, Judith Warner suggests that our appetite for dour representations of 1950s and 1960s domestic life (e.g., the Sam Mendes adaptation of Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road) relates to a strange envy of that era. A doutbful and jealous curiosity about "how Dad managed to come home at 5 p.m. to read the paper or watch TV while Mom fixed dinner and bathed the kids. How Mom turned up at school, every day, unrumpled, coiffed, unflappable. And more to the point: how they managed to afford the lives that they led, on one salary, without hocking their homes to pay for college, without worrying about being bankrupted by medical bills."
Books and movies which portrays exemplars of this generations as "frivolous, almost simple-minded depressives" and "(assign) them drunken, cheating, no-good mates" give the viewer the satisfaction of come-uppance.
A strange type of happiness is schadenfreude - taking pleasure in others' misfortunes. Like a lot of not-so-nice human behavior, schadenfreude may be rooted in our genetic history.

A 2007 study by Shamay-Tsoory and colleagues, published in the journal Brain, suggests that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex may play an important role in the experience of gloating and envy. The ability to process these emotions may depend upon the cognitive ability to put oneself in another's shoes, to recognize that others have thoughts and feelings which differ from one's own. These are central aspects of the "theory of mind" , referring to a set of cognitive capacities which may be weaker among, for example, individuals with autistic spectrum disorders.

In a way, then, our capacity for schadenfreude is the "flip side" of our brains' capacity for empathy.

And we might not always be the one observing the suffering....recognizing that we may play a role in other people's experience of schadenfreude, the cast of Avenue Q remind us that "The world needs people like you and me who've been knocked around by fate. 'Cause when people see us, they don't want to be us, and that makes them feel great!"

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