Schadenfreude – which literally means “harm-joy” in German –is the sense of pleasure derived from others’ misfortune. It’s a “poorly understood” emotion, according to a group of psychologists at Emory University in the US, and in their review paper in New Ideas in Psychology they propose a new “tripartite” model of schadenfreude based on the idea that deep-seated survival concerns can motivate us to see others as less than human.
Among the many paradoxes of human nature is this: while many of us spend great time and energy trying to avoid negative emotions, like fear and disgust, there are others who, in an apparent act of emotional masochism, pay good money deliberately seeking out those same unpleasant feelings. Like the visitors to the Basement immersive theatre attraction at the ScareHouse in Pittsburgh, who spend $31 to “enjoy” being hooded, mildly electrocuted, stabbed (in a simulated fashion), and locked in a coffin, among other delights.
A team of researchers, led by Margee Kerr at the University of Pittsburgh, believe they may have resolved the paradox, although they caution that their findings are exploratory. For their new paper in Emotion, they set up a temporary EEG (electroencephalography) lab in a closet in the Basement attraction and found evidence that for many people who willingly submit themselves to an intensely frightening experience, the reward is a boost to their mood and energy, accompanied by a reduction in their neural reactivity. Taken together these effects could be indicative of a beneficial recalibration of their emotions – after you have been scared witless, the mundane travails of life are a breeze.
Shame feels so awful it’s hard to see how it could have an upside, especially when you consider specific triggers of the emotion – such as body-shaming, which involves criticising someone for how their body looks. But is shame always an ugly emotion that we should try to do away with? Or can it be helpful?
The answer, according to a new study published in PNAS of 899 people from all over the world is that, as an emotion, shame can not only be useful but is fundamental to our ability to survive and thrive in a group. The essential job of shame, it seems, is to stop us from being too selfish for our own good.
“How do you feel?” is a simple and commonly asked question that belies the complex nature of our conscious experiences. The feelings and emotions we experience daily consist of bodily sensations, often accompanied by some kind of thought process, yet we still know very little about exactly how these different aspects relate to one another, or about how such experiences are organised in the brain.
Now, reporting their results in PNAS, a team of researchers in Finland, led by neuroscientist Lauri Nummenmaa of the University of Turku, has produced detailed maps of what they call the “human feeling space”, showing how each of dozens of these subjective feelings is associated with a unique set of bodily sensations.
Immediately after consensual and satisfactory sex, most people report feeling positive, content and psychologically close to their partner. But for some, it has the opposite effect, leaving them tearful and irritable for anything from a few minutes to a few hours. Commonly known as the “post-sex blues”, psychologists call it “post-coital dysphoria” (PCD) and until recently they had only studied it in women.
For example, in 2015, Robert D Schweitzer at the Queensland University of Technology led a study of 230 Australian female students, in which 46 per cent reported experiencing PCD at some point in their lives, and about 2 per cent said they experienced it regularly.
Now masters student Joel Maczkowiack and Schweitzer have published – in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy – the first ever study to show that some men suffer from PCD, too.
Being rich(er) may not guarantee happiness, as shown by ample evidence from the social sciences, but there are ways of spending money that will make you happier than others. Recent research has uncovered the “experiential advantage”: greater happiness from spending money on experiences (holidays, meals, theatre tickets) instead of material things (gadgets, clothes, jewellery). This could be for a number of reasons, such as experiences being more closely aligned with our values and being less likely to produce rumination and regret. There are exceptions to this rule, of course. Studies have found that personality traits can influence whether experiences or things make a person happiest; for example, introverts are made much happier by spending vouchers in a bookshop than a bar.
Another likely exception, that hasn’t previously been studied, is how social class, and specifically access to resources, affects this experiential advantage. Indeed, most research in this area has been performed with college students, who are typically more affluent than the general population, and there are reasons to believe that those who are less well-off might prefer material goods. For them, buying things as opposed to experiences could be more practical: they last longer, can be used multiple times and potentially resold in the future. To put this reasoning to the test, a recent paper in Psychological Science investigated whether the experiential advantage is diminished or absent for people who can afford very little compared with those who can afford a lot.
For decades, personality psychologists have noticed a striking, consistent pattern: extraverts are happier more of the time than introverts. For anyone interested in promoting wellbeing, this has raised the question of whether it might be beneficial to encourage people to act more extraverted. Evidence to date has suggested it might.
For example, regardless of their usual disposition, people tend to report feeling happier and more authentic whenever they are behaving more like an extravert (that is, more sociable, active and assertive). That’s a mere correlation that could be interpreted in different ways. But lab studies have similarly found that prompting people, including introverts, to act more like an extravert makes them feel happier and truer to themselves.
Before we all start doing our best extravert impressions in pursuit of greater happiness, though, a team of researchers led by Rowan Jacques-Hamilton at the University of Melbourne urge caution, writing in their new pre-print at PsyArXiv :
“Until we have a well-rounded understanding of both the positive and negative consequences of extraverted behaviour, advocating any real-world applications of acting extraverted could be premature and potentially hazardous.”
To help, these researchers have conducted the first ever randomised-controlled trial of an “act more extraverted” intervention, and unlike in previous research, they looked beyond the lab at the positive and negative effects of such an intervention on people’s feelings in daily life.
“Update: On Twitter, some researchers argued, reasonably in my view, that I wasn’t quite sceptical enough in relating these findings. See the update at the end of this post for more details.”
If you wanted a poster child for the replication crisis and the controversy it has unleashed within the field of psychology, it would be hard to do much better than Fritz Strack’s findings. In 1988, the German psychologist and his colleagues published research that appeared to show that if your mouth is forced into a smile, you become a bit happier, and if it’s forced into a frown, you become a bit sadder. He pulled this off by asking volunteers to view a set of cartoons (paper ones, not animated) while holding a pen in their mouth, either with their teeth (forcing their mouth into a smile), or with their lips (forcing a frown), and to then use the pen in this position to rate how amused they were by the cartoons. The smilers were more amused, and the frowners less so – and best of all, they mostly didn’t discern the true purpose of the experiment, eliminating potential placebo-effect explanations.
This basic idea, that our facial expressions can feed back into our psychological state and behavior, goes back at least as far as Darwin and William James, but “facial feedback”, as it is known, had never been demonstrated in such an elegant and rigorous-seeming manner. Over time, this style of experiment was replicated and expanded upon, and soon it came to be considered a true blockbuster, so famous it found its ways into psychology textbooks, as well as popular books and articles citing it as an example of the unexpectedly subtle ways our bodies and environments can affect us psychologically. Often, facial feedback has been popularised along the lines of Maybe you can smile your way to happiness!, which added an irresistible self-help element that likely helped spread the idea. Either way, it seemed like a genuinely safe and solid psychological finding. That changed rather abruptly in 2016.
What makes for a good life? Current psychological theory highlights the importance of relationships, belonging and having a sense of purpose. Gratitude, forgiveness, generosity and self-compassion often get a mention too. According to a team of psychologists at George Mason University, there is however a glaring omission. Sex.
“In theoretical models of well-being, sex is rarely discussed and in many seminal articles, ignored,” they write in their new paper published in Emotion.
Todd Kashdan and his colleagues have attempted to correct this oversight with a three-week diary study, in which they looked at the associations between sex frequency and quality and not only positive mood, but also sense of meaning in life. “If an individual gains sexual access to a romantic partner, this should raise momentary affect … and increase one’s sense of self-worth or meaning in life,” they predicted.
We’ve all been there: feeling so grateful to a friend or colleague that we hatch the idea of sending them a thank-you message. But then we worry about how to phrase it. And then we figure it probably won’t mean much to them anyway; if anything it could all be a bit awkward. So we don’t bother.
Does this sound familiar? According to a pair of US psychologists, a common failure of perspective means that a lot of us underestimate the positive impact on others (and ourselves) of expressing gratitude, meaning that we miss out on a simple way to improve our social relations and wellbeing. Based on their series of experiments in Psychological Science, Amit Kumar at the University of Texas at Austin and Nicholas Epley at Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago conclude that “expressing gratitude might not buy everything, but it may buy more than people seem to expect”.