misery loves company

People who are unhappy may feel better when they know that others are unhappy too.

It’s a form of schadenfreude. It took me a long time to commit to memory the meaning of that long word and I probably still can’t spell it. However, it’s defined as “pleasure you get from someone else’s misery.”

Example: Harry is running a race, and winning, but Joe is just a step behind him. Harry falls down and loses the race, and is extremely unhappy — until he sees that Joe fell down, too. Then Harry cheers up, because misery loves company.

The phrase “misery loves company” may sound like something Shakespeare wrote but this time he doesn’t get the credit. English naturalist and botanist John Ray (1627–1705) is responsible for this rather apt description of a human emotion. 

However, Ray was simply following an older writer. The 14th-century Italian historian Dominici de Gravina wrote, in his Chronicon de rebus in Apulia gestis, words which translate as “It is a comfort to the unfortunate to have had companions in woe.”

And, of course, it is comforting, when you’re having a particular problem, to be able to talk it over with someone who has or has had the same problem.

The 20th-century Irish novelist Brian Moore expressed it this way: “If misery loves company, then triumph demands an audience.” Meaning, I suppose, that sharing a triumph is far more fun than sharing misery.

Does misery love company, or does misery make company equally miserable? Psychologists have long pondered whether two people close to one another are depressed in tandem because one person’s mood poisons the well, or because people gravitate toward significant others with the same traits.

A professor of psychology at the University of Arizona surveyed 333 couples for three months. There was evidence of short-lived emotional contagion, but subjects cheered up noticeably when they spent time away from their miserable roommates. The professor concluded that “emotional contagion” is fleeting. You cannot “catch” emotions like you catch the flu.

The professor’s results were the same for people with sunny dispositions. “Happy people seek out happy people, and those who are down seek the same.”

Not always! If I’m down, I seek solitude in order to heal. Or seek out a happy friend in hopes of “catching” a better mood. So that may mean that I’m basically a happy person and if I’m down, it’s a temporary glitch in my day.

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