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German is a fabulous language. Complex, challenging, serious. I love the brisk staccato sound of it but the grammar can be a real kopfschmerzen (headache).


My maternal grandfather was from Germany so maybe I am genetically drawn toward the language, and I have worked with a lot of Germans over the years. My favorite German language experience happened when I was on a shoot years ago with my first assistant Uli, who hailed from Berlin. Uli worked with me all through my third pregnancy. On my last job before giving birth (which happened two days later as it turned out) an art director waltzed into our studio and came straight up to me. I was massive and uncomfortable. Laying her hands on my sweater, stretched taut over my extremely large stomach, she said “I just had to see you and touch your bun in the oven.”


I knew her well so I didn’t mind. Better her than some complete stranger coming up to me and putting his hands my abdomen while gazing maniacally into my eyes, as had happened recently in a midtown coffee shop.


After she left, Uli turned to me and in his lovely accent said “und vat is das? Bun in oven?”


“Oh,” I told him, smiling, “it’s a cute way to say pregnant. Like I’m the oven and my baby is the bun.”


“Das es cute.” 


“You must have something like that in German.” 


Uli thought for a moment, looking out the large studio windows at the barges going peacefully about their business on the Hudson river. “Nein. German is not a cute language. Ve have nothing like this" he said, sounding remarkably like Kommandant Wilhem Klink from the old TV show Hogan's Heroes.


At the end of the day Uli came up to me smiling. “I telephoned mein sister. We do have, ya.”


“Have what?” I asked, confused.


“Cute saying for being pregnant, but maybe not so cute like yours.”


“Well lay it on me,” I told him, eager to learn a few more German words.


“Fleischen-die-pfifeichen-kochen-gereadedu! Or someting like dat,” he said, smiling brightly and looking very proud of himself. 


“And what is the translation?” I asked.


“Vell, hmmmm, how to translate? Ok, vell, it is sort of like you have the meat, und it is up your pipe, und that is what you are now cooking. That is our bun in the oven.”


Temporarily stunned into silence by the vulgarity of Uli's translation I finally found the words to say, sarcasm dripping from my voice, “Well that’s simply charming Uli”.  I was trying really hard not to laugh.  Uli looked abashed. Then he said somewhat snappily “vell vhat did I tell you? German is not cute language. Now you know why I can’t get a date.”


“You have a point,” I told him, in an attempt to make peace. “But you guys still have the best words. Like fremdschämen (second-hand embarrassment), kopfkino (head-cinema) and my second favorite, backpfeifengesicht (a face that begs to be slapped).”


“Those are gute ones,” Uli agreed, “but you said backpfeifengesicht is your second favorite, what is your first?”


“Ah…the old classic…schadenfreude.”


“You Americans!” Uli burst out laughing. “You know one or two German words but you all love your schadenfreude don’t you?”


“Well of course,” I told him, not in the least ashamed. “What's not to love about someone else's downfall?”


“Das es true,” he said honestly as he picked up his knapsack and turned to head out the studio door, “but you know ve also have das freudenfreude.”


“The what?”


“Das freudenfreude. It is like schadenfreude, but the opposite. It is like you are happy when something good happens to someone else. It is like you share in their joy.”


I paused, somewhat confused. “Where’s the fun in that?”


“Well I don’t know about the fun but I think the freudenfreude is supposed to be better for people than the schadenfreude.”


“You're making this up,” I told Uli as I lowered my gigantic, 39-weeks-pregnant self down into a chair to start my after-shoot editing session.


“Nein. I’m not. Look it up!” he assured me as he turned his back and walked quickly out the studio door and toward the waiting elevators.


Once Uli was gone and I was alone I turned to Miss Google and asked her. What she had to say surprised me. Uli had not made it up. There is a word freudenfreude - but I guess because it is a concept so at odds with human nature, I had never heard it used.


I looked up several different translations but the one that seemed most common was that freudenfreude is simply the opposite of schadenfreude. It is being happy for someone else’s joy or success.


I read on. Dr Sula Windgassen, a psychologist and researcher says “at the heart of the concept of freudenfreude are two concepts: the cultivation of joy and pleasure, and social connectedness. Both of these things have been extensively studied and there are well-established findings that such experiences have positive impacts on health. “Positive affect” is a construct described as “the experience of positive emotions such as pleasure, joy, happiness and calm”. She adds “studies have long shown that ‘positive affect’ is associated with lower mortality rates in older adults, reduced disease severity across a range of chronic illnesses and enhanced immune system functioning”.


And what does schadenfreude do to our overall well-being? Of course there is the initial delicious jolt I know so very well. The “Well they certainly had that coming” feeling. The sinister yet exhilarating I-told-you-so thrill of watching the high and mighty’s downfall. But then comes an eroding sense of compassion for others and a loss of empathy. And finally we experience an underlying sense of shame (conscious or unconscious) and guilt for feeling joy at someone else's misfortune. Schadenfreude can make us overall more negative and isolated - both of which put a strain on mental, and even physical, health.


So Uli was right. There is an opposite of schadenfreude and it even has a name. Since I’ve learned about freudenfreude, I’ve been trying to switch my perspective on things. When I have that first reaction, that “Ha! I knew it! Finally!” while watching someone crash and burn, I try to temper that a bit and think instead “this must be very hard for them”. And when I hear some good news about a friend or work colleague, instead of my usual “What about me? Where's my good news?” I actively take a minute to concentrate on the joy this good news must have brought them. And then I try, as best I can, to cultivate happiness for them and their good news.


This was not my nature, but it is becoming so. Recently I ran into Uli and told him all about my forays into freudenfreude and switching my perspective. 


“Ya. That’s gute. Und remember,” he said, speaking a mix of German and English which he is wont to do, ‘fortschritt statt perfection’.”


“Huh?” I asked.


“Fortschritt statt perfection,” he said smiling.“Progress, not perfection."


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