A while back, a writer friend of mine produced one of the bestselling books of the year, and on the strength of his royalties, moved to a large Manhattan penthouse with extensive river views. And of course I was thrilled by his success. Truly.

I managed to avoid visiting for several years. But then the penthouse started to turn up in my dreams, and I found myself wandering in dismay from room to room through an apartment with the acreage and impeccable design of, oh, let’s just say a K-Mart. The only good thing about this dream was that it always ended up at the back of the apartment, where bins full of my friend’s remaindered books were being sold at a sharp discount.

I was, to be sure, ashamed, not least because it was a recurring dream. But it also occurred to me that I was mired in a more or less universal feeling, rarely discussed and for which there appears to be no adequate word in English. “Envy,” for instance, doesn’t suffice for that peculiar blend of delight and crestfallen dismay when a friend triumphs. (I was in fact happy, even proud, of my friend’s success. But let’s not dwell on that.) The German language, that mother lode of vocabulary for obscure and debased emotions, gives us schadenfreude, for the thrill we feel when bad things happen to people who deserve it. But what I was feeling was more like the un-schadenfreude. Good things + good friends = pain (squared). Or as Gore Vidal once put it, “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.”

A little something, indeed. The inability to celebrate a friend’s success seems shameful because it reveals just how petty and mean-spirited we can be. The Irish have long had a culture of “begrudgery,” belittling anyone who seems to be getting big: A young businessman purchasing a country house from the fading old gentry is likely, for instance, to elicit this summary judgment: “Castles falling, dunghills rising.” It’s a way of deflating puffed-up egos and also getting a laugh at the pub. On the other hand, the Irish have often blamed begrudgery for killing ambition and keeping everybody small. The Germans of course also have a relevant word, missgunst, meaning unhappiness at someone else’s good fortune, with a corresponding note of bitterness.

But I’d like to argue that the un-schadenfreude is different, better, even beneficial, probably because I didn’t badmouth my successful friend to mutual acquaintances, or suffer in silence. Instead, I decided that the only way to shake off my recurring dream was to admit it to my friend and go visit the damned penthouse. He looked a little sheepish when he opened the door. Since his bestseller had been a Civil War book, he greeted me with, “Thousands died at Antietam to make this possible.” The implied permission to regard his royalties as blood money made me suddenly feel much better about myself, and we got along splendidly after that.

A few years later, a book I had written was getting good reviews and lots of public attention, and I realized that I wasn’t the only one who sometimes struggled with these feelings. I sent a copy of a particularly flattering article to a photographer friend, and he wrote back, “I have received the latest news of your potential importance, and it has caused my spirits to sink, as intended.” It dawned on me that admitting to the un-schadenfreude was one of the most generous forms of backhanded praise a friend could offer. A note from another friend began with the greeting, “Conniff, you swine,” and my heart warmed. It was bonding by open envy and insult.

But there was one thing missing. My friend with the penthouse apartment had gone off to India on a project. He was staying with friends, living like Rajput royalty, safely buffered from any news of my success. Then one day his pained e-mail message arrived: “So I sit down to breakfast. Blue sky. Paraquets calling just outside the window. The bearer pads in with sliced papaya, sweet lime juice, a masala omelet and a neatly folded copy of the Times of India. I snap it open and there ON THE FRONT PAGE is a feature article on your book. Christ, Conniff …”

Well, my heart went out to him. I hesitated a moment before replying, recalling his gracious response to my own tawdry moments of un-schadenfreude. I struggled for a moment to muster that largeness of soul, but ….

As it happened, my book wasn’t nearly as big a success as the Times of India seemed to imply. (You can check it out at the local bookstore, being careful to steer clear of the remainder bins.) But he didn’t need to know that. “Just got off the phone with Hollywood producer seeking film rights,” I replied, “and was saddened to receive your e-mail. Cheer up. Everything hectic here, what with buying new beach house.”

And then I added the words I hoped would fill his nights with dread: “Come visit soon.”


Richard Conniff, a longtime nature writer, is the author of “The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide” and “The Ape in the Corner Office: How to Make Friends, Win Fights, and Work Smarter by Understanding Human Nature.” He also writes for Smithsonian, The Atlantic and National Geographic.