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Why We Secretly Love Bad News

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There is a complicated truth behind our nastiest impulses: we are nasty chiefly because we are unhappy. The paradox is that if only we could understand this about ourselves, and forgive ourselves for the origins of our hard-heartedness, then we would have the energy to do good – and could, in time, have so much less to be unhappy about. But for now, it seems far easier to cheer on the destruction of others’ lives and take satisfaction from sackings, scandals and the most dreadful court cases.

We can catch an inkling of our lust for misery at work in an apparently disconnected and unusual area: our attitudes to hurricanes and winter storms. The strange truth is that we like these extreme weather systems enormously – as the media well know. We love it when, towards the middle of September, the first of the tropical depressions build in the mid-Atlantic and start to mass and whirl off the Gulf of Mexico. We can hardly wait to see the shutters blowing off stores in downtown areas and National Guards talking of the dangers of broken levees and downed power lines. By February, we are equally gripped by the possibility of a complete shutdown of all schools, workplaces and transport centres. We love to see metres of snow piled up at railway sidings and to watch airliners – once proud and relentless – lying prostrate like smashed toys across icy runways.

It satisfies something deep in us to see so much chaos. Apparent creatures of order, we appear to have a lot of time for images of doom. The reason may come down to how silently unfulfilling our own neat lives are. We take pride, day-to-day, in our spotless kitchens, laundry cupboards and account books, but really, in our hearts, something aches for more: for love, heroism, sincerity, a chance of a new beginning. Our world can feel like a prison and we secretly want to put a bomb under our quiet misery and start afresh. That’s why we don’t really mind the storm at all. It could dump fifteen metres of snow on us and might offer us a chance to burrow out and discover new ways to be.

Mostly though, storms pass without destroying too much. Order returns, the cyclone relents, the ice melts. But still the ache within us persists and seeks fresh targets for its dissatisfactions. And here the media is, helpfully, on hand. There may not be a meteorological cataclysm available at all times, but what can reliably be served up almost every day is evidence of yet another human being imploding. It might be a sex scandal, an outburst of violence, an ill-judged phone call, a sudden sacking – something to bring down someone who was once elevated and mighty and (inadvertently) made us feel small and inconsequential.

How we enjoy the winds blowing through their life. We follow how they are dragged from home, bundled into an SUV and taken to the courthouse for an initial hearing about the shocking allegations. We hear a confused neighbour, who borrowed a lawnmower from them only a week ago, explain that they never suspected this of them. We love the storm of outrage and follow the pitiful suspect weeping for forgiveness in front of a pack of taunting journalists.

On other days, we adore looking at pictures of how once beautiful people have been gnawed by time or study how lottery winners have evaporated their winnings at gambling tables. There is fun to be found in following the hurricanes of infidelity shattering once-beatific marriages or in learning of a formerly influential pop star now living forgotten and penniless in a shack in the wilds, in rereading the embarrassing messages the adulterer sent to their lover or in hearing how the proud head of a film studio had to resign after a storm of allegations by an intern.

Without quite realising it, we have become truly failed people – that is, people who need other people to fail.

The solution, as ever, is not to condemn us but to be extremely compassionate for the many reasons why the downfall of others provides us with so much relief. We are not evil, we are simply – far more than we know – deeply unhappy. We shouldn’t be brutally ordered never to experience schadenfreude again, we should be allowed to explore what made us so angry and so sad in the first place, why the world appears to us to have let us down so badly – and why we now need everything to go wrong for strangers.

We should be allowed to mourn that we don’t look as nice as we had hoped, that we haven’t earned the money we wanted and that no one has properly recognised our talents or our potential. We should be allowed to complain that it isn’t fair and have someone gently take us in their arms and repeat in a gentle voice ‘I know, I know’ while they stroke our brow with patience and tenderness.

To wean us off our bitter delight, we require not sermons, but help to lead lives that don’t feel so regret-filled and forlorn. We will be in a position to be a little less excited by disaster when – at last – we are no longer so alone and unconsoled.

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