My sister is studying to become a psychological coach. A big part of this is the study of happiness, how to best achieve it and such, but also subjects such as what drives us humans, what motivates us and I suppose you could say attempting to unravel human nature.
Tonight she brought something very interesting to my attention. In a recent lecture, her lecturer pointed to studies that have shown how, when seeing someone we dislike or oppose suffer, the human brain experiences a pleasure stimuli, (I apologise for any weird sounding expressions, I am no psychology scholar myself) i.e. we feel good when someone we dislike or oppose is hurting. The lecturer had gone on to make links between this and hatred or dislike of minorities or other social groups; war; and other forms of violence and aggression.
While this might not be an entirely new revelation to a lot of people since the concept of schadenfreude (the pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others) has been around for a long time, this is proof that it actually exists; we feel good from seeing people whom we dislike suffer. Imagine the implications this could have.
While I would not argue that human motivation could be summed up from something as simple as schadenfreude, I think it is important to bear in mind that it could be a motivator, or at least a factor in the motivations of people. Knowledge makes for informed choices. Simply being aware of the fact that some small part of you, however much you would like to disassociate with that part, actually enjoys to see your opponent lose or suffer. It makes sense that we should feel happy when we ourselves make advances, and rightly so. Everyone has a right to be proud of their own success. Just be aware that there is a fine line between being proud of one's success and gloating in the misfortune of others.
My sister also, rightly, pointed out that anyone who, like me, studies politics needs to be especially aware of this. If we are trying to fight for a fair and just world, everyone deserves the same chance as us, and they deserve the same empathy. They deserve to oppose us fiercely, but at the same time deserve respect for putting up a good fight if they come out on the losing side.
Moreover, I think that this piece of knowledge also calls into question our motivations more than ever as well as the importance of questioning things. If you cannot justify what you are fighting for with more than the argument that "it feels right," then you might be threading a dangerous path. That is when we might have people who start fighting for the fighting's sake and sign up for wars just because their government/officer/family said it was the right thing to do. If we can't motivate our actions when they have such huge ramifications, then we should not act at all.
As I said, I don't believe human motivation is so simple that it comes out of the striving of maximum happiness, but I think that the fact that others' misfortunes can give us pleasure is an important one to bear in mind.
Also, I am seriously considering lending my copy of Hobbes' Leviathan to my sister for the Christmas holidays. Somehow, I think she might find it interesting.
You can find her blog here. It points out the beauty of life and gives us the small things that make us happy.