Are We Really Glad for Others’ Misfortunes?

Challenging the Belief: “Never tell your problems to anyone…20% don’t care and the other 80% are glad you have them.”

Michael Boyd
4 min readSep 7, 2023
Homeless man holding a sign with the words ‘seeking human kindness’, a testament to the inherent human need for compassion and understanding.
True empathy goes beyond generalizations. Let’s challenge our beliefs and recognize the potential for kindness in every heart. Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

We’ve all heard variations of the idea that people are inherently self-centered or take pleasure in others’ misfortunes. One of these sentiments is epitomized by a quote from famous football coach Lou Holtz:

“Never tell your problems to anyone…20% don’t care and the other 80% are glad you have them.”

This assertion paints a bleak picture of human nature, suggesting that we are surrounded by apathy or even schadenfreude. But is this truly an accurate representation of human behavior and empathy? Let’s explore.

The Essence of Empathy

To begin, it’s crucial to understand the innate human ability to empathize. Empathy is our capability to understand and share the feelings of another. Throughout history, this ability has played a central role in our evolution as a species. It promotes group cohesion, strengthens communities, and enables us to support one another. An entire lack of empathy is often associated with sociopathic behaviors, which are not the norm but rather the exception.

Studies have demonstrated time and again that when we see others in pain or distress, the same areas in our brains that are activated during our own pain light up. It means we can literally feel others’ pain to some extent. If 80% of people were genuinely pleased with another’s problems, it would contradict this fundamental aspect of our neurology.

The Value of Shared Problems

Another aspect to consider is the significance of sharing problems. Vulnerability, when expressed, can lead to deeper connections and relationships. Brene Brown, a renowned researcher on vulnerability, has frequently emphasized its role in fostering intimacy, trust, and understanding between individuals.

Furthermore, by sharing problems, we often find solutions, gain new perspectives, or simply receive the reassurance that we aren’t alone in our struggles. This sense of community and unity can be immensely healing. If Holtz’s assertion were accurate, support groups, therapists, and even simple heart-to-heart conversations with friends would not be as impactful as they are.

I remember an incident from my high school days. I had a major project due for one of the most stringent teachers, and due to a series of unfortunate events, my work was erased the night before the deadline. Distraught, I approached my classmates the next day, expecting mockery or indifference. While there were a few dismissive comments (which honestly seemed more like attempts at humor), I was overwhelmed by the number of classmates who expressed genuine concern. Some even offered their notes, and others shared their own stories of past misadventures with school projects.

By lunchtime, what had begun as a disastrous morning had turned into an afternoon filled with shared stories, tips on last-minute project hacks, and a classroom united in a common cause. By the end of the day, I had enough input and support to present a decent project. I didn’t top the class, but the experience taught me more about human empathy and the genuine nature of most people than any grade ever could.

Lou Holtz’s quote might resonate with some based on specific personal experiences, but my story, like countless others, stands as a testament to the inherent good in most people. In times of genuine distress or vulnerability, many around us rise to the occasion, showing kindness, empathy, and a genuine desire to help.

The Complex Landscape of Human Emotions

While it’s undeniable that some individuals might feel envy or schadenfreude at times, it’s an oversimplification to suggest this is a predominant emotion. Humans have a vast emotional spectrum. Our reactions to another’s problems could range from sympathy, concern, and sadness to indifference or, in some unfortunate cases, pleasure.

To state that 80% of people are glad you have problems not only generalizes human reactions but also discredits our inherent ability to care for others.

While our personal feelings have a big impact on how we respond to others’ problems, we can’t forget the influence of the culture we’re part of.

Culture’s Role in Our Reactions

Our reactions to people’s problems aren’t just personal; they’re shaped by our culture too. Different cultures have their own values. Some might put the community’s well-being above personal wins, making everyone feel responsible for helping out with problems. So, it’s important to remember this big picture before we make general statements about how people feel.

Why Do Some Still Believe This?

You might ask, with all this information, why do beliefs like Holtz’s still stick around? It’s probably because we, as humans, remember bad things more than good ones. So, if someone doesn’t care about our problems or reacts poorly, that sticks with us more than all the times people were genuinely supportive or caring.

Reconsidering Our Views

Lou Holtz’s saying might strike a chord with some, but it’s a broad brush to paint everyone with. Most of us naturally feel and connect deeply with others.

Instead of sticking to ideas that push us apart, why not focus on the good in people? By doing that, we can see the world in a brighter light and build stronger bonds with those around us.



Michael Boyd

A curious explorer of human behavior and life's subtle lessons, sharing insights on resilience, purpose, and the universe's whispers.