It was the band's third single release and first chart hit, reaching #3 on the UK Singles Chart in November 1982. Both "Mad World" and its B-side, "Ideas as Opiates", appeared on the band's debut LP The Hurting the following year. In the same time, the song eventually became Tears for Fears' first international hit, reaching the Top 40 in several countries in 1982 and 1983, peaking notably at #2 in South Africa.
Two decades later, "Mad World" made a popular resurgence when it was covered in a much slower and sombre minimalist style by composers Michael Andrews and Gary Jules for the soundtrack to the movie Donnie Darko in 2001. This version reached #1 in the UK in December 2003, and also became an international hit. More recently, Jasmine Thompson released a cover version as part of her EP Another Bundle of Tantrums.