The word “sympathy” comes with preconceived notions of loss and sadness. We feel sympathy for a friend who has had a pet die; we’re sympathetic to a former coworker who was let go; we extend our deepest sympathies to the family who lost a relative. And when we use the word sympathy, what we mean is that we are feeling that sadness along with the other party, which helps to soften the sting some, because we humans really do respond well to compassion.
What if we could shift the paradigm some and reorient our thinking about sympathy? Why only share the emotions others are feeling when they are feeling low? As it happens, that paradigm shift has already been made in Buddhist philosophy, and as you’ll see, just as sympathy in times of sorrow can ease the pain, sympathetic joy can amplify everyone’s happiness.
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In fact, we don’t even have to fully co-opt the word sympathy, because there’s already a Sanskrit word that has us covered: that word is “mudita.” Mudita has no exact counterpart in the English language (or in most any other language) so it is best described as meaning sympathetic joy or shared joy. It is the ultimate unselfish feeling of happiness that comes from your enjoyment of the happiness and wellness of others.
And for the record, mudita is not an easy state of mind for most people to reach – don’t be hard on yourself if your first feelings on seeing or hearing of the joy of others isn’t a warm and fuzzy glow within. But if you can get there, you will not only be happier yourself, but you will be a force multiplier for the happiness of others, and that can lead to stronger, closer relationships with other people and a more centered, content self.
Why Is It So Hard to Take Genuine Pleasure in the Success and Happiness of Others?
Most likely the reason you can’t feel as much happiness for others as you’d like to is that you’re not currently all that happy yourself. Which isn’t to suggest you are dealing with actual diagnosable depression, though that would certainly justify a difficulty in experiencing joy for others – and that merits you seeking help so you can begin recovering.
Rather you may well feel just a bit less than happy, a bit less than fulfilled, and a bit less than satisfied – say, with your work, relationships, home life, or how you spend your free time – and all of these sensations that are just a bit less than your ideal.
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When you’re in that state, even a bit less than perfectly content in life, your first feelings at the successes and joys of others will often naturally be negative ones because of one word: comparison. And as President Theodore Roosevelt famously said: “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
If, however, you can work to reframe your thinking and accept that another’s happiness need not reflect on any lack of joy you’re feeling and can merely be a point of light in the world, something amazing will start to happen: rather than someone else’s joy reducing your own happiness, it will start to make it grow. And that’s the start of a beautiful feedback loop.
Sympathetic Joy Takes Practice
It might seem silly to think that experiencing happiness takes concerted effort, but when your goal is to experience sympathetic joy, there’s a reason the word practice is almost always present: it’s not a natural condition for most people. (Or at least for most adults, but we’ll talk about that in a moment.)
Practicing sympathetic joy starts with that practice anyone who has spent any time meditating knows well: mindfulness. By creating the presence of mind that you want to be happy for (and with) others when they experience joy, you are already tamping down potential negative reactions to external displays of joy and preparing your heart and mind to embrace and amplify the happiness.
The next step is to take a few minutes each day, preferably at the same time and in a quiet, private place, and to do a sort of guided, reflective meditation. But rather than trying to clear the mind and focus on the present, you will think back on all the things that others said, did, or experienced that day that brought more happiness into the world, be it that person’s own happiness, another’s, or yours. You can also think back farther to older memories of good things felt, said, or done.
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By consciously and joyfully thinking about the kinds of things that brought success, happiness and wellness to others in the past, you will begin to orient your mind to appreciating those things in general.
And then, finally, after you have some experience preparing your mind and reflecting on past opportunities for sympathetic joy, you can begin to work on experiencing that sensation of mudita in the moment. Soon, a wonderful thing will happen: not only will you find yourself happier simply because you are allowing yourself to experience the happiness of others, but you will also begin to broadcast more joy out onto other people. Think to the metaphor of the rising tide catching all ships; here the ships are people, and the tide is mudita.
For the Purest Example of Sympathetic Joy, Look to the Youngest Humans
Sure, a tickle or funny voice or nuzzle from a puppy can do the trick, but all it really takes to make a baby laugh is… a laugh. Put a baby in a room full of people who are smiling and giggling and soon that little one will be laughing away as well, taking pleasure in the pleasure of others despite having no idea what was so funny in the first place.
Want to see a genuine celebration? Look to a group of toddlers who are watching their friend blow out birthday candles. Want to see unvarnished pride? Watch a preschooler land a jump in front of her friends.
Unburdened by societal constrictions or by the tarnish that everyday life can leave on us by the time we reach adulthood (or even the old years of youth), kids are naturally predisposed to sympathetic joy.
But guess what? That means we’re all predisposed to sympathetic joy, we just forget how to do it somewhere along the way. Thus the practice.
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