Lovingkindness in Buddhism is considered to be part of a constellation of four worthy attitudes called the Brahma viharas. Besides lovingkindness, the other attitudes are compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.
Sympathetic joy is a curious attitude that is not a distinct concept in American culture. It’s the idea that you can derive joy from someone else’s joy. Sometimes seeing another person having a good time can make you feel jealous. But if you have a rapport with that person, knowing they are joyful can make you happy.
This experience most commonly occurs within the family. Parents enjoy seeing their kids having fun. And you don’t have to have kids to enjoy seeing the smile on a child’s face. But when something good happens to one of your peers, envy can kick in. This is especially true if there is any rivalry between you. If your friend gets something that you wish you had, you may have mixed feelings about their success.
Then there’s the expression “Misery loves company.” When you’re down, you feel a little bit better when other people are in the same boat. There’s even a term borrowed from German, schadenfreude, that refers to the joy felt on seeing another person suffer.
It’s understandable that when you’re suffering, you may feel a little bit better knowing you’re not alone. But even though it may seem counterintuitive, when you’re suffering, if you can focus on another person’s joy, you can share it, and that makes you feel better.
Exercise: Sympathetic Joy
Take a walk down a busy street.
Look at people’s faces—briefly, without staring.
If you see someone who is smiling, be happy for them.
Notice how it makes you feel about yourself.
When I started to do this exercise attentively, I noticed that most people walk with a fairly neutral mask. The people who were really smiling were people talking to other people.
The other people weren’t necessarily close friends. Observing people in a business district, it seemed clear to me that the same thing happens with coworkers. Being with other people makes people smile.
This observation reminded me of something that the University of North Carolina psychologist Barbara Fredrickson told me in an interview.” We know from the psychological literature that just interacting with people is by and large pleasant. Even if you are not telling jokes, it’s a mood lifter. Interacting boosts mood, more so for some people than others, but pretty much for every body unless it’s a fight or something.”
In fact, when I see someone walking alone with a big smile, they’re almost always wearing ear buds. I presume that listening to music is making them smile.
I hope I’m smiling more as I make these observations.
I think of myself as an introvert. I think meditation appeals to introverts, and most members of the mindfulness group have identified as introverts when asked. Even so, we’ve found that we enjoy connecting with other people with this similar, introspective orientation.
Most of life is a positive-sum game in which we can all be better off if we play nicely together. Sympathetic joy is a way in which we can share the joys of others and thereby give ourselves a lift.
From Secular Meditation: 32 Practices for Cultivating Inner Peace, Compassion, and Joy, Rick Heller. New World Library, 2015. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.