The quality of sympathetic joy or joy in the happiness of others is known as mudita in the Pali language. Sympathetic joy is what happens when we actually feel happy for the happiness of others.
Rather than witnessing someone’s success or good fortune and falling sway to the voice that so often arises within us, which says, “Ooh, I wish you didn’t have so much going for you right now. You don’t have to lose everything, but I’d be rather pleased if the light could just dim a bit,” we actually can be happy when someone else is happy. We don’t need to feel that their happiness is taking something away from us. We can recognize that their happiness is our happiness and feel at one with them in that way.
You know when you receive sympathetic joy from others and when you don’t. When someone is happy that something great happened for you, their delight in your good fortune feels like such a tremendous gift. Then there are times when something really good happens for you and the other person may look at you and smile, but you get the feeling they would be just fine if it all went away. And that feels terrible, that they somehow feel bad because of your happiness, your good fortune.
Among Buddhism’s Four Immeasurables of lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, sympathetic joy can be the most difficult to develop. Of course, some people naturally have this quality of sympathetic joy. They just exude happiness for the happiness of others. But for many of us, it actually requires training. Sympathetic joy can be difficult, though not impossible, because we often hold various assumptions that we need to challenge and ultimately dissolve in order to have sympathetic joy.
For example, we may hold the assumption that a prize, praise, success, or good fortune was heading right toward us. But somehow this other person intervened and kept it for themselves. So we feel that it rightfully should have been ours.
However, we’re not always in competition with everybody. Sometimes we are. We may be applying for the same job or the same grant; if someone else gets it, you don’t. But a lot of times, we’re not in competition. That success was not coming my way, and so it wasn’t appropriate, in that instance, to feel as though something was stolen. And yet we often react that way.
We may also have the idea that happiness is a limited commodity in this world and the more someone else has, the less there is for us. Or we may fall into the idea of permanence, like if someone has everything then they will have it forever, and you will have nothing forever. Whereas of course wisdom tells us nothing is forever. Wisdom also tells us it is very unlikely that we have nothing.
It’s important to pay attention and challenge each of these assumptions—the ways we withhold, the ways that we compare, the ways that we needlessly compete, the ways we feel that our lives are empty and always will be. We need to look at our assumptions and spend less time fixating on what we don’t have and more time actually appreciating what we do have.
Here is where the practice of gratitude steps in. This is the place where we begin to think about actively cultivating the force of gratitude to look at what we have consciously. Keeping a gratitude journal can be a very powerful healing act that any of us can do. At the end of the day, write down three things from the day that you’re grateful for. I always say that one of the three could be that you’re breathing. It doesn’t have to be grandiose or magnificent.
And I also say that gratitude doesn’t come automatically to me. My personal conditioning, my familial conditioning, and my cultural conditioning are such that I am more likely to come to the end of the day and automatically think about what I can complain about, or ways I disappointed myself, or how other people didn’t show up in the way I wanted them to. That’s more the habit of my mind. So for me to think of three things I’m grateful for from the day is a stretch. It’s the kind of stretch where we move from a place of familiarity to someplace that is true, but maybe less accustomed for us.
Through that stretch, through actively practicing gratitude and being in touch with what we do have, we don’t look at someone else’s success or good fortune with quite the same feeling of impoverishment relative to their plenty.
A long time ago, the Dalai Lama shared some wisdom about sympathetic joy. He said, “It only makes sense to cultivate happiness for the happiness of others because then you increase your own chances of happiness six billion to one.” Today it would be around seven billion to one. He continued, “Those are very good odds.” Right? And so I joke sometimes that that’s an easy way to get happy. You don’t have to spend any money. You don’t have to even get dressed in the morning. Just think of someone’s success and you’re filled with joy.
There you are, you did it.
Adapted from Tricycle’s Online Course “The Boundless Heart,” an eight-week course on Buddhism’s Four Immeasurables: lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. Learn more about Tricycle’s online courses here.
This article was originally published on November 22, 2021.
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