Buddhist wisdom has expanded my understanding of both suffering and joy. My intention today is to focus on the joy—more specifically on one particular state of mind known as “sympathetic joy.”
Buddhism teaches that there are four inner states where it is most valuable to reside: loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. These have been referred to as the four immesasurables because they have no limit.
Loving-kindness is a state of mind that arises by cultivating kindness unto all human beings and wishing them happiness. It asks you to be kind, friendly, caring, and considerate in order to connect and remove all of the invisible walls between you and me—them and us.
Compassion is the ability to feel someone else’s pain in your own heart and sympathetic joy is the ability to feel someone else’s joy and happiness as your own. Equanimity speaks to an even-tempered, peaceful state of mind that allows you to ride the waves of life—of love, sorrow, and joy—without ever shutting down.
For many, loving-kindness and compassion can come more naturally to them, but sympathetic joy and equanimity appear to be much more of a stretch. The issue seems to lie within the “comparing mind,” which subconsciously hooks into the “scarcity story.” Allow me to explain.
The mind has a natural tendency to default into comparison. Someone shares something with you and you subconsciously measure it against yourself—also adding your own story.
Unfortunately, most of us have learned the “scarcity story,” the idea that happiness and joy are a competition. The underlying theme of this story is that there is not enough good to go around, so if someone else is experiencing “the good,” whatever that may be, they may be stealing all of it—leaving little or even nothing left for you.
In her book Real Love, meditation expert Sharon Salzberg writes, “To celebrate someone else’s life, we need to find a way to look at it straight on, not from above with judgment or from below with envy.”
Given our brain’s scientifically proven negativity bias, we are wired towards negativity, judgment, and criticism. For this reason, many of us subconsciously shut down the joy of others due to our very own envy and resentment.
Imagine coming home elated and telling your partner, “I got promoted at work today.” How would you feel if the response you received was, “Well, it’s about time. How much will they be paying you?” Or, “Well, I also have some good news to share,” turning the conversation away from you.
Now imagine coming home elated with the same news and receiving the following response: “Wow, that’s amazing. You’ve worked so hard and you so deserve this. I want to hear more about it! When did they tell you? What did they say?…”
The former two responses feel cold and selfish, leaving you feeling alone, unseen, and unheard. In the latter response, however, you clearly feel special and acknowledged. This kind of communication builds connection, trust, and intimacy.
In a 2006 study, Shelly Gable, a professor of psychology at the University of California studied hundreds of couples to discover what goes right in relationships. She found that partners’ reactions to each other’s good news were in fact better predictors of whether relationships would last than their reaction to bad news.
Giving complete attention, getting curious, helping to savor and celebrate the positive moment together amplifies the pleasure for both. According to the research and to Salzberg, by sharing in another’s joy and experiencing it viscerally, “we can relax and let the vibration from another’s happiness be a sustaining undercurrent in our lives.”
Compassion is important, but it appears that sympathetic joy is even more important to a healthy relationship. Think about how often you may have unintentionally shut down someone else’s “moment of celebration” due to your “moment of jealousy.” How natural is it for you to savor in someone’s good news and engage with the excitement in order to raise the overall level of cheer?
Like compassion, sympathetic joy is a muscle that needs to be used. The more you practice it the more you can build and strengthen it. Yet the practice does seem to be rooted in your own inner development. The better your relationship with yourself and the happier and more content you feel in your own skin, the easier it will be for you to genuinely feel good for someone else’s good fortune.
How we respond to good news is critical, so the next time someone shares some good news with you, no matter how insignificant it may seem, try to delight in it with them and experience the positive effects of shared joy.
Know that happiness is never a competition and that comparing can be toxic, unless of course you’re comparing to yourself. Replace judgment and jealousy with sympathetic joy and jubilation. The more you practice rejoicing in another the more you will come to realize that the happiness we share with others is really inseparable from our own.
I challenge you to experiment with sympathetic joy and try to look at things another way. Instead of hooking into the scarcity story, try to embrace abundance—there is enough good to go around for everyone.
Remember the words of Lord Byron, one of the greatest English poets: “To have joy one must share it—happiness was born a twin.”