When we witness suffering — whether in someone we love or a complete stranger — it’s not unusual for us to respond with empathy and compassion. Yet that sense of goodwill might not be quite so automatic when we notice someone else enjoying success or happiness, or just feeling good about themselves.
This is not because we’re bad people. It’s often very hard for us to feel good about another’s success thanks to our widespread cultural belief that if somebody else is happy, then we can’t be.
Not all cultures react this way, but ours is highly competitive. We compare ourselves, and we’re trained to believe there’s only so much happiness (or success, or love) to go around. This kind of scarcity thinking can make us really unhappy.
Thankfully, there’s an antidote to this mental habit: the practice of sympathetic joy. It’s the flip side of compassion, when we share in another’s struggles. With sympathetic joy, we deliberately pay attention to the good fortunes of others and share and relish their good feelings.
If you’ve ever been around someone who really delights in the experiences of others, you know how generous and exceptional it is. We all want to be around that kind of person.
If you grew up in a country like Bhutan, where there is a national happiness index and people appear to derive their happiness more from relationships than material wealth, these tendencies may have been ingrained in you from an early age. If not, then it’s useful to think of sympathetic joy as a practice.
It’s like anything else you want to master — you have to learn the basics and then practice them consistently to correct your scarcity thinking. This allows you to get out of your own way so you can enjoy others’ happiness as much as your own.
Adopting a new practice begins with intention: You decide you want to feel joy for others, and you’re going to do it on purpose. Then you start to bring attention to what others are feeling, and you develop a capacity for noticing when people are feeling good and happy.
Again, this might take some practice. We’re trained to feel aversion to other people’s happiness, so you might find that you just shut it out without really noticing.
Or if you do notice, you might jump straight to comparing yourself. The fact that so many of us are feeling trapped by those kinds of thoughts is not surprising. Yet the whole concept of sympathetic joy is counter to that tendency. Give it a try with the following practices.
This works with any type of formal meditation practice. Instead of turning your attention toward your thoughts or your breath, bring your attention to the happiness and success of others in your life. Picture someone you know and imagine your heart opening toward them: I’m so happy for your joy. I’m so grateful you’re finding success.
This is also a nice, informal practice you can adopt as you are going about your daily life, just walking down the street, or pedaling along the bike path: When you see someone who appears to be very happy and content, open yourself to them in that moment. Silently offer them a blessing, the way you might during meditation. You don’t have to know the person or anything about them; just send that quick silent blessing.
My own experience is that something changes in you and the people you’re encountering. There’s some sort of energetic exchange — people will sometimes notice you even if you haven’t said a word. I truly think it can change the way we see each other, and how we see the world.
This originally appeared as “Happy for You!” in the December 2020 print issue of Experience Life.