Sympathetic joy: How to feel good when someone else is happy


March 29, 2022
Filipe Bastos

We all experience moments of happiness and joy for others. It could be that your best friend has just secured their dream job, or your sibling has got into their first choice university. Maybe it’s something even simpler like your partner has discovered an amazing restaurant that sells their favourite food. Whatever it is that provokes these feelings of genuine happiness for others, the result can be powerful.

It may not surprise you, then, that both Buddhist and secular meditation practices are known to harness the power of human empathy to improve well-being and promote a kind of cure for envy, jealousy, and bitterness. According to the Buddha, rejoicing in the good deeds of others can allow you to share in the merits of those deeds. It’s this attitude toward life that represents the foundation of sympathetic joy.

What Is Sympathetic Joy?

Sympathetic joy is a simple meditation practice designed to utilise and expand on our capacity for basic kindness by rejoicing in all the good things that other people do. Alongside three other mind training practices, Loving-Kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), and equanimity (upekkha), joy (mudita) makes up “The Four Immeasurables”, or “The Brahmaviharas”, an essential aspect of ancient Buddhist practice which is viewed as crucial to understanding happiness. These four highly desirable qualities are all about helping people feel more interconnected with one another.

The Brahmaviharas took “Mudita”, the Pali term for a general feeling of gladness, well-being, and joy, and interpreted it as sympathy for the happiness of others. Cultivating sympathetic joy is about sharing in the success of others; this differs from other forms of heartfulness practice like Tonglen Meditation, which focuses on wishing others well in order to visualise and contribute towards the ending of suffering. Consequently, many people view sympathetic joy as the most difficult and advanced of the Four Immeasurables; after all, the success of other people doesn’t always fill us with joy.

Mudita is a term that has no direct parallel in English, but it does have opposites: jealousy, envy, and greed. One of the main benefits of mudita is that it can provide an antidote to those feelings, via four key stages; contemplation of the loved one, the neutral person, the difficult person, and oneself. But we’ll discuss the practicalities of sympathetic joy meditation in more detail later. First, let’s explore its benefits.

What Are Its Benefits?

Reflecting on positive experiences, feelings, and people in moments of relaxation can help us cultivate healthy feelings of joy and happiness. By dwelling on the good, we can combat unproductive rumination on the bad and increase our sense of peace of mind. Let’s explore what benefits this can have for us.

A More Open-Minded Outlook

Humans are prone to dismissing or denigrating people whose interests we struggle to associate or empathise with. Cultivating sympathetic joy can help us respond intelligently, rather than acting judgementally. After all, the beauty of humanity is that everyone is different; it may not always come naturally, but it’s possible to disagree with certain paths or decisions without dismissing or being rude about them. By helping us appreciate people as full beings with qualities as well as flaws, mudita can make us wiser and more considerate people.

An Everyday Approach to Mindfulness

Sympathetic joy can represent a great example of everyday mindfulness. It can be done while you’re kicking back on the sofa at the end of a hard day, or perhaps while you’re performing an ordinary activity in your daily life, such as taking a shower. This practice can help take us away from our inner dialogues and reduce the stream of worries, stresses, and problems constantly occupying our minds.

Reduced Negative Feelings

This practice can represent a direct antidote to feelings of jealousy, envy, bitterness, and resentment. These are all ordinary human emotions and feelings that everyone feels from time to time; however, one of the key intentions of meditation is to combat these negative emotions and make us better at sympathising with other people. Mudita can also help fight boredom and indifference, by connecting us with an activity that requires focus and concentration.

The Obstacles to Practicing Sympathetic Joy

Sometimes, it can be tough to feel happy for other people. At the end of the day, we’re all human, and we’ve all experienced feelings of jealousy and envy. As much as we love our friends and family, sometimes when we hear good news from them, we’re flooded by envy at their good fortune and angered that great things happened to other people, and not us. And that’s totally normal!

These types of feelings can sometimes get in the way of sympathetic joy. Typically, these experiences stem from two main obstacles: greed and envy. Greed comes from an inflated sense of self-importance, and it causes us to shift from appreciating the value of something, or someone, to wanting to obtain it exclusively for ourselves. And it’s hard to satisfy greed — if you don’t believe us, check out our article on why money can’t always buy happiness. Similarly, envy is caused by an agitated desire for wealth, status, or people. It can stop us from appreciating the achievements or successes of others, which makes it the enemy of sympathetic joy.

Sympathetic joy is difficult because it asks us to find genuine happiness in the success of others, even if those subjects are people we dislike or envy. But despite the obstacles, there are immense benefits that can come from having the bindings of envy loosened and the chains of greed unbound. Enhancing your ability to manage these difficult emotions and encouraging feelings of sympathetic joy is great for your mental and emotional well-being.

How to Practise Sympathetic Joy

We’ve now discussed various facets of sympathetic joy, so it’s time to show you how to do it yourself. We’re going to take you through a detailed guided session shortly, but first, let’s consider some of the main methods you might come across related to sympathetic joy.

Sympathetic joy meditation focuses on four key subjects; yourself, a loved one, a neutral person, and an antagonistic person. Usually, meditators will begin by focusing on people they love, because feelings of sympathy, empathy, and compassion come naturally here. Next, they’ll extend positive feelings towards a neutral person, perhaps someone they see on the street or in a café. Cultivating joy for this ‘everyperson’ figure can help one become more empathetic and compassionate during ordinary daily interactions.

Sympathetic joy can also be directed towards someone you view as an unkind or difficult person. While this can be tough, hopefully, you should be able to sympathise with some areas of the lives of antagonistic people. Seeking out that happiness can help break down boundaries and notice the similarities between you and people you don’t always get on with. This process can also help you to become kinder and more patient with yourself.

Sometimes, sympathetic joy meditation will be structured around a mantra, such as “May all my family and friends continue their happiness”, or “May all beings everywhere continue their success”. This can help meditators stay on track, and other techniques can have similar results. Practising gratitude, for instance, can aid your experiences of sympathetic joy. Taking a moment to be grateful for the things you have and the people you love can help you realise the benefits of this practice, and there are many other Loving-Kindness and heartfulness techniques that can have a similar effect.

A Short Guided Meditation

Even if you feel like you’ve got a good grasp of the intentions and benefits of sympathetic joy meditation, you might still be wondering what a typical session might look like. So, before we finish for today, we’re going to share a guided meditation session with sympathetic joy as its main focus. Let’s begin.

  • We would advise practising sympathetic joy meditation at some point in the evening, as this time frame will allow you to recap on daily life events and experiences.
  • First, get yourself into a comfortable position. As this is a more informal type of meditative practice, feel free to sit, stand, or lie down.
  • Settle down and begin to mentally work through the events of your day. Think about the different people you encountered or spoke to, and focus only on the good things they did. It could be the person who brewed your morning coffee, someone who moved to let you pass them on the street, or someone who made your food at lunch.
  • Begin thinking about a close friend, ideally a naturally upbeat and cheerful person. You should be able to cultivate happiness for this person fairly easily, without serious effort. Think of key moments and experiences in which they have shown real happiness.
  • Start to think about the people in the world who dedicate themselves purely to others. Consider a great spiritual leader, a social justice activist, or another public figure who commits themselves to improving the lives of others. Imagine what they did today, and consider the people they helped. Let your mind wander and rejoice in all the good things done today.
  • Next, try to shift your joy towards an antagonistic person, someone you don’t particularly like or get on with. Think about experiences they may have had that have caused them to be happy, and try to share in their happiness. If this is hard, reflect on the fact that everyone makes mistakes, and remember that you may not always understand what makes people behave a certain way. 
  • Circle back to yourself and think about the good things that you did today. Often, we find it hard to give ourselves credit for our achievements, so it’s important to take time to consider how you may have helped someone today. Think of simple things like smiling at a stranger, giving some spare change to a homeless person, or complimenting a friend.
  • Having rejoiced for a little while in the good things you’ve done, you will have hopefully begun to steer your brain towards its best instincts and cultivated a natural state of calm and contentment. Sit in this stillness for a while.
  • When you’re ready, gradually move out of this meditation session, re-adjusting to the settings around you. Hopefully, you’ll feel slightly more satisfied and aware of the goodness in the world and in your daily interactions.

Does Mudita Lead to Deep Meditation?

As we’ve explored, the key benefits of cultivating sympathetic joy include a more open-minded attitude, enhanced compassion towards others, and reduced negativity in your daily life. Many people also claim that Mudita can lead towards deep meditative absorption. This was a view promoted by the 5th-century Indian Theravada Buddhist philosopher Buddahgosa.

However, the great thing about sympathetic joy is that you don’t necessarily have to be searching for something deeper — this is something you can use throughout your everyday life. Showing gratitude and appreciation for the good things in life can uplift your perspective on life. Similarly, cultivating feelings of gladness and joy for ourselves and others can transform your outlook and combat negative feelings of envy, greed, and resentment. If you want to feel more connected to the people around you, Mudita is a step in the right direction.

If you’re interested in exploring other ways that you can utilise meditative states in your everyday life, check out our article on Yoga vs Meditation.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Can we sympathise with anyone?

Sympathetic joy is ultimately supposed to be boundless. This means we should be able to cultivate these types of positive feelings towards anyone, no matter how awful their actions are. This can of course be difficult; however, the boundless nature of this philosophy is a key principle within sympathetic joy.

What about people who find happiness in the suffering of others?

With this kind of person, it’s more useful to have a view of compassion rather than sympathetic joy. Often, the roots of this behaviour will come from greed, hatred, and delusion. This is an unhealthy way to live that suggests poor well-being, so it’s possible to cultivate sympathy or compassion for this state. Practising acceptance of yourself and others is one of the key purposes of mindfulness.

How can joy be a source of strength?

Cultivating joy for yourself and others can allow you to let go of negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions that may be holding you back. This can be a source of great strength, because it allows you to focus more on the present moment and reduce feelings of pain and suffering. You can find out more about this subject in our article on meditation for letting go.

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