Mudita: Delight in the Happiness and Success of Others
young person being congratulated with a high fivePhoto Credit: rawpixel from Pixabay

I remember when first learning about the word “Mudita” – a light bulb went off! “Yes, this,” is what went through my mind with the excitement that comes from learning something new and wise. “This is what our culture needs more of,” I thought to myself; and since I’m part of the culture, that included me, too.

Mudita is a Pali and Sanskrit word that means the joy we feel from others happiness and good fortune.  It’s sometimes referred to as ‘sympathetic’ or ‘appreciative joy’. It’s when something good happens to someone we know and we feel great in turn.

Easier said than done for many of us in the hyper-competitive, semi-disconnected modern world though. As a matter of fact, there’s no equivalent word for ‘Mudita’ in the Western languages.  But, interestingly, its opposite exists in the German word of Schadenfreude, which means the “enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others.”[1] Ouch!

(It would be fascinating to get a linguistic anthropologist’s perspective on the aforementioned, as I imagine there to be some interesting historical and cultural underpinnings.  For the record, I believe all people are good at their core, but evolutionary forces can shape people in more positive or negative directions, reinforcing the more open, inclusive tendencies of love, or the more closed, exclusive tendencies of fear. [2] suggest that the language we use can indeed affect how we perceive the world around us, with the implication being that not having a word for Mudita could make it harder to experience it and vice-versa).

It’s somewhat embarrassing to admit that I, too, have had the Schadenfreude experience that seems to be rooted in a place of envy or insecurity.  Learning about a friend’s great accomplishment for example, I might feel a combination of happy for them, but also a bit jealous. Since the negativity bias wires us to relate to the bad like velcro and the good like teflon[3], as psychologist Rick Hansen would say, the envy part can end up taking front and center. Psychologist Roy Baumeister and colleagues [4] suggest that “bad is stronger than good.” Essentially, they suggest that we’re hard-wired to notice negative things. From an evolutionary perspective, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing (it’s what allows us to notice threats in the environment and keep ourselves safe), but in the modern world it means that we can end up dwelling on things that are actually quite minor.

Depending on how grounded I’m feeling in my own life, Mudita can be harder or easier to come by.  When I’m feeling centered and nourished, particularly on a relational and spiritual level, I can feel A LOT of Mudita.  And, not just toward my inner circle of loved ones.

I think it’s far more common (but not a guarantee) to feel the Mudita toward those we’re closest to. Think of the pride a parent feels in their child’s success.  That happens all the time. But, on the flip side, think too of the times it doesn’t happen, or of things like the sibling rivalry that can cause a lifetime of unnecessary suffering.

Psychologists have found that the successes of those we’re closest to can have either positive or negative effects on us, depending on the context. We may, for example, feel proud of our friend for their success, or we may feel jealous if we compare our own achievements to theirs. According to psychologist Abraham Tesser, who developed a theory known as the self-evaluation maintenance model[5], we tend to feel happy for those we’re close to when they succeed at something that isn’t personally relevant to us. For example, if you don’t much enjoy exercise, you’ll be proud of your friend who just ran a marathon—but probably not too jealous of them. On the other hand, if your friend succeeds at something that you’re personally invested in, you might start to compare your achievements to theirs.

Essentially, according to the self-evaluation maintenance model, it’s actually normal if you feel a bit jealous upon hearing someone else’s good news, even if it’s someone you care about [6]. However, while sometimes a friend’s success  might inspire us to work harder, there are other times when we react in less healthy ways. We might distance ourselves from a friend who did well, or devalue their achievements as a way to protect our own feelings. However, Mudita offers us a healthier way of responding to a friend or loved one’s good news.

As the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibet, puts it, there are so many people in this world, it simply makes sense to make their happiness a source of our own. Then our chances of experiencing joy ‘are enhanced six billion to one,’ he says. ‘Those are very good odds.” -Sharon Salzburg

I first learned about the concept of Mudita at a talk given by mindfulness meditation teacher, wilderness guide and author, Mark Coleman[7]. In Buddhist philosophy, Mudita is known as one of the “Four Immeasurables” or “Brahma-viharas” – practices designed to foster more heart.  They are sometimes referred to as “The Four Faces of Love,[8]” with the other three being Metta (translates to loving-kindness); Karuna (compassion); and Upekkha (equanimity).

If you already feel a lot of sympathetic joy, loving-kindness, compassion and equanimity in your life, that’s great!  When we feel these naturally, it’s such a blessing and reflects our deepest humanity and optimal mental health. But, if you don’t feel these often, there’s good news: all of these states can be cultivated, with practice.

Today, we’ll be focusing on the cultivation of Mudita, perhaps the most challenging among the aforementioned and what the Buddha said was the most rare.[9]

To cultivate Mudita, Mark Coleman describes a mindfulness practice that is quite similar to the Metta process, whereby one silently recites certain phrases, while picturing different people.  The exercise below is adapted from his work[10]. Try spending about 10 minutes doing this exercise and notice how you feel afterwards.

Step 1:  Take a minute to engage is some mindful breathing to center oneself.

Step 2:  For the next minute, actively notice things that are pleasant in your sensory experience. For example, you may notice that you’re sitting in a comfortable chair; that you’re in a safe place; or that your belly feels good after enjoying a nice meal.

Step 3:  Picture a loved one that is doing well in some way.  Maybe they’re over the moon after just having their first child (or grandchild), or because they’ve accomplished something important like graduating from college or getting a promotion at work.  Picture them in that state of happiness and ease. Notice how you feel.

Step 4:  Then, as you’re picturing them, recite the following phrases:

  •     “I’m happy for you and your happiness”
  •     “I celebrate you and your joy”
  •     “I delight in your success, may it continue to grow”
  •     “May you enjoy success and appreciation”

Feel free to adjust the language to words that may feel more natural to you. You can spend the entire time focusing on one person, or shift around. As you get more skilled at naturally eliciting the state of joy as you picture another’s success or happiness, you can experiment with picturing somebody you feel neutral about, followed by somebody that you find difficult or feel aversion toward.

There’s benefit in eventually extending the circle to include not just those we hold most dear, but also acquaintances, strangers and yes, even those we dislike.

The key, however, is to try to tap into the natural feelings of joy and happiness in ourselves, whether subtle or strong. Those feelings are there, but can get buried due to our conditioning, especially related to seeing others as separate or different.

Common obstacles[11] or “enemies” to feeling sympathetic joy in another’s good fortune include:

    • Envy: wanting what others have and feeling dissatisfied with our own situation
    • The comparing mind: measuring ourselves against others, often coming up short
    • Negative judgment: finding fault in the person, disliking them for who they are or why they’re happy
    • The scarcity myth that there’s a finite amount of happiness and joy to be had; the erroneous belief that if somebody has it, it means less for us
    • Guilt and attachment to suffering: feeling like you’re being disloyal to or minimizing the suffering in the world

It’s good to be aware of these states and apply mindfulness – nonjudgmental, loving awareness – to them when they surface.  Like all states, they will eventually pass. The brahma viharas are considered purifying practices, as they provide opportunities to work through the aforementioned hindrances that readily arise.  (For further tips on ways to work with envy in particular, check out this article written by social psychologist Juliana Breines, entitled “When the Green-Eyed Monster Strikes: The Best Antidotes to Envy”).

Pop psychologist and author, Wayne Dyer, PhD., used to encourage people to want happiness and success for others even more than they want it for themselves.[12]  This was shared in the context of how the greatest joy and meaning often comes from helping others, versus more self-centered pursuits that reinforce the (erroneous) sense of separation and rugged individualism that’s oft at the root of human suffering.

Recent research has supported the idea that sharing in the joy of someone else’s good fortune has benefits. Shelly Gable refers to this as capitalization[13]. When we respond to someone else’s good news by paying attention to them, congratulating them, and being excited and enthusiastic about their news, this is called responding in an active-constructive way. Active-constructive responding benefits the person who shared the good news with us—and it benefits our relationship with that person too [14]. However, sometimes we respond less enthusiastically—for example, we might not really engage with what they’re saying, or we might even point out potential downsides to their good news. If you’re interested in learning more about active-constructive responding—and how to cultivate it—you can read more here[15].

The reality is that the vast majority of us around the world could probably benefit from having more heart. The Mudita practice, like the other heart-centered mindfulness practices of loving-kindness, compassion, and equanimity, can serve as a guide.

Are there things that you do, formally or informally, to increase the love you feel toward yourself and others, especially with regards to their success?  If so, please share below in our comments section.

References:

[1]Merriam-Webster
[2]Boroditsky, Lera, PhD., https://www.ted.com/talks/lera_boroditsky_how_language_shapes_the_way_we_think/transcript?language=en#t-819935
[3]Rick Hansen, PhD., Take in the Good, https://www.rickhanson.net/take-in-the-good/
[4]Baumeister, Roy, et al., Bad Is Stronger than Good. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/46608952_Bad_Is_Stronger_than_Good
[5]Tesser, Abraham., Toward a Self-Evaluation Maintenance Model of Social Behavior, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/200008925_Toward_a_Self-Evaluation_Maintenance_Model_of_Social_Behavior
[6]Boogaard, Kat, Jealous of Your Friend’s Success? Why Healthy Competition Can Be A Good Thing, https://blog.trello.com/jealous-of-your-friends-success-why-healthy-competition-can-be-a-good-thing
[7]Mark Coleman, Essential Buddhist Teachings workshop at Spirit Rock, Jan 26, 2018.
[8]Gil Fronsdal, PhD., The Four Faces of Love: The Brahma Viharas, https://www.insightmeditationcenter.org/books-articles/articles/the-four-faces-of-love-the-brahma-viharas/
[9]Mark Coleman, Essential Buddhist Teachings workshop at Spirit Rock, Jan 26, 2018.
[10]Mark Coleman, Essential Buddhist Teachings workshop at Spirit Rock, Jan 26, 2018.
[11]Mark Coleman, Essential Buddhist Teachings workshop at Spirit Rock, Jan 26, 2018.
[12]Wayne Dyer, The Healing Power of Service, https://www.drwaynedyer.com/blog/the-healing-power-of-service/
[13]Gable, Shelly, et al., What Do You Do When Things Go Right? The Intrapersonal and
Interpersonal Benefits of Sharing Positive Events, https://labs.psych.ucsb.edu/gable/shelly/sites/labs.psych.ucsb.edu.gable.shelly/files/pubs/gable_et_al._2004.pdf
[14]Gable, Shelly, et al., Will You Be There for Me When Things Go Right? Supportive Responses to Positive Event Disclosures, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17059309
[15] Capitalizing on Positive Events, https://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/capitalizing_on_positive_events

Further Reading on Mudita

1.) Dharmanet course on Mudita: https://dharmanet.org/coursesM/16/bv3.htm
2.) Mudita Bhavana: Cultivating Happiness through the Joy of Others: https://medium.com/@satiJen/mudita-bhavana-cultivating-happiness-through-the-joy-of-others-dfb7faf19ebc
3.) Mudita: The Practice of Sympathetic Joy: https://oneminddharma.com/mudita/
4.) Joy and Its Causes – Heart Wisdom – Episode 13: https://jackkornfield.com/joy-and-its-causes-heart-wisdom-episode-13/
5.) Sympathetic Joy by Sharon Salzburg: https://www.upaya.org/2011/12/sympathetic-joy-by-sharon-salzberg/
6.) Brahma Viharas Foundation: http://www.brahmaviharas.org/

Note: this was a collaborative piece produced by HealthyPsych, with research, writing and editorial assistance from Kim Pratt, LCSW and Elizabeth Hopper, PhD.


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