With impressive honesty, author Aja Frost publicly posted this “unflattering truth” about herself: “When people tell me their good news or great fortune, I’m happy for them—on the surface. Internally, I’m focused on what their good news means for me. When my friend scored an awesome summer position, I was annoyed because I still had no plans. When a co-worker received rave reviews from our boss, I was jealous and resentful, thinking I deserved just as much praise. I’m not proud of this selfish side. And I suspect I’m not the only one who has it (and wants to change it).”
Her response to the success of others is definitely not uncommon. In spite of this all-too-human tendency, it is possible to be better by working with the Buddhist practice of mudita. It’s a word from Pali, the language spoken by the Buddha, that means “sympathetic joy.”
Mudita is the ability to spontaneously and sincerely participate in another’s good fortune as if it were your own. The opposites are displeasure, irritation, resentment, and jealousy. Mudita is the third of four “divine abodes” of Buddhism, or the four highest states of being. (The other three are loving-kindness, compassion, and peace of mind.)
How to Practice Sympathetic Joy
1. Begin by believing it’s possible.
Even in his day, the Buddha was questioned about whether people could actually apply his teachings in daily life. He addressed this with an emphatic “yes” in one of his teachings when he said: “Develop the wholesome. It is possible to develop the wholesome. If it were not possible to develop the wholesome, I would not tell you to do so.”
His instruction to develop sympathetic joy is not only a desirable quality but highly doable. Think of it this way: Yes, it does seem easier to feel compassion for someone who is suffering than to experience sympathetic joy over a person’s good fortune. However, most of us prefer opportunities to feel happy with others in celebrations of birthdays, weddings, graduations, and anniversaries rather than the shared suffering of death, betrayal, divorce, or illness. Essentially, we’re already practicing sympathetic joy. The foundation is there and all that’s required is to build on it, to further expand mudita.
2. Guide yourself by the Buddha’s instruction.
The Buddha was definitely a big thinker because he believed that sympathetic joy could permeate the entire planet. “A disciple lets his mind pervade one-quarter of the world with thoughts of unselfish joy,” he said. The disciple must then embrace the second quarter, then the third, and then the fourth until “the whole wide world, above, below, around, everywhere and equally, he continues to pervade with a heart of unselfish joy, abundant, grown great, measureless, without hostility or ill-will.”
[Read: “Can Mudita Save the United Nations?”]
Because that approach can feel overwhelming, the fifth-century Buddhist teacher and philosopher Buddhaghosa provided a more precise instruction for mudita practice. In his text The Path of Purification, he advises beginners to start directing mudita toward a good friend, someone whose companionship already brings you joy. Whenever this friend experiences an achievement, a success, a benefit, a gain of any kind, be sincerely happy for your friend and verbalize your joy with statements such as:
- I am so happy for you
- This makes me very happy.
- Congratulations, you are so deserving of this.
- It feels so good that you are being rewarded for the fine person that you are.
- I am in awe of your accomplishment.
- Your hard work paid off and I am very happy for you.
Once you have established a natural comfort with expressing mudita toward a good friend, Buddhaghosa then says to begin expanding that same sympathetic joy outward: toward a family member, then toward someone about whom you have neutral feelings, and eventually toward someone who is a difficult person for you. Ultimately, as mudita practice is perfected, sympathetic joy is extended toward all beings. Clearly this can take time, so patience and persistence are required.
[Read: “How to Overcome Stress by Seeing Other People’s Joy.”]
3. Do a mudita meditation.
When learning that something good and wonderful has come to a friend, take a few moments to sit alone quietly and offer a mudita meditation by saying:
- May this bring my friend greater happiness.
- May this bring my friend a deeper joy.
- May this bring my friend more peace of mind.
- I am happy that my friend is happy.
Repeat this for several minutes, then sit silently feeling the vibration you’ve created. Often when we meditate for someone, it’s because there is a problem or crisis. A mudita meditation on behalf of someone who has experienced good fortune brings a more positive energy to our own meditation practice.
4. Reframe your thinking.
“The mind can turn a confused life into one of wisdom; ignorant behavior into sensible demeanor,” says modern Chinese Buddhist master Hsing Yun. His wisdom is a reminder that we can always reframe the way we’re thinking about another person’s success. This doesn’t have to be a slow, complicated movement but can be done easily and naturally. Psychologist Kerry Schofield offers this simple way to reframe: “Instead of focusing on our lack of success, we can see our friend’s achievement as inspirational,” Dr. Schofield says. “If he or she did it, so can we—our time will come! We can be proactive and evaluate how and why our friend was able to be successful and see if there are ways we can apply this knowledge to improve our own lives.”
5. Put sympathetic joy in writing.
The written word is an outstanding way to express mudita, and life provides ample opportunities, such as when someone gets a job promotion or a new job, is accepted to college or graduates, recovers from illness, completes an addiction program, gives birth, buys their first house, and so on. You can offer hearty congratulations, acknowledge someone’s hard work, and express pride in knowing them. There’s also this additional benefit of putting mudita in writing: it can be read over and over, whereas spoken words of support are heard just once.
6. See the bigger picture.
Sharon Salzberg, a Buddhist meditation teacher and author, talks about a friend who felt envy toward a woman whom she felt “had it all.” Salzberg explains: “The ‘lucky’ one had a good relationship, was a mountain climber and champion swimmer, and, because of her job, was invited to lecture at distinguished universities. My friend was single; she was challenged by something as simple as a long walk; she worked without prestige or glamour.” Whenever the friend thought about this other woman, she was filled with uncomfortable jealousy. So, she decided to practice sympathetic joy. For that to happen, she had to see the larger picture of the woman’s life by recalling hardships she had dealt with. “Her brother was an alcoholic, her father had Alzheimer’s, and she was worried about money,” Salzberg relates. This expanded perspective empowered her friend to view the woman in a new way: “The bindings of envy loosened, and she felt joy for herself and joy that the other woman had good things in her life.”
As you work at deepening sympathetic joy, realize also that the practice increases your own happiness level. Explaining mudita, the Dalai Lama
says: “If I am only happy for myself, many fewer chances for happiness. If I am happy when good things happen to other people, billions more chances to be happy!”
Further your joy with an excerpt from The Dalai Lama’s Big Book of Happiness.