Mudita (sympathetic/empathetic joy) is one of the four brahma-viharas (also known as the “sublime attitudes” or Four Immeasurables), which are the Buddha’s “heart practices” — those that develop particular emotional states, or virtuous emotions, that help to cultivate happiness in ourselves and others. “Brahma-vihara” literally means “dwelling place of brahmas”, and brahmas are gods who live in the higher heavens, who dwell in an attitude of limitless goodwill, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. We can develop these unlimited attitudes from the more limited versions of these emotional states that we experience.
The Pali terms for the four brahma-viharas are metta (goodwill), karuna (compassion), mudita (sympathetic joy), and ukpekkha (equanimity). Metta is considered the most fundamental and is developed in a well-known meditation practice: metta bhavana (bhavana means “development”, “cultivating”, or “producing”). Metta is the wish for true happiness, directed towards yourself and others. Goodwill was what led the Buddha to search for awakening and to teach others about the path to awakening after he had discovered it.
Karuna and mudita are applications of goodwill. Karuna is what we feel when our goodwill encounters suffering: the wish for it to stop. Mudita arises when our goodwill encounters happiness: we want the happiness to continue. Upekkha essentially acts as an aid in the development of the three other brahma-viharas; when we face suffering in the world that we are powerless to stop, we need equanimity — the ability to stay steady and calm in the face of chaos — so that we do not create additional suffering (through becoming overwhelmed or acting on strong emotions), and so that we can also direct our energies to areas where we can make a difference. Equanimity is not cold or indifferent. It simply helps to make metta more focused and effective.
As already mentioned, metta is commonly practised, given how fundamental it is as a Buddhist virtue. But mudita is one of the brahma-viharas that meditation practitioners often pay less attention to (this definitely is true in my own case). But mudita is an essential side of the coin of metta. We don’t want to experience goodwill only when we or others are suffering but also when we or others are happy. Moreover, I often find it hard to feel mudita in my day-to-day life, which tells me there is something getting in the way of feeling it. What’s blocking its expression? This post aims to describe the various barriers to sympathetic joy.
Buddhist Teachings on Mudita
Mudita, both a Pali and Sanskrit term, has no exact counterpart in English, although Buddhists will refer to it as sympathetic, empathetic, unselfish, appreciative, altruistic, or boundless joy — it is joy in the good fortune of others. When defining mudita, it is helpful to look at its opposite(s): jealousy or schadenfreude, the latter meaning taking pleasure in the misfortune of others. Jealousy and schadenfreude are marked by selfishness and malice, so cultivating mudita (mudita bhavana) is the antidote to both.
In the Buddhist tradition, mudita is described as an inner wellspring of joy, always available, no matter what the circumstances may be. It is meant to be extended to all beings, not just those close to us (to whom it is often easy to extend mudita). While there is nothing wrong with celebrating the good fortune of loved ones, we limit ourselves if our vicarious joy only extends that far. In the Mettam Sutta, which contains teachings on the brahma-viharas, the Buddha states, “I declare that the heart’s release by sympathetic joy has the sphere of infinite consciousness for its excellence.”
The 5th-century scholar Buddhaghosa offered advice on cultivating mudita in his best-known work, the Visuddhimagga or Path of Purification. Buddhagosa advised that the person just beginning the practice of developing mudita should not focus on someone dearly loved, a difficult person, or a neutral person. Instead, that person should start by focusing on a cheerful person who is a good friend. He or she should try to contemplate their happiness with appreciation, letting this joy for the friend suffuse him or her. When this state of sympathetic joy is strong, that person should then direct this emotion towards a dearly loved person, a neutral person (someone you’ve met but who you don’t know well, who you neither like nor dislike), and a person who is a source of conflict, difficult, or chagrin in your life.
The next stage is to develop impartiality among these different types of people: a dear friend, a neutral person, and a difficult person. This allows you to extend mudita to all sentient beings. Traditionally, phrases encapsulating mudita are not directed towards oneself, although they can be, especially if one is prone to harsh self-criticism, which tends to bring us down when we feel happy. In this way, you can wish for your happiness to continue. If you find it hard to rejoice for yourself and want to address this in mudita bhavana, then a full practice will extend sympathetic joy to first yourself, then to a loved one or dear friend, a neutral person, a difficult person, and finally all beings everywhere. These are the same stages of the metta bhavana practice.
Developing mudita is a gradual process. You shouldn’t expect to feel full of sympathetic joy towards others overnight. Buddhoghosa emphasised that a person needs to achieve deep meditative states of absorption — known as jhanas or dhyanas — in which the mind is totally immersed in a chosen object of concentration. In these states of absorption, or deep concentration, the mind withdraws from the automatic responses to sense impressions. Once you develop this kind of one-pointed concentration, you can focus fully on, say, mudita, so that sympathetic joy fills your entire being. There can then come a point at which mudita arises naturally in your daily life.
The development of mudita is very much about situating ourselves more deeply in the world, for this is where we apply mudita. It is one thing to feel mudita but if we cannot truly extend it to others in lived experience, then the practice is incomplete. While cultivating mudita may require retreating into quieter places to study and meditate, we still need to come back into the world so that our lives and relationships can benefit, which will in turn further challenge us to deepen our mudita bhavana. In the Digha Nikaya or “Collection of Long Discourses”, a Buddhist scriptures collection, the Buddha said:
Here, O, Monks, a disciple lets his mind pervade one quarter of the world with thoughts of unselfish joy, and so the second, and so the third, and so the fourth. And thus 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.
The cultivation of mudita involves many challenges, however, with one of the most common being the difficulty in extending this emotion to people we dislike (often for justified reasons since their actions lead to the suffering of ourselves or others, perhaps including those close to us). But if mudita is to be boundless, then we have to extend it to those we feel most reluctant to extend it to — those who we feel do not deserve it. (It should be underlined, as Dharma teacher Winnie Nazarko cautions, “We don’t do Mudita for unskillful, unethical behaviors.” If someone grows rich from cheating, lying, manipulation, exploitation, or other unethical actions, then we should not celebrate his or her abundance.)
Mudita is often considered the most difficult brahma-vihara to cultivate; after all, it asks us to celebrate the happiness and achievement of others even when we are suffering or feel we’re missing out on life and even when the happy person in question may already be wealthy and privileged. It can be hard to share in other people’s joy when you feel stressed, anxious, or unhappy with your own life. Moreover, even if you can experience sympathetic joy for most people most of the time, there will still be times when someone receives a compliment, a promotion, a great job offer, an award, praise, or affection from a loving partner, and you think, Why can’t that be me? So, we may feign vicarious joy or the extent to which we feel it; we might say in response to another’s good news: “Honestly, I’m so happy for you!” Even though this isn’t exactly true. Guilt (about the lack of empathetic joy or feigning it) may then follow.
We tend to believe that there is only a limited amount of happiness to go around so that if something good happens to someone else, there is less left for us. This scarcity mentality is not a rational perspective, but it is certainly persistent. I’m reminded here of a scene from the British sitcom Peep Show:
Jez: “There’s only so much happiness in the world and they’re hoarding it all!”
Mark: “That’s not how happiness works! (It completely is.)
There are many other barriers to mudita that I think are worth exploring, as well as their antidotes.
The Far and Near Enemies of Mudita
Let’s begin with a classic Buddhist teaching on what prevents us from developing mudita: the “far enemies” and the “near enemies”. These refer to mental states that are either far from the nature of mudita or close to it. All the brahma-viharas have far and near enemies. This teaching is comparable to Aristotle’s teaching of the golden mean, which is essentially the same as the Buddha’s middle path between self-indulgence and self-renunciation. True virtue, in other words, lies in the middle between two extremes: excess and deficiency. For instance, courage is the middle state between recklessness and cowardice.
We can think of the far enemy of the brahma-viharas as the extreme we want to avoid, but the near enemy is a useful additional concept since it teaches us that we may think we’re developing virtue, whereas we’re actually not quite landing in the right place. The far enemies of mudita are jealousy or envy (irshya) and boredom or indifference (arati), which interfere with our experiencing empathetic joy in response to others’ successes and well-being. Jealousy makes us resentful of another’s joy while boredom doesn’t care about their happiness.
In the Path of Purification, Buddhagosa describes the near enemy of mudita (so the quality similar enough to mudita that it can be confused with it) as the celebration of others people’s worldly gains and luck. Mudita certainly does not exclude this kind of rejoicing, but if this is the only thing we celebrate, then this is a distraction from mudita, which includes the celebration of others’ good qualities and choices, and the peace and joy that subsequently follow. A narrow kind of sympathetic joy that focuses only on worldly gains and luck would seem sort of elitist, siding only with the most fortunate, and thus it may lead us to ignore the plight of people struggling against the odds.
The Indian scholar Arahant Upatissa (arahant meaning “worthy one”, someone who has reached enlightenment) gives an account of mudita that is entirely to do with good qualities and choices, and the natural arising of sympathetic joy, in The Path of Liberation:
When one sees or hears that some person’s qualities are esteemed by others, and that he is at peace and is joyful, one thinks thus: “sadhu! sadhu! may he continue joyful for a long time!”. And again, when one sees or hears that a certain person does not follow demeritorious doctrines, or that he does not follow undesirable doctrines and that he follows desirable doctrines, one thinks thus: “sadhu! sadhu! may he continue joyful for a long time!”.
The near enemy of mudita is also framed as exuberance. This is a kind of clingy, anxious attachment to the joy of others. Someone who is exuberant will feel intense joy when others are happy; it is an overly excited state, but it involves tying up your joy to those of others, which means you can feel a sense of deprivation that causes you to grasp at pleasant experiences. Also, if we are too exuberant, our energy can overwhelm other people, instead of giving them a sense of supportive accompaniment during their moments of joy. In a way, the exuberant person makes the success of others more about enabling their own joy rather than sharing the level of joy that another is truly experiencing. Exuberance lacks true empathic connection. Exhilaration or exuberance has only a superficial resemblance to mudita.
The Crab Mentality
One cultural barrier to mudita is the crab mentality. This refers to the attitude of wanting to — or saying or doing things that — bring others down when they are successful and happy. It is based on the phenomenon of crabs in a bucket, where some crabs will drag down those climbing to the top to escape. The phrase “If I can’t have it, neither can you” epitomises this mentality.
I summarised some of the root causes of the crab mentality, which many find prevalent in particular countries, such as the UK and the Philippines. The sources of the crab mentality are manifold and include the cultural expectation to feel deflated rather than uplifted by others’ success, jealousy (which is natural to an extent and cross-cultural), shame, insecurity, low self-esteem, self-criticism, competitive feelings, and atomisation. An unstable and precarious sense of self-worth is like a pendulum that swings between elation and sadness in relation to the success and failures of oneself and others. If you feel you are only good enough based on your own achievements and you believe that your happiness and success are heightened in light of others’ unhappiness and failures, then you will be prone to the crab mentality. We can add this attitude as another far enemy of mudita.
One way to correct the crab mentality is to address the underlying issues of poor self-image and lack of empathy that cause one to relish the failures of others (and even make comments and do things that foster that attitude) and become resentful when others do well in life (which may also lead to actions, in speech and behaviour, that aim to kick people down a peg and undermine the joy they’re experiencing). Crab mentality shows up, time and time again, in gossip — to someone’s face, we may congratulate them, but in our minds and behind their back when talking to others, we can express our bitterness by dismissing or downplaying their success, or by denigrating them as people. This negative habitual reaction calls for mudita, not just for the sake of others, but also for the person experiencing jealousy. The crab mentality has negative effects on those who experience it.
Neoliberalism and Mudita
The obstacles that get in the way of mudita are typically framed as apolitical (we all experience jealousy after all), but often the personal is political. To phrase this differently, we can say that much of our emotional lives, attitudes, and interactions with others are influenced by the political ideology that permeates society and its different spheres of activity, such as education and the workplace.
I’ve discussed how neoliberalist ideology can affect how we pursue and share knowledge and integrate our psychedelic experiences, but it can no doubt — through its glorification of individualism and competition — support the antitheses of mudita. Jealousy and schadenfreude are part and parcel of the crab mentality and neoliberal societies may promote it (although the US is an interesting example in this case since it is, on the one hand, a highly individualistic country, yet it is also culturally normalised to celebrate the success of others, in contrast to the UK, for instance).
Neoliberalism encourages a competitive ethic of stepping on the toes of others to get ahead and disregarding the plight of others in the pursuit of one’s own success and happiness. This leads to atomisation in which my success is all-important. We can call the crab mentality a psychological component of this ideology, in which others are framed as competitors and enemies in the business of happiness. When we, by default, react to our peers’ achievements and well-being in terms of a loss for us, then there is something clearly — culturally and systematically — amiss. There is nothing inevitable about this way of thinking. Why should another’s happiness diminish our own?
However, it is possible for the gains of others to be our gains as well. Mudita, therefore, can help to combat the inculcation of anti-mudita ideology, although there may be disagreement about the effectiveness of this approach, so long as one continues to exist within such an ideologically-driven society.
Buddhism, nevertheless, is inherently political, and political change has long been a part of the life of many Buddhists (contrary to Max Weber’s assertion that Buddhism was a “specifically a-political and anti-political status religion.” If Buddhism teaches interdependence, then this will have real-life consequences, including the kind of society we create. We must develop mudita for the sake of our own flourishing and relationships with others, but it’s also important to encourage a society rooted in the brahma-viharas — to promote the development of these emotional virtues in all areas of life.
From Disunity to Unity; From Disconnection to Interconnection
Another factor that can block mudita is one’s worldview or metaphysics. If you believe in fundamental duality and separateness, that other beings are fundamentally not ‘you’ and, thus, their interests are not relevant to you, then what joy is there to be had in another’s good fortune or happiness?
Diametrically opposed to such a worldview is inherent non-duality and interconnection. Non-duality is not the rejection or denial of opposites, or even the usefulness of separateness (as it allows us to function in the world), but it is the recognition that underlying multiplicity and diversity of experience is a single, indivisible reality, or oneness. It is therefore a monistic philosophy. Non-duality, or non-dualism, is also known as Advaita (a Sanskrit term), one of the most influential forms of Vedanta, which is one of the six orthodox philosophical systems (darshans) of Indian philosophy. However, one need not subscribe to all the teachings of Advaita Vedanta — which teaches that there is a higher self or pure consciousness (Brahman) that is this indivisible reality. One may simply believe that fundamental unity and interconnection exist, without this higher level of consciousness existing at the level of oneness.
In any case, if you make the move from disunity to unity, from disconnection to interconnection, then another person’s happiness is seen as part of you. The notion of ‘you’ expands in the context of non-duality. You may ask, What am I? And if there is a unified reality, made up of inseparable aspects, then another’s happiness is a part of a whole that you are also a part of. When you identify with the All, then another’s happiness becomes, in a sense, your own happiness, just ‘over there’. With a non-dualistic worldview or metaphysics in mind, one may find it easier to celebrate other people’s happiness because what matters is not whether your own slice of spatiotemporal existence — your own body and mind — experiences well-being but whether any slice of the whole brightens with joy.
Another way to think of unity and its facilitation of mudita is not in terms of monism, where all things are unified into a single substance, but to suppose that sentient beings — and perhaps all objects, according to panpsychism — are connected in terms of a shared nature (consciousness). In this way, there is, in a very real sense, a ‘you’ inside other bodies. There are other loci of consciousness, each with their own desires, interests, and needs, each feeling value in their own existence and that they are a protagonist in the most important story: their own life — an experience that the writer John Koenig calls sonder.
In terms of interconnection, interdependence, or interpenetration, a useful metaphor to keep in mind is Indra’s net, the earliest known reference of which comes from the Arthava Veda, the fourth Veda, and a late addition to the Vedic scriptures of Hinduism. Indra’s net is an infinitely large net owned by the Vedic deva Indra (a deva is a heavenly/divine being), which hangs over his palace on Mount Meru (the sacred five-peaked mountain and axis mundi of Hindu and Buddhist cosmology: it stands in the centre of the universe; it’s rooted in the earth and its top reaches into the heavens).
Indra’s net is conceived as having a multifaceted jewel at each vertex, with each jewel being reflected in all the other jewels. It is used to describe the interconnection of all phenomena. The Buddhāvataṃsaka sutra — one of the most influential Mahayana sutras of East Asian Buddhism — states: “They [Buddhas] know all phenomena come from interdependent origination. They know all world systems exhaustively. They know all the different phenomena in all worlds, interrelated in Indra’s net.” According to philosopher Bryan Van Norden, in the Chinese Buddhist Huayan school, Indra’s net is “adopted as a metaphor for the manner in which each thing that exists is dependent for both its existence and its identity upon every other thing that exists.”
In the Huayan text “Cessation and Contemplation in the Five Teachings of Huayan”, attributed to the first Huayan patriarch Dushun (557–640), we find the following explication of Indra’s net:
The manner in which all dharmas interpenetrate is like an imperial net of celestial jewels extending in all directions infinitely, without limit. … As for the imperial net of heavenly jewels, it is known as Indra’s Net, a net which is made entirely of jewels. Because of the clarity of the jewels, they are all reflected in and enter into each other, ad infinitum. Within each jewel, simultaneously, is reflected the whole net. Ultimately, nothing comes or goes. If we now turn to the southwest, we can pick one particular jewel and examine it closely. This individual jewel can immediately reflect the image of every other jewel.
As is the case with this jewel, this is furthermore the case with all the rest of the jewels–each and every jewel simultaneously and immediately reflects each and every other jewel, ad infinitum. The image of each of these limitless jewels is within one jewel, appearing brilliantly. None of the other jewels interfere with this. When one sits within one jewel, one is simultaneously sitting in all the infinite jewels in all ten directions. How is this so? Because within each jewel are present all jewels. If all jewels are present within each jewel, it is also the case that if you sit in one jewel you sit in all jewels at the same time. The inverse is also understood in the same way. Just as one goes into one jewel and thus enters every other jewel while never leaving this one jewel, so too one enters any jewel while never leaving this particular jewel.
If we think of each person then as a vertex on Indra’s net, a metaphor to help us visualise the interdependence of all that exists, then another’s happiness is reflected back into our own vertex. The happiness of another becomes inseparable from us. If we truly incorporate Indra’s net into our worldview, then we find that others’ good fortune and well-being reflect back to us and so we cannot help but feel joy because our reality — what we find in the jewel in which we live — is more happiness.
From I-It Relationships to I-You Relationships
Moving from metaphysics to existentialism, we can find a way to experience more sympathetic joy in life in the philosophy of Martin Buber. Buber, a Jewish philosopher, advanced a kind of dialogical existentialism or dialogical mysticism, an outlook of why we lack — and how we find — ultimate meaning or spirituality in life based on the kind of relationships we have with others. This philosophy is also grounded in a Jewish worldview since the Hebrew Bible contains accounts of prophets having interactive-relational experiences, being in relation or in communication with God, rather than becoming unified with a divine reality, as we find in the monistic traditions of Eastern religions or the classic mystical experience.
Buber believed that our relationships can become intimations of God, and hence take on a mystical quality (ineffability, joyousness, and ultimate meaning) but only if they take a particular form: the I-You relation. When we enter this kind of relationship with another, we encounter them as a whole, undivided, unique being. With our being, we say “You”. This is a direct and pure relation of one presence meeting another presence in the here and now. Such a relation gives us a glimpse of what Buber calls the “Eternal You”, or God.
Buber contrasts the I-You relation with the I-It relation, the latter of which he thought primarily characterised how we relate to others, not just people but also non-human animals and the natural world. This kind of encountering others is based on conceptualisation, manipulation, accumulation, and use; in the I-It relationship, we turn others into objects, overlaid with concepts, and approached with the attitude of utility or control. Buber argued this leads to a sense of alienation, meaninglessness, and oppressiveness, in contrast to I-You relations, which give rise to true connection, meaningfulness, and joy.
We can say that I-It relations are in opposition to mudita. In these kinds of relationships, we would rather use others to elevate ourselves, rather than be witness to the happiness that exists within them. These are non-empathic relationships, whereas I-You encounters are empathic on the deepest level possible. When immersed in the I-You relation, we can fully feel the joy of another person and see how fulfilling it is to them, filling us with a wish for their happiness to continue.
There is a similarity here with active listening, also known as empathic listening, promoted by the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers. This involves giving our full attention to someone so that we actually hear what they are saying, rather than imposing what we think they are saying or what we want them to say. When we listen actively, we become more open to sympathetic joy. Active listening is not in keeping with I-It relations.
Human Nature vs Mudita
Now we turn to the question of whether — and to what extent, if so — human nature acts as a roadblock to mudita. Can we experience pure mudita, untainted by jealousy? Evolutionary psychologists consider jealousy part of our human nature; we feel this emotion, and often feel it strongly, for good evolutionary reasons. It aids our survival and reproductive success. However, the emotion of jealousy is complex. We feel it because of some areas of life that others are doing well in but not others, and we feel it consciously sometimes and at other times we are unaware of why we are jealous of someone, with the actual reasons for it buried in our unconscious and disguised by rationalisations.
It is also hard to tease apart naturally evolved jealousy from the things that make us jealous based on cultural expectations and values. Even if inherited to an extent, there is a strong social component to jealousy. After all, jealousy isn’t as pronounced in all cultures. This emotion also manifests in different spheres of activity, and in varied ways, such as in our friendships, romantic relationships, familial relationships, and the workplace. Furthermore, jealousy is intertwined with other emotions, such as fear, anger, resentment, indignation, and disgust — as explained in an article for Psychology Today by Danish philosopher Berit Brogaard.
Nonetheless, the existence of jealousy — which has both biological and social roots — invites us to question how powerful a force mudita is in combating it. Is it possible, through mudita bhavana, to encounter the good fortune and happiness of another person and feel only sympathetic joy, unadulterated by the envious wish that we had what they had, or any other connected feelings like resentment? I think it is certainly possible to experience this. Jealousy is not inevitable. The idea with a consistent practice of mudita meditation is that you will strengthen this ability, and subsequently be able to feel it more easily, more often, and for an extended period of time when being with and listening to those who are doing well.
Perhaps it is doubtful whether one could ever fully overcome the taint of jealousy, although enlightenment implies you could (see this previous article on whether enlightenment is actually possible). But this scenario need not make the practice of mudita bhavana all in vain; we can still aim for the idea of pure sympathetic joy and through that aim, we will make meaningful progress. A life with greater levels of mudita enhances the well-being of ourselves and others, and when individuals, communities, and cultures choose to focus on mudita, continued and expected experiences of jealousy can be approached more mindfully.
One interesting concept from polyamory I have come across that made me think of mudita is compersion. This neologism means vicarious joy associated with one’s partner having a romantic or sexual encounter with another. Because of the power of sexual jealousy (again, a complex emotion due to the mix of biological and cultural factors, and disagreements about their influence), the experience of compersion may seem inconceivable to most people. For those who prefer monogamy, the idea of their romantic partner being with someone else is anything but a cause for joy (even when separated from the assumption of deception and infidelity). Also, polyamorous people — who feel that having more than one sexual or romantic partner aligns with their personality and authentic desires — may struggle with sexual jealousy and, hence, compersion. So perhaps trying to develop sympathetic joy could make it easier for polyamorous people to experience compersion.
Humans have a competitive side as well as a cooperative side (although individuals vary in the degree of their competitiveness) while social comparison theory suggests that we value our own personal and social worth by seeing how we stack up against others. Yet these are tendencies, not fate; they are not all-powerful and all-consuming but merely aspects of us and susceptible to change. Mudita bhavana is not destined to fail against our more selfish drives.
The Negativity Bias
Plenty of research points to the existence of a negativity bias: a proclivity to attend to, learn from, and use negative information far more than positive information. We are more primed to hear and remember negative information. I have written about how news articles capitalise on this bias. Because of this bias, and the news cycle that activates and intensifies it, someone may complain that the world is full of pain and violence and that they don’t know anyone who is happy.
With this mindset, where is there room for mudita? It can help to consciously incline yourself towards noticing good fortune or the positive aspects of situations (positive news or solutions-based journalism can aid you in this process). You might try to focus on a positive quality of someone’s personality or on their good health, abundance, loving friendships or romantic partner, successful work, and so forth and so on.
The Research-Backed Benefits of Sympathetic Joy
One roadblock in cultivating mudita may be a lack of motivation. You may ask yourself: Why should I bother feeling more sympathetic joy in my life? Understanding the benefits of this emotion is a crucial way to overcome this obstacle. We should, therefore, take a look at the research-backed benefits of sympathetic joy, sometimes also called vicarious reward or positive empathy. This research also tells us what prevents us from feeling mudita.
Studies on the rewards of sympathetic joy:
- Witnessing another’s good fortune can activate your brain’s reward system.
- The ability to feel sympathetic joy is linked to greater life satisfaction and happiness.
- There is a link between sympathetic joy and our willingness to help others and the likelihood we’ll actually do so.
- Sympathetic joy results in better personal relationships. A 2018 study found that a partner who empathises with both your positive and negative emotions may carry greater benefits than a partner who only empathises with your negative emotions. A 2013 study of over 300 polyamorous people discovered that the more they experienced compersion (which, to reiterate, is happiness in response to your partner experiencing pleasure or romantic love with someone else) the more satisfied they were with their relationships. This finding on compersion was echoed by two studies published in 2021 (see here and here — the latter involved 5,000 people, which helps to strengthen the evidence).
- Sympathetic joy may result in better job outcomes. A 2016 study found teachers who were more likely to take joy in their students’ good experiences felt a greater sense of connection to them, and the students performed better. A 2019 study of teachers and frontline health workers revealed that those who felt more sympathetic joy on the job experienced less burnout and higher job satisfaction.
Feeling envy instead of joy for others’ success is common, yet we often feel guilty for reacting this way, especially when the person doing well is a friend or family member. A 2022 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that social comparisons with people perceived as doing better than us were more likely to evoke feelings of envy and schadenfreude than sympathetic joy. There is also research showing that anxiety reduces empathy, so we can reasonably speculate that feeling anxious might impair your ability to feel sympathetic joy.
Differences between people can also inhibit our ability to feel empathy, especially if this difference relates to status and power. As people’s incomes rise, empathy for those lower on the socioeconomic ladder tends to fall. A 2017 study showed that anxiety reduces empathy towards out-group members, which could be along racial, ethnic, religious, socioeconomic, or national lines.
How to Practise Mudita Bhavana
You may want to feel vicarious joy more in your life but not know how. If you find that self-pity or envy is getting in the way, you can build mudita with intention and effort. And we do this through mudita bhavana, or mudita meditation. I have already outlined the steps above, but it will be helpful to offer more detailed guidelines on the practice.
As stated earlier, mudita bhavana does not typically begin with phrases directed towards yourself, as in the development of the other brahma-viharas. However, if you do struggle to feel glad about good things going on in your life, you can begin the practice by focusing on yourself. Offer yourself appreciative and encouraging phrases acknowledging the joy and happiness you’ve experienced in life. You can also rejoice about the small things and pleasures in your life. As the poet Mark Nepo says: “The key to knowing joy is being easily pleased.” You can try repeating the following phrases (silently in your head):
May I learn to appreciate the happiness and joy I experience.
May the joy I experience continue and grow.
May I be filled with joy and gratitude.
You are free, as in the cultivation of the other brahma-viharas, to create any phrases you like that carry the intention of mudita. Also, notice what reactions, if any, are provoked by the practice. You shouldn’t expect to instantly feel intense joy and appreciation. By being mindful during the practice, you may simply notice your lack of appreciation and your mind’s judging reactivity. Simply note whatever arises and return to the phrases, harnessing as much friendliness as you can muster.
If you struggle to feel joy when directing mudita-based phrases to yourself, try instead appreciating your strengths, skills, talents, kindnesses, and generous actions, however small or may big you may think they are. This appreciation may then turn into a source of joy as you become aware of your virtuous character and actions and feel that awareness in your body. (It’s crucial, though, to be able to distinguish delight from conceit.) If nothing comes to mind, simply reflect on the ‘rightness’ of your innate wish to be happy.
Traditionally, mudita bhavana follows a sequence involving five types of recipients, the order being as follows:
- A friend or loved one who is enjoying some happiness or something good that is going on for them
- A benefactor (someone who has inspired you or offered you aid in any way)
- A neutral person (someone you barely know, perhaps a stranger, for whom you have no strong feelings one way or the other)
- A difficult person (this could be someone you envy or who you have no warm feelings towards, which makes you prone to demeaning that person)
- All beings
Mudita meditation begins with someone whom you care for and have positive feelings towards, as we tend to more easily feel joy for someone on the basis of love or friendship. Yet even with a friend or loved one, you may experience resistance in rejoicing in their good fortune. Again, don’t judge or resist this feeling; over time, mudita bhavana will diminish your tendency to feel judgement or resentment towards others. If it becomes too difficult to send mudita to a difficult person, acknowledge this with non-judgemental acceptance and return to directing the phrases to a loved one or yourself. In time, your capacity to experience sympathetic joy will expand to include those who now provoke feelings of resentment and envy in you.
You can use one or more phrases that encapsulate the attitude of mudita (again, you can vary these or come up with your own as you wish). Here are some examples:
May your happiness and good fortune not leave you.
May your good fortune continue.
May your happiness and good fortune grow.
May your happiness not diminish.
May you be filled with appreciation for your happiness and success.
May you experience joy and success.
May you be met with appreciation.
When directing mudita to others, as in the case of metta bhavana, visualisation can help. Visualise an image of a friend and focus on a particular gain or source of joy in their life, no matter how small it may be. If you direct appreciative joy towards someone who is suffering, the connection between sympathetic joy and compassion can strengthen.
It’s important to be patient with mudita meditation, as this practice can feel quite unfamiliar in the beginning. With regular practice, nevertheless, you will find yourself more easily experiencing sympathetic joy and, as we have seen, enjoying a range of benefits in your life. When we experience good news, one of our first thoughts is to share that news with others. Knowing that others are happy for us expands our joy. As a German proverb says, “Shared pain is half the pain, and shared joy is twice the joy.” However, if we strengthen our capacity for mudita, then we can, when the roles are reversed, feel genuinely happy when we hear of others’ good news. It matters, of course, that the sympathetic joy is authentic and free from negative emotions as far as possible, for this improves not just the well-being of the person expressing mudita to another but the recipient of it as well.