“Why does ‘empathy’ only seem refer to negative emotions?” a classmate recently asked.
We were watching Clouds over Sidra, a virtual reality film about the Syrian refugee crisis. The creators premiered the video to global leaders at Davos a few years ago in an attempt to generate compassion towards the situation. Our class used the video as a case study to debate Chris Milk’s now-famous claim that VR necessarily generates empathy (disclosure: I strongly disagree with Milk.)
“Yeah,” another chimed in, “why don’t we have a specific word for what happens when you relate to someone’s positive experience?”
I raised my hand and suggested psychologist Barbara Frederickson’s phrase “positivity resonance,” built on research that positive emotions like love connect us neurobiologically. (Interestingly, Frederickson argues that physical presence is a prerequisite for positivity resonance, seemingly precluding transmission via technologies like VR…)
But that didn’t quite seem right. Only walking out of class did it occur to me that there is an even better term for empathy with positive valence: mudita, or sympathetic joy.
I learned about mudita on a silent meditation retreat focused on what Buddhists call the Four Divine Emotions. Mudita is a deep, felt sense of joy that others are happy. It is joy devoid of self-interest, and arises even when one doesn’t contribute to the conditions for happiness. Not “I’m happy because you liked the gift I gave you,” but “I’m happy simply because you received a gift you liked.”
You don’t have to practice Buddhism to experience sympathetic joy; it’s the warmth that fills you when a happy, hand-clasped couple passes you on the street. Mudita is the heart-opening parents experience when their children learn and grow. It’s the joy you feel when a good friend lands the job she eyed for months. It’s behind the smile that graces your face watching a gleeful dog chase a ball in the park.
I’ve been thinking a lot about sympathetic joy lately because my life suddenly fell apart at a time when my friends’ appear to be picking up. I know of no greater antidote to the risk of jealousy than practicing sympathetic joy. It doesn’t always come naturally, but as my friends buy houses, get engaged, negotiate acquisition deals, I tap into the great amount of happiness I imagine these successes bring, remaining vigilant for the self-interested part of me that whines, “BUT WHAT ABOUT ME?!”
The secret beauty of mudita is that it allows a sort of emotionally free riding: you do not have to wait for joy. Look around, and let others’ good fortune become your own.
As a single person, February is a fantastic month to practice sympathetic joy. On the fourteenth two months ago, I walked past restaurant windows where couples leaned in close over lit candles and surprised myself by suddenly feeling content with the fact of their love. (It felt way better than stewing over my last breakup, at least.) In this way, mudita gives you a choice: view heart-shaped chocolate boxes as painful reminders of what you lack, or cultivate a felt sense of the eager devotion a teenage boy experiences buying one for his date.
I think sympathetic joy is harder than old-fashioned empathy because of our cultural conditioning. Despite living in the most prosperous time in history, our society clings to a pervasive feeling of “not enough.” For many people, the perceived scarcity is real — wage stagnation, slow job growth, a functionally non-existent social safety net mean many struggle to make ends meet. But even those with great abundance seek more. Ours is a paradoxical age: pervasive scarcity mindset amid material abundance.
Scarcity focuses the mind on perceived lack. This tunneling has varied consequences, including compromised decision-making. But it also makes human connection difficult. And if it feels hard to care about others’ suffering while you suffer, it feels unimaginable to celebrate their joy while you are in pain.
Sympathetic joy calls us to challenge the conventional zero-sum thinking born out of the scarcity mindset: your being happy means there is less happiness for me; your gaining opportunity threatens my chances. It requires we view the world with abundance.
As zero-sum thinking devastates our public discourse and policy, perhaps sympathetic joy is not simply an exercise in broadening our concept of empathy, but also a radical political act of celebrating when others have what we don’t, or feel what we can’t.
Don’t get me wrong, old-fashioned empathy is difficult, and our world could use a lot more of it. But I have come to believe that unipolar empathy — one that can only be mobilized in the face of suffering — is an incomplete and impoverished form of empathy. Only when we also practice mudita do we acknowledge and celebrate the wholeness of the human experience. Viewing a Syrian refugee only as a victim flattens her into a character in our mind. Can we also celebrate her joy when she (hopefully) moves to our country, finds employment and community? Sympathetic joy opens up the possibility to deeply relate to humans as the complex, complete beings we are: whether we are experiencing the depths of despair or the heights of boundless love.
Rachael Petersen is a writer and researcher living in Cambridge, MA. Writing at the intersection of spirituality, ecology and technology, Rachael is curious about how we can create meaningful experiences of belonging in a culture that conspires to separate us from each other and the natural world. Her curiosity has carried her to small-scale indigenous communities around the world, researching how digital tools interact with their cosmology. Previously, she deputy directed Global Forest Watch, an initiative that monitors deforestation in real-time from space. Her creative writing has been featured in The Outline, The Rumpus, Ruminate Magazine, and Anywhere Magazine
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