Appreciating Joy

The playing field isn’t level. Research shows that, all things considered, negative emotions have an unfair advantage over us, grabbing and holding our attention more easily. We spend much of our time handling problems and figure that happiness will pop up on its own when the time is right. Our inherent putting-out-fires approach to life works well for certain crises, but the problem is that it leads to a very imbalanced life in the long run. According to Socrates, the unexamined life (i.e. the one lived on auto-pilot) is not worth living.

One of the fundamental problems we experience as humans is that we think that what we experience is the way things actually are. But it can’t be. The only way we know about reality is what gets filtered in through our senses. Our eyes, ears, nose, etc. send electrical signals to the brain, which in turn takes those signals and constructs a version of reality, something like a virtual reality simulation.

Most of the time, this working model of reality is good enough. It lets us get around and function. Sometimes, like when someone takes LSD or has schizophrenia, our version of reality is terribly off. But what most of us don’t realize is that even our normal, everyday model of reality is also off, just to a lesser degree. Given that negative emotions have a stronger pull than positive ones, that little oversight can turn into big trouble.

The eminent psychologist William James was well aware of this. He wrote that “Whilst part of what we perceive comes through our senses from the object before us, another part (and it may be the larger part) always comes out of our own mind.” He further noted that “each of us literally chooses, by his ways of attending to things, what sort of universe he shall appear to himself to inhabit.” It’s not that we passively experience reality so much as we actively construct it. We make choices in what we notice, dwell on, evaluate, and interpret. As the writer Kahlil Gibran pointed out, “We choose our joys and sorrows long before we experience them.”

One of the wiser choices we can make in assembling our version of reality is to appreciate joy, that of others as well as ourselves. In Buddhist practice, this is called mudita, meaning happiness in response to a person’s happiness, success, or good fortune. This is a genuine feeling of happiness, not one that is forced.

When considering other’s happiness and good fortune, we are faced with a choice. One common response is jealousy and envy. “I wish I had that, instead of them.” We all know this because we’ve all felt it. While it’s natural for people to feel this at times, dwelling on it is not inevitable. When jealousy arises, we have a few options. One is to feed into it, rehearse all the reasons why we think the other doesn’t deserve success, or why we deserve it more. Envy is an unpleasant feeling, and this reaction only deepens the wound.

Another possibility is to chastise and punish ourselves for having an “unacceptable” emotion. This is like squirting lemon juice in the wound. Denial is another possibility, pretending the wound doesn’t exist, while it continues to affect us on some level. None of these options are very appealing.

Another choice is to re-frame the circumstances. Acknowledging the feeling openly and honestly, we can recognize that one person’s success or happiness need not diminish another’s. It’s not like there’s a tank of happiness somewhere and once it’s used up by the happy misers the rest of us are out of luck.

Our quick and automatic response is often to compare ourselves to others. A psychologist named Frank Fujita found that how often we compare ourselves with others relates to greater negative emotion (more fear, anger, shame, and sadness), while it does not lead to any greater long-term positive emotion. Comparison, it seems, is not a pathway to long-term happiness.

So rather than wallowing in the quagmire of who has more and better (More of what? And better according to whom?), we can shift to the simple strategy of feeling happy for another’s happiness. William Shakespeare said that “joy delights in joy,” and a Swedish proverb says that “shared joy is a double joy.” A Buddhist sutra points out that, “a single lamp may light hundreds of thousands of lamps without itself being diminished.” 

Given the choice between sympathetically rejoicing in another’s happiness, thereby increasing your own happiness, or dwelling in envy and anger, diminishing your own happiness, which will you choose? Appreciative joy is the closest we will get to a free lunch. As the Dalai Lama has said, when we feel happiness in response to another’s happiness, our odds of being happy go up by about 6 billion to one. The Buddhist monk Nyanaponika Thera said, “your life will gain in joy by sharing the happiness of others as if it were yours.”

However, appreciating joy is not limited to appreciating the joy of others. We can also feel joy in response to our own joy. We may feel happy about some circumstance, and then feel happy about feeling happy, the exact same way we would feel happy for someone else. Why not get the most out of it?

Feeling joy nourishes us, and gives us more reserves to deal with difficulties when they come along. Besides, in experiencing our own joy, we in turn radiate that towards others as we interact with them, making a contagious and virtuous cycle. As Washington Irving put it: “How easy it is for one benevolent being to diffuse pleasure around him; and how truly is a kind heart a fountain of gladness, making everything in its vicinity to freshen into smiles!”

References and Recommended Reading:

Baumeister, R.F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K.D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323-370.

Fujita, Frank (2008). The frequency of social comparison and its relation to subjective well-being. In The science of subjective well-being, Eid, M. (ed.); Larsen, R.J. (ed.). pp. 239-257. New York: Guilford Press.

Gibran, K. (1926). Sand and foam. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Irving, W. (1819). “The Christmas Dinner,” The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon. New York: C.S. Van Winkle.

James, W. (1890). The principles of psychology. New York: Henry Holt & Company.

Hammer, J. (2006). Quote from Midrash Numbers Rabbah 15:19, The Jewish book of days: a companion for all seasons. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.

Plato. Apology. Translated by Benjamin Jowett.

Shakespeare, W. (1916). Sonnet #8, in The Sonnets of Shakespeare, with Variorum Reading and Commentary. (R. Alden, ed.) Boston: Houghton-Mifflin. (Original work from 1609).

Stone, J.R., ed. (2006). The Routledge book of world proverbs. New York: Routledge.

Thera, N. (1958). The four sublime states: Contemplations on love, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. The Wheel, publication No. 6. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society.

Thurman, R.A.F. (1976). The holy teaching of Vimalakirti: Mahayana scripture. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press.

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2 Responses to Appreciating Joy

  1. Eric Stephenson July 15, 2011 at 12:37 pm #

    I have been thinking about this topic a lot recently. A few months ago, I read a speech given by David Foster Wallace that had a profound effect on me-

    It seems it really is about resetting our “default settings” as human beings. I have recently moved to the Delray Beach, Fl area- a place of great wealth and beauty. It has caused me to put into conscious practice the “joy” of being happy for my blessings and not comparing that to others that seemingly might have more around me.

    But more of what, really?

  2. Louisa Jewell July 18, 2011 at 6:36 am #

    Hello Marcello,
    What a lovely post. I just came back from two weeks in Italy. I went with my eldest daughter and we visited Florence, Siena and Venice. But by far, the best time we had was in Sicily, sitting around my 91 year old Aunt Lina’s 70 year old kitchen table eating and sharing our stories. I have a special bond with Lina and my daugther fell instantly in love with her even though they don’t even speak the same language! She has a way of overly expressing her extreme joy for all the good things in your life. She wants you to be happy and she prays for your good fortune. I felt very blessed by her. Even though driving in Sicily and travelling can be difficult, everything went smoothly I’m sure because of her prayers. i think when others invest in your good fortune, you can always feel it.

    It’s funny you mention the word ‘mudita’ because Italians also have some words that have no direct English equivalent. Are these words indicative of a culture? For example, do we not have a word that is equivalent to mudita because we are always taught to compete and be better than the next guy? What do you think?

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