Thursday, April 3, 2008

Cultivating Happiness: Sympathetic Joy

Part V of VI

In previous posts on cultivating happiness we've looked at Attention, Relationships, Loving Kindness and Compassion. This week we'll consider Sympathetic Joy.

Loving Kindness, Compassion, and Sympathetic Joy are the first three dimensions of the four "Divine Abodes.” Knowing about them can help us notice them when they arise and then begin to cultivate them so that they appear more frequently in our lives. (We'll look at the fourth, Equanimity, in the final post of this series.)

Identifying Sympathetic Joy

Of all the Divine Abodes, Sympathetic Joy is (for me at least) the easiest to identify: it’s when you happy because of someone else’s good fortune.

Like Loving Kindness and Compassion, Sympathetic Joy is not a rarefied feeling reserved for spiritually advanced. We all feel it. Just as parents may feel Loving Kindness for an unborn baby and Compassion when their toddler stumbles and gets hurt, parents feel a thrill of joy run through their bodies when their kid catches a fly ball in center field or learns to ride a two wheeler. People who aren’t parents feel it when their favorite candidate wins an election or their favorite sports team wins a championship.

Kindergarten teachers are particularly likely to be awash in Sympathetic Joy. I feel it many times each day as students proudly show me a wiggly tooth. A week or so later I get to join their thrill at having lost that tooth. This is followed soon after with more happiness: the emergence of the first adult teeth.

I feel a rush of pleasure when a child learns to ride on two wheels. Every day I see children advance along the path to reading, math and other subjects. I felt it today when Olivia proudly pointed to China on the classroom world map.

Sympathetic Joy’s near enemy is boredom/numbness. When we feel that someone else’s joy has nothing to do with us, we’re cutting ourselves out of a lot of happiness.

Sympathetic Joy’s far enemy is envy or jealousy. We feel jealousy when someone gets happiness that we wish were ours to enjoy instead. Jealousy is much more likely to arise in peer relationships: it can be hard to be glad for your competition’s triumphs.

It is much easier to get a thrill out of a child’s awards and achievements than it is to get a thrill out of a colleague’s good fortune. This is why, I believe, that siblings who are close in age often have more difficulties getting along as compared to siblings separated by more years.

All of us know how crummy envy and jealousy feel, so it’s a good idea to know that it’s at least conceivable to transform that feeling into its positive correlate: Sympathetic Joy.

Cultivating Sympathetic Joy

Now that we know what it is we can invite more happiness into our lives by cultivating Sympathetic Joy.

To water the seeds of Sympathetic Joy in my heart. I repeat these phrases in the morning to cultivate the intention to be happier:

"May good fortune fill all the days of my life."

My Spouse
"May good fortune fill all the days of my spouse’s life."

My children
"May good fortune fill all the days of all my children’s lives."

My Teacher
"May good fortune fill all the days of Mr. Wilson’s life."
(insert the name of your favorite teacher here)

My Parents (They don't have to be alive.)
"May good fortune fill all the days my parents’ lives."

My Siblings
"May good fortune fill all the days of my brothers’ and sisters’ lives."

Other Relatives
"May good fortune fill all the days of all my grandparents’ lives."

Other People
I use these same phrases and fill in the names of friends, neutral people, and difficult people.

I finish with all beings:

"May good fortune fill all the days of all beings everywhere."

Stabilizing Sympathetic Joy

By repeating these phrases in the morning, we invite them into our hearts as welcome guests. Once close at hand, these feelings have a greater chance of arising when we come into proximity to another person’s good fortune. Instead of going numb (Sympathetic Joy’s near enemy) we recognize these opportunities to feel happiness instead.

By becoming aware that happiness increases as we share it, we quite naturally begin to see that other people’s happiness can be the occasion for our own happiness, too. With practice, we begin to appreciate how solid and genuine shared happiness turns out to be. We discover that Sympathetic Joy compares favorably to ordinary personal happiness. It’s less complicated, more widespread, and lighter of heart.

Similarly, by recognizing jealousy as Sympathetic Joy’s far enemy, we can learn to see that misbegotten emotion for what it is and let it die its own death by failing to water it with our thinking. With practice, we learn to find ways to transform jealousy into Sympathetic Joy, motivated by the fact that Joy feels so much better than jealousy.

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