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Want To Be Happy? Be Happy For Others!

Cathy Cassani AdamsIt’s so common it has its own name:

Schadenfreude – finding pleasure from the misfortunes of others.

And although few will admit to it, it’s a very human experience.  If we see others fail, we feel better about ourselves.

This is on full display in our obsession with the entertainment industry (build them up and tear them down), but it’s also happening in our work places, neighborhoods, homes.

Many have a love (or maybe just a habit) of cynicism, snarkiness, competition; other people’s challenges become our delights. 

Maybe it brings a sense of safety (see what happens to people who try new things?), or self assurance (they aren’t so great after all). Or maybe it just keeps us focused on others so we don’t have to focus on our own stuff.

Whatever the reason, we tend to revel in the bad news (again, check out the headlines) rather than find joy in the good.

But the truth is that the happiest people are the ones who are present when things go right for others (quote taken directly from the article “What Happy People Do Differently” in Psychology Today, July/August, 2013 issue).

The ability to stand by a person with wonderful news is an indicator of inner awareness and self respect.  Holding the hand of someone who is shining brightly takes bravery and strength.

And research shows that it bonds our relationships.Psychologist Shelly Gable of the University of California discovered that romantic partners who make a big deal out of each other’s successes are more committed and satisfied, while partners who are passive about each other’s accomplishments are more likely to break up.

When you are experiencing something wonderful, the best feelings come when you get to share it with someone else; it creates intimacy.  And the person who is willing to listen and celebrate with you is the person you come to depend on.

There are some people who tend to have a lot of good news, and of course envy is a completely normal emotion.  Don’t worry, you aren’t a bad person if you feel it, you are just a human being.

But when envy shows up and you want to ridicule or dismiss the person who feels good, stop, take a deep breath, and recognize what the envy is trying to tell you.

Is this person doing something you wish you could do? Are they moving forward in life and you feel stuck? Are they staring fear in the face while you allow fear to control you?

Don’t create stories about how this person never feels pain or doesn’t know what it’s like to struggle.  You don’t know their inner world or all of their experiences.Everyone has pain and comparing isn’t fair or productive.

Not an easy thing to confront, but it’s an important awareness – a way to use an uncomfortable emotion as a signal for growth.

And it creates an opportunity for you to practice a different word, the word that is the complete opposite of schadenfreude:

Mudita – the pleasure that comes from delighting in other people’s joy.

I’ve always loved this Sanskrit word; it’s not the first time I’ve written about it. 

It feels light yet powerful, and it speaks to the person we all want to be. 

And notice that it’s not all about giving; we get the joy of delighting in other people’s joy.  Mudita is actually a self-serving act, because we get to feel joy, too. 

When you understand that what you focus on grows, focusing on other people’s joy increases our joy, which creates more joy for the greater good.

For all of you who talk about a kinder and gentler world, noticing schadenfreude and choosing mudita can be your way of making a change. A step toward connectedness, a domino falling in the right direction.

Like last year, when I was helping one of my best girlfriends with an issue.  As she thanked me she said, “What can I do to support you?”

I told her that she continuously supports me by being happy for me. I explained how she always shows up and shares my enthusiasm when something amazing happens. 

I said I was grateful for the times she held me up when I was struggling, but her ability to stand next to me during my proud moments are the memories I treasure. 

And she seemed happy.

Love,

Cathy

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Cathy Cassani Adams, LCSW, CPC, is the author of The Self-Aware Parent, the host of Zen Parenting Radio, a columnist for Chicago Parent Magazine, and a blogger for Chicago Now. She’s a self-awareness teacher and yoga instructor in her community, and she teaches in the Sociology Department at Dominican University. Find Cathy on Facebook (The Self-Aware Parent or Zen Parenting Radio) and on Twitter (@selfawareparent or @zenparenting) and on her website www.cathycadams.com.

  • Diane

    This was a fantastic article. Hits home for sure!!!! Gives me lots of food for thought. Thank you so much.

    • Cathy

      thanks for reading, Diane! It’s definitely a practice, but it’s a great one – mudita helps me sleep well at night.

  • anon

    Cathy,

    Your post is very timely for me.

    I have a long time friend that I wasn’t really that close with until she lost her husband. At that time, I felt so much empathy for what she must have been going through and extended her my love, she leaned on me quite a bit over the two years after his passing.

    I gladly supported her, I have so much empathy for her circumstance. She needed help with learning to get back into the joy of life and most of all wanted to meet a new man.

    I worked with her a lot on her need for a man and with her asking for advice I shared that she needed to find fulfillment in her own life before she could dive into a relationship. She is the type to be addicted to love and when she is with a man it is 24 seven.

    I explained that is a recipe for hurt and she needs to first develop her own ground. Trying to cut to the chase, she met the guy, she is financially set for life from what her ex husband left her and no longer has to work.

    I told her that she does not have to feel guilty for the good things she has, she has had many struggles in life and if things are happy it’s a good time to enjoy those things. She was very relieved to hear me say that. She said that other friends have been jealous.

    I meant what I said, I have been ill for many years and severely in the last two years. This friend knows all about my illness and yet when ever I am with her it is all about her. I was okay with that while she was in her seeking state. Now, it is time for me to as best as possible, take care of myself, I am very slow and I get depressed when dealing with having to make doctor appts for biopsies, etc., I get depressed when the medi al bills come in and when I have disability papers with deadlines staring me in the face. And all I hear about from her is how wonderful her life is. I am truly happy for her, but given my conditions (plural) I have my limits of how much of her wonderfulness I can stand to hear without even the question “how are you?”

    I finally told her that I was unable to keep pace with her energy level, that I will always cherish and love our time together but need at this point to move on. It has been torturing me because I believe in reveling in another persons happiness. But I cannot do this while it takes time away from my ability to help myself. It is stressful to see her, in fact her lack of understanding of my situation has me feeling very stressed out. So I have guilt over not being the cheerleader that you described. It has been really torturing me because I believe in supporting my friends happiness. This one has me very confused.

    I’m in survival mode and barely scraping the surface, so I wonder if you have any advice for me?

    Thank you

    Typos courtesy of my iPhone

    • Cathy

      Thank you so much for sharing your story, you are not alone, I think this is very common. I think we can be happy for someone, but at the same time know when that person is draining our energy. As you said, she makes you feel tired, unwell, and not inspired – you may care about her, but it’s not OK to continuously put yourself in this kind of situation – your body is talking to you. You can still be her cheerleader, but at a healthy distance. Maybe you can stay connected through email or text, or meet in group
      situations – see if this type of interaction is less challenging (if not, then pull back even more). True and meaningful friendships have a balanced (or close to balanced) exchange of energy, and that’s not happening in this situation. You need to take care of yourself and listen to the way your body feels – your most important priority is your health. With that said, send her love and good thoughts, and know that you are making a great decision to not sacrifice your health due to guilt or what you think you “should” be doing (always question a should…it’s someone else’s voice in your head). I, too, have had to make these kind of choices – while I still feel love for certain people, I realized they exhaust me more than support me. So instead I keep space, think of them kindly, and send them good thoughts. With this type of situation, it’s the healthiest way for me to practice mudita. Hope this helps!

      • anon

        Cathy, thank you so much for your reply, you have really set my mind at ease. I called her to talk, she didn’t want to talk because without having asked me what is gojng on for me she chose to view my discussion attempt as though her best friend dumped her.

        I sent a loving email about how our time together will always be special and she will always have my love. She responded in an appreciative but also defensive manner which tells me it’s just not something she is comfortable to discuss. Now, with your helpful insights I feel better about doing what I need.

        I don’t know how it is for others but I think that once you’ve had a serious illness the compassion radar for another persons journey is on super high sensitivity. You get with Buddha or whatever teaching fits.

        Thank you for writing such a stirring post. There was something in the air that I found you. blessings, anon