Ep. 43: Jealousy and Sympathetic Joy

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Today we talk about those times when it’s hard to feel good about other people’s good luck and abundance, and maybe feeling a little – or a lot – jealous. Sometimes we don’t feel good about when a friend gets a new car, or the book deal we’ve been waiting years for, or the soulmate that we still haven’t met. But today you’ll learn that it’s totally normal, and that feeling “sympathetic joy,” or mudita, is one of the hardest qualities for most people to cultivate.

I noticed that I would feel a lot of shame when I didn’t naturally feel sympathetic joy for others. I explored what might be contributing to this, and I realized this likely was influenced by my upbringing in a very poor family. Like on Thanksgiving every year, St. Vincent de Paul would give out turkeys to people in our neighborhood. But you had to sort of know someone or get in line really early to get one. And if you didn’t, they’d run out, and you wouldn’t have a turkey for Thanksgiving. There literally wasn’t enough. Or government food, like those orange cheese blocks that had a texture like soft plastic. They ran out of that stuff.

While there was indeed some level of scarcity in my life growing up, especially as a child in that context with little control or power, I was forgetting that I was no longer in that circumstance, and I was no longer that little powerless kid. I had forgotten that the world wasn’t like it was when I was a kid anymore. 

I knew this on an intellectual level, and could easily apply it as it related to things that I did not have any desire for…but when I wanted something and someone else got it, I would still feel a pang of me losing out. I’d feel sad, instead of happy for them. 

Sure, I’d say, “Congratulations!” I was going through the motions of what I intellectually knew was true…but I didn’t believe it or feel it in my heart right away.

While I could self-coach in the moment and remind myself of abundance and how there’s enough for everyone and eventually get there… I was so embarrassed that being happy for others with good fortune did not come naturally. I felt, wow, am I super messed up or something that I am not happy for my friends and for others when wonderful things happen for them – that I sort of wished were happening to me?

This was particularly embarrassing considering I have spent many years meditating and cultivating loving kindness and compassion and equanimity. There was some spiritual shame around that. Like wow – this seems like the easiest thing, why is it so hard for me despite my years of practice?

But what I had to remind myself of was that sympathetic joy – stood as a quality on its own, in addition to compassion, living kindness and equanimity. 

The idea of limitless abundance, that someone else’s joy and good fortune wasn’t taking a bit from mine…that’s the opposite of the environment in which I grew up. My parents were generous with what we did have, but I definitely remember being VERY anxious about if we’d get our fair share.

As I explored mudita more, I was somewhat comforted by the fact that Buddha apparently said sympathetic joy was the hardest heart quality to practice because it so easily falls into the near-neighbor heart quality, which I was taught as being comparison, or hypocrisy, or insincerity – a sort of fake exuberance, or even a joy for others that was tinged with identification (my team, my child).

I also learned that you could practice mudita and get better at it and it would become more nature. 

If one is able to be joyful for success and happiness even in others, it would present one with much more opportunities to feel happy. So you see – more happiness is available to us! When sympathetic joy is cultivated, at its best it removes the separation between oneself and others so that anyone else’s happiness naturally becomes our happiness too.

Topics in this episode:

// Why it’s natural for sympathetic joy to not flow easily – and to not be ashamed about it

// The steps of cultivating mudita

// The one phrase to practice if you want to move past envy and jealousy

// What gratitude has got to do with it all

// The bennies of being really good at mudita


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