Sympathetic Joy

Focus on Happiness

A particularly nice way to decrease your own suffering is to focus on happiness, especially that of others, through a practice called "sympathetic joy" or mudita, one of the four brahma viharas. Sometimes it's very easy to forget the better parts of life by concentrating on decreasing suffering; sympathetic joy is a pleasant reminder to focus on the happier moments, too.

The practice is quite simple. At its most basic, you keep your attention on one thought: "I'm happy that you're happy." It's easiest to get the feel of this by thinking of a person you know who is usually happy and upbeat. This does not have to be someone you know personally; it can be someone who you've seen on TV, for example.

You can go through a list this way:

  • Someone you know who is generally happy
  • A benefactor
  • Yourself
  • A friend
  • A neutral person, like a bank teller
  • Someone you find difficult to get along with
  • Then your family, city, state, ..., the world
  • The universe
  • All sentient beings

You might notice the mention of a "difficult person". The recommendation that I received was initially to not include someone who is really difficult to get along with, just a little. Remember, you're focusing on happiness, after all. And though I mention people specifically, the list ends with "all sentient beings", so it's good to include animals as well. Anybody who's watched a dog or otter play can appreciate their sheer joy of life.

For myself I find it an odd thing to say, "I'm happy that I'm happy," so instead I say, "Others are happy that I'm happy." When you think about it, that's really true, even if the others are just strangers in a grocery line.

When I practice sympathetic joy, I use two phrases. On the in breath I think, "I'm happy that you're happy" and on the out breath I think, "May your happiness continue." Or for myself, "Others are happy that I'm happy. May my happiness continue." These two sets of thoughts complement each other to again demonstrate our interdependence: When you're happy, I'm happy and when I'm happy, you're happy.