One of the four loves or sublime attitudes in Buddhism is appreciative joy, sometimes also called sympathetic or empathetic joy. It is the vicarious experience of taking pleasure in the true happiness of others and its causes, free from attachment and self-interest. We experience appreciative joy when we delight in some else’s well-being regardless of our own situation.
I declare that the heart’s release by sympathetic joy has the sphere of infinite consciousness for its excellence. – Metta Sutta: Goodwill
This attitude naturally arises when we are clear-minded and present – not caught up in attachments, aversions or afflictive emotions. Most of us have experienced appreciative joy when we’ve observed an innocent child, puppy, or kitten happy at play or witnessed an act of kindness. It is more difficult; however, when other people succeed where we have not or when they receive things we want. It can also be difficult to appreciate another’s happiness when, by comparison, we feel they are undeserving. There is certain amount of fearlessness and courage that is required in order to rejoice in others’ happiness, because we have to let go of the worry that there may not be enough happiness left over for us.
When we explore the beneficial mental states, it can be useful to also understand their near and far enemies. These are detrimental mental states that undermine their beneficial counterparts. Near enemies tend to be subtle because they appear similar to the beneficial mental state on the surface, and it is only upon closer inspection that we discover they are not. Near enemies often involve comparison (especially self-referencing) and elements of insincerity or even hypocrisy. The near enemies of appreciative joy are:
- Exhilaration – feeling exuberant about another’s happiness insomuch as it pacifies our own sense of lack.
- Pride – appreciating others’ happiness merely in how it reflects upon us.
Far enemies are more obvious because they are mental states that are directly opposed to the original. The far enemies of appreciative joy are:
- Jealousy – the fear that others will take what we perceive as ours.
- Envy – the resent-filled desire for what others have.
- Greed – wanting ever more than is needed.
We can cultivate appreciative joy by meditating first on the happiness or success of a friend or loved one. We practice this until we are able to experience genuine feelings of joy and appreciation for the benefits of what they have received or accomplished. Then we gradually move, step by step, to neutral acquaintances, strangers, enemies, and eventually all beings everywhere. Here is a guided sympathetic joy (mudita) meditation with Joseph Goldstein:
…abandoning the five hindrances, the corruptions of awareness that weaken discernment — keep pervading the first direction [the east] with an awareness imbued with good will, likewise the second, likewise the third, likewise the fourth. Thus above, below, & all around, everywhere, in its entirety, keep pervading the all-encompassing cosmos with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, without hostility, without ill will. – Metta Sutta: Goodwill