How often have you told a friend ‘I’m so pleased for you!’ and not felt a trace of envy?
The Sanskrit word mudita means, roughly, the opposite of schadenfreude: happiness derived from someone else’s success, untainted by self-interest. It’s one of the four paramount virtues of Buddhism, and I think it’s safe to say it’s rarer than schadenfreude, too. Happiness, to a shocking degree, is comparison based: “being happy” means being happier than others. (“It is not enough to succeed – others must fail,” Gore Vidal acidly intoned, in a well-known episode of the series Gore Vidal Intones Things Acidly.) This is why, according to some research, a smaller pay rise might make you happier than a bigger one your colleagues also received. It may also be why some countries have high rates of both happiness and suicide: being unhappy amid the super-happy feels especially bad. Then there’s the Russian joke about the angel who appears to an old man, offering him anything he wants, with the caveat that his neighbour will get twice as much. He ponders, before replying, “I’d like to lose sight in one eye.”
Mudita, by contrast, is one of those emotions it’s easier to sign up to in principle than to feel. Think hard about it, and even the easiest cases – feeling happy for those you love most – seem questionable. Is your joy at your partner’s promotion free of selfish glee at the thought of a higher household income? Are you positive you feel only mudita for your kids, rather than using them to live out your thwarted dreams? How often have you told a friend “I’m so pleased for you!” and not felt a trace of envy? It’s not that those words are a lie. But they sometimes express an aspiration about how you’d like to feel, not how you do. Or maybe that’s just me, and I’ve inadvertently revealed I’m a self-obsessed monster.
Yet it’s central to the Buddhist take on mudita that it isn’t meant to feel like a duty, in order to qualify as a “good person”; instead, it’s meant to make the person who cultivates it much happier than otherwise. As the Dalai Lama likes to put it, developing the ability to take pleasure in the triumphs of 7 billion people, as opposed to one person, simply gives you far better odds of being happy. (Which isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with caring more for your family and friends; there’s something inhuman about claiming to love all humanity equally.) The hard-headed psychological truth behind mudita is that happiness isn’t a zero-sum game. There isn’t a fixed amount of it; your getting some doesn’t mean less for me. The zero-sum part arises from how we seek it. Money, for example, is intrinsically relative: millionaires are wealthy because most of us aren’t millionaires. Fame and power work similarly: if happiness means occupying the corner office, when someone beats you to it, you’ve lost out. A life of pure muditamight be an unattainable ideal, but the concept serves as a reminder that happiness itself need not follow these bleak rules. You can enjoy other people’s, too. I find this cheering. I hope the same goes for you – that’d make me so happy.