An essential part of developing resilience is strengthening positive qualities in our hearts and minds. In the Buddhist tradition, one of these qualities is called mudita: taking joy in the happiness of others. It is a particularly potent quality for resilience.
Mudita is the feeling of happiness that we experience in relation to another’s happiness. Our ordinary response to the success and wellbeing of others can often be to contract. When someone appears to have everything going for them—they’re healthy, they’re happy, they’re meeting with a lot of success—we may feel that sense of, “Could you turn it down just a little bit?”
This comes from the mistaken notion that happiness is a limited resource. Somewhere just below the surface of awareness we may believe that if you’re really happy, it’s going to limit the amount that I can be happy. That the amount of wellbeing you have somehow reduces the amount that’s available to the rest of us.
The Absence of Wanting
One way of understanding the heart qualities known as the brahmaviharas in Buddhism is as the absence of something else. Loving-kindness is the absence of ill will. When the heart is not affected by hostility, its natural response is kindness. Compassion is the absence of cruelty, which allows the heart to care. When there’s no craving or jealousy in the heart, the natural response is to celebrate and rejoice in the face of another’s happiness. When there is no reactivity, the hearts stays balanced with equanimity.
If I want something that you have, it’s harder to celebrate with you because my desire gets in the way. But if I’m not coveting what you have, then we can rejoice.
When somebody in a different field experiences success it’s easy to feel happy for them. My partner and I were watching figure skating in the Winter Olympics earlier this year. To see an athlete who has trained for years have an impeccable run moved me to tears. I felt so much joy seeing all of the conditions come together in that moment of success! It’s completely natural to feel happy and celebrate such flowering of human potential.
Some friends of mine have a two-year-old daughter, and recently sent me a video of her in the rain. She’s wearing little pink boots and jumping up and down in the puddles, splashing and squealing with joy. Her whole face was lit up. Notice how the heart can feel uplifted even thinking about and imagining that image!
This is mudita: feeling the happiness of another. The capacity for empathic resonance is innate. When empathy meets the happiness and the success of another, when there’s no craving or constriction, the natural response is to rejoice.
The Dalai Lama once said that when you count other people’s happiness as your own, your chances for happiness increase by 6 billion to 1. The cultivation of this quality starts to dissolve the boundaries between self and other. We touch a space that’s more expansive and connected.
An Essential Dimension of Resilience
Through contemplative practice, we can cultivate appreciate joy. Think of someone who’s happy, enjoying success. Then, allow the heart to really connecting with that, to feel it. You can try using a simple phrase to enhance the joy you may feel. “May your joy and happiness increase,” or “I’m so happy for you. I appreciate the blessings in your life.” Aim the mind and connect with the quality of joyful appreciation.
There are other ways to expand the practice of mudita. One is appreciating beauty. Watching figure skating, I felt joy not only because I appreciated the countless hours of practice that had gone in to that performance, but simply due to the artistic beauty of human expression.
Spend time in nature. Look at a tree, or listen to the sound of a stream in a meadow and allow your heart to be touched. Allowing ourselves to be moved by beauty can be considered an aspect of appreciative joy. It’s the delight and happiness that we feel in response to goodness. We can train our mind to dwell in this state. This ability is an essential dimension of resilience.
The Resilience of Gratitude
Gratitude is a distinct quality that is closely connected to appreciative joy. Gratitude is a kind of happiness for oneself—for the goodness and blessings in our own life.
Gratitude is one of the most simple and direct ways to bring more happiness into your life. Research studies consistently report a strong connection between gratitude and wellbeing. If you want to feel happier, reflect on gratitude every day. Don’t just think about it—feel it, take it in and let it nourish you.
At the core of the entire Buddhist monastic community we find gratitude and generosity. Buddhism has surviveed for more than two millennia entirely on the generosity of lay people: from poor villages to wealthy rulers. At the main meal of the day at any Theravada Buddhist monastery, the monastics chant what is called the anumodana blessing. This word itself is related to mudita and means “rejoicing with.” Anumodana is the sense of rejoicing in the goodness of generosity. It’s not so much saying thank you but more, “I celebrate the good that you’ve done in being generous. I’m happy for you—for that beauty in your heart.”
Beyond the personality
This is not about becoming a nicer person. It’s not about becoming likeable and more socially acceptable. These positive qualities of compassion, appreciative joy, and gratitude go beyond our personality. They are more deeply rooted in us, in our biology and in our spirit. They access a level of the heart deeper than the personality.
If you watch other mammals, study or read about them, these qualities will appear in you. Watch puppies play and you’ll experience mudita. You may even see them experiencing something akin to mudita, feeling joy and playfulness with one another. Observe a child playing with a kitten and see how the joy flows between them.
There are many beautiful stories about the compassion of elephants, who are extraordinarily sensitive, empathic creatures. I’ve read stories elephants returning to the bones of a deceased relative to visit them. The tip of an elephant’s trunk is incredibly sensitive. It’s so refined they can pick up a feather with the tip of their trunk. At times, they greet each other by touching one another’s face with the tip of their trunk. In this instance, a herd returned to the visit the bones of their matriarch. As they passed by, they would stroke the edge of her jawbone with their long nose, just as they would have in life, as if to remember the shape of her face and recall their connection.
A man named Anthony Lawrence ran a game reserve in South Africa called Thula Thula. He had worked for much of his adult life to protect wild elephants and give them a home. There are some remarkable stories of his relationship with them. 12 hours after he died, from hundreds of miles away, the herd of elephants he had protected and cared for began walking towards his home. Somehow they knew, and they just picked up and traveled hundreds of miles straight to his house on the reserve. They spent about a couple of days visiting there on the property, just lingering after he died.
These qualities of the heart go so deep—deeper than our personality or individual history. This is part of our heritage as conscious creatures on this planet. Mudita begins with celebrating the happiness, the wellbeing, and the success of others, but it opens into a much broader and refined attention to joy, happiness, beauty, and goodness in life. We can learn to be nourished by that, to let that joy and appreciation uplift us.