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Mudita – To enjoy the happiness of others

Saturday, July 11th, 2009 at 8:49 am
by Borg

I came across a new word recently and I realized it might be the most beautiful word in the world, yet it has no direct correspondence in English. Mudita is a Pali word, and is usually translated as “sympathetic” or “altruistic” joy. Basically it means to take pleasure in someone else’s well-being. Isn’t that lovely? I think we need that word desperately as I sense there is a widespread suspicion against even the remote possibility of it. Allegedly someone’s success only genuinely provokes envy in others, and some cynical bastards even claim that people that show joy about other’s success only do so for strategic purposes, i.e. if they stand to benefit somehow. If this is not a “misunderestimation” of our emotional capacity I do not know what is. The claim is based on the (potentially self-fulfilling) notion that human’s are ultimately only selfish, as for instance people that give to others only do so to feel good about themselves. The absurdity of this argument is that it implies an idea of altruism that is impossible to ever fulfill short of actually being the other person. Of course a giver will feel good, since we do everything with some emotional motivation, and those rewarding emotions cannot be anywhere else than in the doer. Would having no emotions in association with a good deed make the person more altruistic rather than more schizoid? The difference between selfish and altruistic actions is not that the latter have no benefit for the doer but that it has benefit not only, or primarily, for the doer. The great, yet linguistically overseen, fact about humans, contrary to common thinking, is that we are fully capable of taking great pleasure in helping others, or seeing something become realized just for the beauty of it, or watching our loved ones overcome obstacles. Mudita is something every parent recognizes.

I agree that there must be something quite rotten about us since the opposite of mudita has made it to English language, namely the German shadenfreude, to take pleasure in the misfortunes of others. That in my mind must be one of the ugliest traits in our nature, and it comes as close to pure evil as I can imagine. The fact that the ugliest and not the most beautiful word has made it does carry a seed of redemption however. If it is accepted that we are capable of being emotionally excited by the suffering of others, logically it seems to refute the claim that we are not capable of vicarious emotions, i.e. the emotional participation in the experience of others. (That there should be any doubt about that baffles me seeing with all the football, religious worship and patriotism going around, vicarious living seems to be then norm rather than the exception. ) And if we have this capacity, which no doubt we do, we can chose to cultivate the positive aspect of it rather than the negative.

Without sounding to spiritual, thinking about mudita also has a self-fulfilling or reflexive quality. The more I can take joy in the happiness of someone else, the happier I get and the better I get at taking joy in the happiness of others… There is something very relaxing and cozy about it. If I can take joy in someone else’s joy I also feel great about myself, like I am a grown-up or something. I am normally just busy with my own projects, but if I stop for a moment and take in someone else’s achievements there is actually an abundance of great things to enjoy. I can think that so-and-so is a truly beautiful and gifted person. How wonderful it must be for so-and-so to have that financial freedom. I can listen to a song and think, are we not lucky that this composer managed to write that tune. It cultivates a gratefulness for all the good things in life, instead of a frustration about what I do not have.

Damn it….sounds way to cheesy…better stop or I will make a New Age ass of myself.

3 Responses to “Mudita – To enjoy the happiness of others”

  1. Guy Says:

    "In Sweden, a common saying is: The Schadenfreude is the only true joy." – just found that via Google. So what does that say about your fellow countrymen? Possibly explains the Vikings; they were not getting enough Schadenfreude so they decided to create some.

    Anyway I think we now have to move into an abundance-based economy, away from the (self)-interest-based one (where "if you get something it means there's less for me", rather than "there's enough for everyone so your increasing happiness is not decreasing mine").

    It's a question of maturity- for me, a mature person is secure enough in themselves to feel 'mudita' when someone else succeeds- a person stuck in an adolescent phase feels only jealousy or resentment.

  2. Nils Borg Says:

    True I'm afraid…"Skadegladje ar den enda sanna gladjen". We are clearly immature bastards…more sophisticated than the vikings though. Instead of laughingly hitting the Danes over the head with logs we now deliver that line with a gleeful smile looking over at the waiter that just spilt wine over miss Posh's new dress. Seems the Brits are doing fine on the mudita front though. I'm thinking about the success of both Paul Potts and Susan Boyle in Britain's Got Talent.

  3. Guy Says:

    Maybe you hit the Danes too hard and stopped them from being able to speak properly :p

    Yes, there does seem to be a joy in making the 'small person' like Potts or Boyle feel big (although they are both fairly big physically already). But just wait until they are being chauffeur-driven everywhere and covered in jewels- then we'll hate them like poison and the Schadenfreude starts in earnest! Mwhahahahahaha…

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