Why we find it hard to be happy for others

I sometimes wonder whether I am stuck at a five-year-old birthday party level of maturity, at 50.

Am I nice person? I’m not so sure. I can be pretty generous. I’ll pay for lunch and I like giving stuff away: socialist redistribution of sunglasses. If required, I can step up as a casserole-maker in a crisis. I’m happy to take your kids so you can have a break. Oh, and I’m more than happy to listen to any of the shittier aspects of your life with lots of understanding nodding.

I don’t deserve any credit for this. There is no virtue in being kind to people who are having a hard time, who are vulnerable. That’s a doddle. But what about people who are ‘zip-a-dee-doo-dah’ and on top of the world? That’s not so easy.

Can you be genuinely, uncomplicatedly thrilled when a friend has some spect-acular glamorous success that involves free business class travel and canapés? “So utterly humbled my book has made it onto another ‘best of’ list. That’s 19 and counting. #blushing.” You know that saying: ‘When my friend succeeds a little bit inside me dies’?

I was hoping to say I don’t feel so snarky about people who have achievements not in my purview – say they win medals for sports (I’m not sporty) or have children who are head prefect or something (my kids go to an alternative school so don’t have to do that stuff).

But then I shamefully realised how I had to grit my teeth just a little bit to send clapping emojis to a friend about their new baby – I’m not having another one of those at 50, so surely not jealous? So maybe any event that is joyous for others brings out my mean-spirited side. What’s wrong with me that I have to take other people’s achievements, even the ones I don’t want, as a personal affront?

Was I just born a jerk? Or can you learn to be really pleased – not just faking it – for other people when good things happen for them? I wanted to find out.

I started by learning about ‘sympathetic joy’. Usually we rejoice in what we get, not in what others have. But learning to share their joy revolutionises our thinking about where we can find happiness.

There are some people who naturally can do this (they’re pretty awesome, and rare) but turns out I’m not the only arsehole, because most of us have to train ourselves to do it. We have the capacity inside us, but we need to practise growing it. You can do this using a practice called loving-kindness meditation.

The guru who has popularised this practice, a wonderful woman called Sharon Salzberg, makes it sound so simple. Sit comfortably with your eyes open or closed and then choose certain phrases of loving-kindness – ‘May you (or I) be safe, be happy, be healthy, live with ease’ – repeating them silently over and over again. We offer these sayings to ourselves, to other people we know, including difficult people, and ultimately to all beings everywhere.

Meditator Dan Harris, author of 10% Happier: Meditation for Fidgety Sceptics, admitted to being squeamish about the touchy-feeliness of this – “It sounded like Valentine’s Day with a machete to my throat.” But the thing that made him willing to do it was realising you don’t actually have to force any particular feeling, you just have to say the words. Loving-kindness practice is simply about learning to pay attention differently. So I decided to try too.

But I also found I had to challenge some of my hoary old assumptions. Turns out there is not a limited amount of happiness to go around. And when someone else has success it doesn’t mean they will have it forever and that we never will.

I sometimes wonder whether I am stuck at a five-year-old birthday party level of maturity, at 50. Am I sulking because (in adult terms) I didn’t win at pass the parcel?

Something Salzberg said really helped (it’s easy to sending loving-kindness her way, she’s amazing). She says it’s at precisely this moment, when I’m berating myself for being a brat, that I most need to send loving-kindness to myself. When you are struggling or get distracted, that is a perfect time to feel some compassion for yourself, as you gently let go of that self-judgement, and begin again.

But one thing I’ve noticed has changed is that I understand more about the inter-connectedness of life. Actually, I found this a most comforting thought. Because you’re not alone when you are suffering, which is soothing, and since we are all connected, other people’s joys and triumphs are, in some way, yours too. We are all intertwined.

“It’s not romantic, it’s not sentimental, it’s not even very ‘nice’. It just is. What happens over there, doesn’t nicely stay over there,” Salzberg says.

It is almost practical to choose to feel joy for others. As the Dalai Lama put it, there are so many people in this world, it simply makes sense to make their happiness a source of our own. Then our chances of experiencing joy “are enhanced six billion to one”, he says. “Those are very good odds.”

Along the way, I have found a few other mantras that work for me.

I try to think of others’ good luck or success as encouragement to myself. If she got a book deal, then maybe I can too?

And being realistic, you can’t do everything. You can think of others achieving things you never will as doing the stuff on your behalf. Lorde is singing for me, Jacinda is running the country for me, Hilary is hosting the TV show for me.

Perhaps most importantly, when we try to feel better about ourselves by spoiling the good in others, we feel worse.

I have been doing daily loving-kindness practice for a few weeks now, and I can’t really tell you if the mantras are helping me sprinkle fairy dust on my friends’ good fortune, or rain on their parade. I just say the words and hope it’s getting through.

But yesterday I posted some baby clothes to my friend. And as I looked at the little sheepskin booties, I really did feel pleased for her. For a second. Then I thought, gleefully: ‘Sheesh, I’m glad I don’t have to wake up every two hours to a screaming baby.’ Oh well… “May you be safe, be happy, be healthy, live with ease…”

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