Sympathetic Joy: Be Happy for Others

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Lost Connections" by Johann Hari. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is sympathetic joy? How do you master sympathetic joy meditation?

Sympathetic joy is the practice of deriving satisfaction from untainted happiness for other people. This applies to loved ones, strangers, and even enemies. You can master sympathetic joy meditation by picturing others, and imagining something good happening to them that will bring them happiness.

Read on to learn how to master sympathetic joy meditation.

Let Go of Your Ego

The second strategy for reconnection to others is letting go of your ego and focusing on others rather than your own struggles. This is especially hard because individualist Western culture operates on the assumption of scarcity: There is not enough to go around, so the only way to succeed is to focus on your own needs and compete with other people—even for clearly unlimited resources like intelligence. This constant egocentric competition and self-interest fuels depression, but there is an antidote to it: a technique called “sympathetic joy.” 

Sympathetic Joy

As the name implies, sympathetic joy is the practice of feeling genuine, untainted happiness for other people. You won’t master sympathetic joy meditation overnight, but if you’re willing to practice it, it can significantly improve your life. To try it for yourself, follow the steps below, spending at least 15 minutes following them each day:

  1. First, imagine something wonderful happening to you, like falling in love or winning an award. In your mind, picture all the details of that moment. Let yourself feel the joy you’d feel in that moment until it almost feels like that picture is really happening right now.
  2. Now, think about someone you love, and imagine something happening to them that makes them feel that same profound happiness. Focus on their joy—and then let it fill you up with that same powerful feeling. The goal is to feel as genuinely happy for them as you would feel if you were the one experiencing a joyful moment. 
  3. Next, repeat this process while picturing someone you see often but don’t know very well, like a neighbor you’ve never officially met. Picture them feeling powerfully happy, and try to feel happy that they’re experiencing that joy. 
  4. This next step is tough, but don’t give up! Picture someone you don’t like, or who you have a conflict with. Imagine them feeling truly, profoundly happy, and try to feel equally joyful that they’re joyful. This takes a lot of practice, so don’t worry if you can’t muster that feeling right away—just focus on the image of them feeling happy and try to wish them well.
  5. The final step is the real gauntlet: Picture someone you actively despise, and push yourself to feel really, genuinely happy for them. It may feel impossible, even after weeks of daily practice, but that’s normal. Keep practicing—over time, that active hatred will start to lose steam, and you may even be able to feel truly happy for that person’s happiness. That doesn’t mean you agree with them or even like them—but you’re no longer consumed with negative feelings. 

Studies show that sympathetic joy meditation has all kinds of mental health benefits, including reducing jealousy and increasing compassion in practical ways (which makes it easier to make the social connections everyone needs). Even better, training your body to produce a rush of joy whenever you see someone else succeed connects you to an unlimited source of happiness. At any given moment, someone, somewhere, is feeling profoundly happy. If you seek out those people and allow yourself to share their joy, you can conjure a genuine sense of happiness even when your own life feels especially dark. 

Parallels to Psychedelic Research

As we’ve just noted, deep, sustained meditation practice similar to that outlined above can be a powerful treatment for depression. The downside to meditation, however, is that it can take months or even years of practice to become skilled enough to reap those benefits. So, in the 1950s, scientists started the search for a faster way than meditation to dissolve the ego and reconnect to other people. They started the first official research into the clinical effects of psychedelic drugs like LSD (which was legal at that time) with extremely promising results. Those early studies showed that psychedelics could have all kinds of benefits for mental health, from helping people break lifelong addictions to healing chronic depression. 

Unfortunately, a wave of anti-drug hysteria in the United States led to a total ban on LSD in the late 1960s, shutting down psychedelic research programs before they could follow up on those promising early results. Research on the mental health benefits of psychedelics didn’t pick up again until a single study in the 1990s, this time using psilocybin (the psychedelic chemical found in “magic” mushrooms). Modern medical research involves much stricter controls than in the 60s, so researchers spent months preparing participants before administering the drug in a series of guided, graded exposures. After taking the drug, many participants had deep revelations about long-suppressed trauma and described it as a “spiritual experience.”

Once again, the results were almost universally positive—nearly 80% of participants said the experiment was one of the five most important events in their lives. That study opened the door for a modern wave of psychedelics research. It’s still in the early stages, but preliminary studies show that psilocybin is remarkably effective at treating depression and anxiety. It’s also more consistently effective for helping people quit smoking than any other treatment on the market. These results are correlated with the intensity of the spiritual experience a person has: Somehow, a powerful, mystical experience dissolves the ego as effectively as deep meditation. 

Sympathetic Joy: Happiness Is Contagious

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Joseph Adebisi

Joseph has had a lifelong obsession with reading and acquiring new knowledge. He reads and writes for a living, and reads some more when he is supposedly taking a break from work. The first literature he read as a kid were Shakespeare's plays. Not surprisingly, he barely understood any of it. His favorite fiction authors are Tom Clancy, Ted Bell, and John Grisham. His preferred non-fiction genres are history, philosophy, business & economics, and instructional guides.

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