How Can We Avoid Resenting Others?

The Buddhist concept of ‘vicarious happiness’ may offer one solution.

Posted May 18, 2018

Public domain (adapted)
Source: Public domain (adapted)

This weekend, much of the world’s attention will be fixed – at least momentarily – on the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. But I'm not alone in feeling a sense of ambivalence, being habitually predisposed to be wary of the institution of the monarchy. That said, I can still appreciate why other people do like it.

It’s emblematic of tradition and our national identity, which are important considerations and not lightly dismissed. It has a certain pageant and spectacle, which brighten the civic sphere. And it's an alternate set of values from those of consumer capitalism that can otherwise dominate public life. Take London’s parks, for instance, which for me are the crowning jewels of the city. Were these not designated ‘royal’ spaces, it is easy to imagine them being sold off by the government to developers. Somehow, the monarchical stamp seems to ward off that possibility. And finally, there is something to be said for having a head of state who is not a politician, but who can stand above the fray and in theory unite a population, as our queen skilfully seems to do.

But all that said, on balance, I still personally dislike the idea of a monarchy. The arguments against it are well rehearsed and persuasive. It’s the pre-eminent symbol of a class-based system of privilege and inequality which I believe has been, and remains, deeply corrosive to this country. And the idea that we should revere a particular family just because they happen to be the benefactors of riches and power accrued in earlier generations seems very anachronistic. As such, I find it very difficult to get excited about the idea of a royal wedding.

Muditā

But that doesn’t mean I don’t feel happy for Harry and Meghan. As much as I dislike the institution of the monarchy, some of its main protagonists strike me as pretty decent people. William and Harry, in particular, seem like good men on the whole. I’ve particularly admired their recent work around mental health, for instance. And it would be unfair of me to hold them personally responsible for the system they’ve been born into. Moreover, despite their privileges, they have certainly had their well-known traumas and challenges to deal with, as well as the general weirdness of being a "public figure" since their childhood. And so, on the occasion of his wedding, I feel good for Harry and Meghan, and can celebrate their happiness.

Buddhists have a word for this kind of experience: muditā. This Sanskrit term describes a form of sympathetic or vicarious happiness. It’s a great example of an "untranslatable" word, one that lacks an exact equivalent in our own tongue. I’ve recently been collecting such words, particularly ones relating to wellbeing (as a researcher in positive psychology). The result is an evolving "positive lexicography," as I explore in two new books (please see bio for details). Such words are significant, as they represent phenomena which have been overlooked or underappreciated in one’s own culture, but have been recognised by another culture.

In the case of muditā, this highlights the fascinating possibility of experiencing positive forms of empathy. When we think about empathy – and related states like sympathy and compassion – it is common to assume that these only pertain to negative experiences of pain and distress1. Empathy and sympathy derive from the Greek páthos – which generally refers to suffering, but sometimes just emotion – with prefixes denoting "with" and "in" respectively, while compassion derives from pati (the Latin version of páthos). Thus, all three generally describe sharing another person’s suffering (with subtle differences of emphasis, in that empathy involves actually feeling what they feel, as if we are in distress, too, whereas sympathy and compassion mean we feel for them). Muditā, though, opens our eyes to the possibility of being positively moved by other people doing well. 

Brahma-vihārās

Indeed, muditā is a very important emotion in Buddhism. So much so that it is one of the four ‘divine’ or ‘immeasurable’ qualities that Buddhists are encouraged to practise and cultivate. The others are mettā (usually translated as loving-kindness), karuṇā (compassion), and upekkhā (equanimity). These are known collectively as the brahma-vihārās, which translates as "the abodes of Brahma" – with this latter meaning "highest" or "superior," and also being the name of the creator god in Hindu theology. Thus, these "god-like" qualities are held in the highest regard as portals to the divine.

But that is not to suggest these are inaccessible to ordinary mortals. Buddhism teaches that these are eminently human qualities that all people can, and do, experience. And that is true, even if one doesn’t have a specific word for it. I’m confident that everyone can recall at least one time when they felt good because of seeing someone else feel happy – a family member or close friend, most likely. Even if only briefly, their delight sparks a flash of positivity within us.

Such experiences are not inconsequential. One reason muditā is so valorised in Buddhism is that it offers an antidote to the resentment that can often cloud our mind, and a pathway towards peace. This is because a central cause of our suffering is self-centeredness. Humans are liable to get tangled up in webs of guilt, envy, worry, and fear. But muditā offers an escape route, and a pathway to self-transcendence. We abandon our habitual self-preoccupation – even if only briefly – and enter a deeper, broader form of "intersubjective" existence that is far more nourishing and fulfilling2.

Such are the possibilities afforded by celebrating the happiness of others. And perhaps I shall fleetingly feel this benevolent state this weekend, as I look at Harry and Meghan’s evident joy, even if my mind may soon revert to its more prosaic self-preoccupation. So, for that moment of beautiful self-forgetting, I’ll be grateful (albeit still not a fan of monarchism).

References

[1] Eisenberg, N., & Miller, P. A. (1987). Empathy, sympathy, and altruism: Empirical and conceptual links. In N. Eisenberg & J. Strayer (Eds.), Empathy and its Development (pp. 292-316). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] T. Lomas, ‘Self-transcendence through shared suffering: a transpersonal theory of compassion’. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 27, no. 2 (2015): 168–187.

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