Feeling Happy for Others Can Make You Happy
How to share in other people’s joy
Posted November 2, 2016
Some months ago, my husband and my granddaughter Malia were having a great time together even though they live 400 miles apart. They were on their respective iPhones, “FaceTiming,” as they planned his upcoming trip to see her in Los Angeles. He visits on his own because I’m not able to travel due to chronic illness.
Malia had propped her phone against the back of the washing machine and was doing her laundry; they were chatting about places they might go and things they might do. At first, I was enjoying listening to them. Then, unexpectedly, I began to feel sad. Soon, that sadness turned to envy, and it wasn’t long before I began spinning stressful stories about my life: “I’m the one who grew up in Los Angeles; he didn’t. I’m the one who was supposed to take Malia to all my favorite places: the Santa Monica Pier, the La Brea Tar Pits, Westwood Village and UCLA.”
I couldn’t bear to listen to their “happy talk” for one more minute, so I got up, left the living room and headed for the bedroom. Once there, the pain of envy was compounded by a negative self-judgment: “It’s selfish of me to be envious of the time they’ll be spending together when I love both of them so much.”
As I was stewing in this envy and self-blame, my husband suddenly showed up, iPhone in hand, and lay down on the bed next to me. He was still FaceTiming with Malia. He had no idea why I’d left the living room, so he’d come into the bedroom to allow me to be a part of their conversation. Malia had now moved from the laundry room to her bedroom and was engaged in that burdensome childhood task of picking clothes up off the floor (a directive, no doubt, from her mother—my daughter).
I couldn’t very well get up again and leave the room, so I decided to work on opening my heart to their happiness. I began with a dose of self-compassion by acknowledging how hard it is not to be able to spend time with Malia in Los Angeles. That alone lessened envy’s tight grip. Gradually, the sound of the two of them having fun together brought me out of my funk, and it wasn’t long before I even felt good enough to join the chat by adding in some suggestions of my own. My envy had turned into happiness for them, and being happy for them made me happy too.
Here’s my recipe letting other people’s joy make you happy.
One dose self-compassion
Envy is a common reaction to hearing about or being in the presence of others who are having a good time, so if you’re feeling envious, cut yourself some slack. You can’t control the emotions that arise in your mind. What matters to your well-being is how you respond to that envy. On that score, you have two choices; you can respond with self-blame or with self-compassion.
Self-blame never makes us happy, so instead of judging yourself negatively for feeling envious, cultivate compassion for the reason you’re feeling the way you do. Here are the words I spoke silently to myself as I resolved to put aside self-blame: “It’s understandable that I feel envious. After all, I thought I’d be the one to show Malia my favorite places. This is really hard.” Filling your heart with self-compassion is the perfect antidote for any painful emotion, including a negative self-judgment.
Speaking compassionately to myself about my inability to be with Malia in Los Angeles enabled me to accept a circumstance I have no power to control. It also helped me realize that neither my husband nor Malia wanted their conversation to make me unhappy. In fact, they were making an effort to include me. Looking at it from their point of view opened my heart enough that I began to share with them in a way that was possible for me. Yes, I couldn’t visit Malia in Los Angeles, but I could join their chat about where to go and what to do…and so I did. And that made me feel better.
One dose joy for others
At first glance, feeling joy for others might seem easy. Why wouldn’t you be happy for someone who is feeling good? Well, so long as that other person’s happiness is the result of something you don’t particularly crave (like winning a Gold Medal at the Olympics), it is easy to be happy for them! But it’s not so easy when another person’s happiness is due to something you wish you could have or experience yourself. This was why I was struggling to feel happy for my husband and Malia—even though I love them with all my heart.
Here’s a secret I’ve learned about cultivating joy for others. You can “fake it ‘til you make it.” What I mean is that if you pretend that you’re happy for another person, eventually that pretending becomes genuine. The only prerequisite for this to work is that, if you’re feeling envious, you put aside any negative self-judgment about it.
And so, when I initially rejoined that FaceTime chat with my husband and Malia, I began by pretending that I was happy for the two of them. It didn’t take long for that pretending to turn to genuine happiness for them. I think this happens because it feels good to be happy for others, and so your body and mind pick up on the “pretend” good feeling and make it real.
Putting the ingredients together
By putting self-compassion and joy for others together, not only can you feel happy for other people, but that good feeling, in turn, can make you happy too. A few years ago, I not only felt envious of one of my husband’s trips to see Malia, I was downright resentful. Envy arises when you want what others have or can do. Resentment is also present if you believe you’re not getting it because of some perceived injustice in the world.
My husband had bought tickets for the two of them to go to Fiddler on the Roof. This musical is special to me because my father’s family immigrated from modern-day Ukraine to the United States in the early 1900s. They left because of the pogroms against Jews. Fiddler on the Roof was my story, and I wanted to be the one to take Malia to see it. As a result, instead of feeling happy for them, I felt envy and resentment—resentment in the sense that I felt I was the victim of some terrible injustice because I’m too sick to travel. “It’s not fair!” I protested.
With effort, I was able to turn my misery around. I started by evoking self-compassion for how hard it was not to be able to take Malia to Fiddler. Being kind to myself in this way enabled me to drop the painful stories I was spinning about how unfair life can be. It also made it easier to look at their plans though their eyes and reflect on how they wouldn’t want their evening at Fiddler to make me unhappy.
Then I turned my attention to feeling joy for them. Yes, at first, I had to pretend that I was happy for them, but that’s okay. It didn’t take long for that pretending to turn into genuine joy for the two of them. And before long, I was feeling happy myself at the thought that Malia was finally getting to see a musical that was such an important part of my life. I even spent some of the evening singing my favorite songs from Fiddler:
Swiftly fly the years.
One season following another,
Laden with happiness and tears.
I deeply value the practice of feeling happy for others. I call it a practice because it takes practice. When I first became chronically ill, just thinking about people going places I could no longer go and doing things I could no longer do made me so unhappy that I couldn’t feel joy for them at all. I felt envy and resentment—along with self-blame for feeling those emotions. After several years, I was able to turn this around, even though I still have to consciously work at it.
Begin by speaking to yourself in a compassionate voice. This will enable you to accept your life as it is and, from this place of open-hearted acceptance, you can work on feeling happy for others. The true wonder of this is that the more you’re able to feel happy for others, the happier you’ll feel yourself.
© 2016 Toni Bernhard. Thank you for reading my work. I’m the author of four books:
How to Be Sick: Your Pocket Companion (for those who've read How to Be Sick and for those who haven't). Available May 2020
Visit www.tonibernhard.com for more information.
You might also like “What to Do When Gratitude Is in Short Supply.”