Can you be happy for someone else?

Posted: September 30th, 2016 | Columns, Featured, Life Beyond Therapy | No Comments

By Michael Kimmel | Life Beyond Therapy

There’s a word in Buddhism, “muditā,” which means “celebrating the success of others.” The first time I heard it, at a meditation retreat in Northern California, I wondered, “Why is the teacher talking about this? What does this have to do with feeling calm and peaceful?”

Michael Kimmel

Michael Kimmel

“The enemy of muditā is resentment,” the teacher explained. “Muditā is the medicine for the poisons of jealousy, envy and derision. Muditā heals the cruel urge to stomp on someone else’s happiness.”

Oh, now I get it. They were talking about it because it’s really hard to do.

Muditā is the opposite of “schadenfreude” — one of those words that you see in fancy magazines like The New Yorker but aren’t sure what they mean — which means, “taking pleasure in the misfortune of others.”

Oh yeah, that I’m familiar with.

I admit that, sometimes, revenge feels pretty damned good. We all know how to do that. But how do you not hate — or envy — other men and women who seem happier, more successful, and more confident than you are?

If you believe in what I call “the giant pie theory,” you think that all the good stuff in the world — money, fame, good looks and happiness — is like a great big pie and there’s only so much for anyone. If you have more good fortune than I do, then there’s less for me. In other words, there’s only so much good stuff to go around, and you’d better not take some of mine, ’cause I want it!

If you want to know where you stand on this, just notice the next time you see someone really beautiful, happy and successful. Can you celebrate their happiness, or do you hate them?

When you walk down the street and see a couple in love, do you say, “Good for them!” or “Why can’t I have that?”

This muditā stuff is not for the timid. In my experience, sometimes it’s harder than hell to love the beautiful, the rich and the successful among us. So why are Buddhists recommending this stuff? Or, as a friend of mine might put it, “What’s in this for me?”

A lot, as it turns out. Buddhists are no fools. They’ve been around for thousands of years. If this stuff didn’t work, I think someone would have figured it out by now.

Being happy for someone else brings you happiness. It’s like when you look at an adorable baby or cute puppy, you don’t hate the baby or puppy, do you? No, you enjoy their beauty and happiness and that makes you feel good. Right?

I let go of the “giant pie theory” a long time ago, because this muditā stuff works. I’ve been practicing it for a while now and the secret is to start small. Begin being happy for things that are easy: babies, dogs and cats, beautiful flowers and trees, cloud formations, or colors that please you. You’re learning the basics here, building up your muditā “muscles.”

Don’t start with people; they’re usually the hardest.

Once you’ve done this for a little while, you can begin to be happy for people when it’s relatively easy; start with people you like. Eventually, work your way to neutral people, those folks you don’t have strong feelings about.

Only once you’ve gotten really good at this should you even consider being happy for people you don’t like. That’s the final stage and not for beginners. Even Buddhist meditation teachers admit this is a hard one (for them too).

It takes some time and effort, but it makes your life so much better. Being a bitter old hater isn’t much fun (I know; I’m 63 and I’ve tried it).

When we hate on someone who we perceive to be more “together” than we are, we’re really just expressing the negative feelings we have about our own careers, bodies or relationships.

If hating made you happy, many of us would be like a human version of Disneyland: “the happiest person on earth.” In reality, hating makes you miserable. It drags you down, while the person you are hating is probably out having a good time, oblivious to your evil eye.

Instead, try a little muditā and see what happens; you have only your bitterness to lose.

—Michael Kimmel can be reached at 619-955-3311 or visit

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