Ewan Kingston is a PhD student at the Department of Philosophy, Duke University.
In a traditional Indian teaching preserved in Buddhism, the path to a fulfilling life consists of practicing four virtues – kindness, compassion, equanimity and… mudita. The last lacks an obvious English translation, a hint that perhaps Western culture could use more reflection on it.
Mudita is probably most easily explained by considering those that stand in opposition to it: sour grapes, envy and schadenfreude. We know what it is to disparage someone else’s good fortune, or to desire it for ourselves, and even to rejoice in in an enemy’s suffering. To embody mudita, in contrast, is to rejoice in another’s happiness, to feel genuine joy at their joy. Thus, a common translation of mudita is “sympathetic joy”. We do feel mudita, and express it with the words “I’m happy for you”. But sometimes our words sound hollow as if belied by envy or an anxious orientation towards our own situation. When I “like” my friend’s achievement or happy story on facebook, sometimes this is mudita, but far more often it is approving “this is the way the world should be” or expressing a kind of self-centred pride (look how great my friends are!). And I rarely hear people talk about feeling sympathetic joy for strangers.
The difficulty, and perhaps the reward, of truly being happy for another lies in the way it can dissolve the self. To embody mudita is to take a very straightforward approach to another’s happiness. I might smile when a stranger meets her loved one in an airport lounge, and my identity as a 36-year old philosophy PhD student from New Zealand with papers to grade becomes completely unimportant. When you really share the joy of your three-year old niece laughing at a silly song, you laugh together in a fundamental sense: you, niece and song as one organism. Mudita is a gift that allows us to see clearly and live more fully in the world.