One aspect of human character, as common as it is unpleasant, is the tendency to resent the good fortune of others and to begrudge them their happiness.
The basic position of ego is one of scarcity (the idea that there is not enough to go round), so when we see someone else doing well, it can make our hearts feel heavy, especially when the recipient of such good fortune clearly does not deserve it (at least in our opinion). There is a feeling that there is only a limited amount of good fortune or joy in this world and if he/she has taken so much, then there will not be enough for me! The truth is that the good fortune of another person cannot cause unhappiness; it is caused by our negative attitude (which leaves us feeling isolated in our resentment) and ignorance of the real nature of things (profound interconnection).
The darker side of this attitude is to rejoice in the misfortune of another. A person once told me that they felt glee at the misfortune of another. The Germans even have a word for it: that word is Schadenfreude.
These are very stressful attitudes to live with, and are the cause of much unnecessary suffering.
We can in fact make such circumstances our teacher, by seeing them as an opportunity to practice what is known in Buddhism as “Mudita” (empathetic joy), which refers to the deliberate cultivation of positive feelings associated with the success and happiness of others.
Here is a curious observation: it is much easier to feel empathy for misfortune than empathy for good fortune!
It is not difficult for us to feel joy when things go well for us, but if we can cultivate Mudita, empathic joy whenthings go well for others, it becomes another important source of happiness. Empathic joy is an expression of generosity and kindness. To act in this way is to act with “enlightened self-interest”, as being generous and kind makes us feel better.
The practice of compassion also gives us a way to generate empathic joy. Firstly, remember that when you make comparisons with others, that the best you can ever achieve is to compare your interior with their exterior; you can never truly know what is in the heart of another. Remember that you, me and everyone wants to avoid suffering and experience happiness. However, we are all subject to change. Everything changes and nothing is permanent. Health can change in an instant. Thing we cherish will fade and die. Relationships will come to an end. The fact is that everyone suffers, irrespective of how their life might look from the outside.
We can generate empathic joy also in meditation, through the loving kindness meditation.
However you look at it, incorporating empathic joy into your life brings many benefits by increasing the experience of happiness.
The Dalai Lama has expressed this wonderfully:
“There are so many people in this world; it simply makes sense to make their happiness a source of our own. Then our chances of experiencing joy are enhanced six* billion to one. Those are very good odds.”
*Today, it would be seven billion.