In his book, “Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression — and the Surprising Solutions”, Johann Hari mentions a female friend who suffered from constant envy. Anytime she heard of someone’s success she immediately thought of a negative attribute of that person to balance out her jealousy. If her friend was physically attractive, she told herself, “Ok so you’re gorgeous —  but your husband is ugly.”

Envious attitudes and retaliatory negativity feed on the messages society puts out, such as, “You have to look out for number one” and “There is only so much pie. If someone else has a big piece, you get a smaller piece.”

Kids constantly in competitive environments

Kids compete and compare every day in school and online. I’ve heard my kids bash successful celebrities, thinking it’s cool to do so. It is as if positivity or attention given one person, diminishes the success or attention of another, therefore that other person must be kept small. For example, if my daughter gets a good grade in her Language Arts class, my son can’t simply say, “Hey that’s great! Way to go!”. He has to say, “Well it’s Language Arts and that’s not an important class.”

Photo by James Pond on Unsplash

Competing with those you love

Granted it is always more difficult to compliment those we see as competitors. Siblings being classic rivals. Sometimes our spouses feel like competitors too. I found it hard to work up a sense of joy for my ex-husband toward the end of our marriage. It seemed he dominated most family discussions and competed with me for best parent title.

I did not want to give him anymore “wins” or kudos. Looking back, perhaps a few more cheers for him would have made him feel safer with me and less competitive. It’s likely he needed my support as much as I needed his.

If only we could have gained energy from each other’s joy and successes. It was easy to feel empathetic joy with my children when they achieved something or felt happy.

Cheering for those who thwart you

When you feel someone actively squelching your joy or minimizing your successes, it takes a monumental effort to rise above that and cheer for them. So what is to come of our children, who often compete and condemn? Will they learn the beauty of sympathetic joy? Time and the people with whom they surround themselves will determine that.

There has to be a shift from competition to collaboration or mutual enthusiasm. People who accept us for whom we are and not what we do, feel safe and therefore provide the foundation for mutual joy.

It is hard if you are the one creating the safe feeling first, but do it anyway, the results are worth it.

Sympathetic joy

I recently went home to Michigan for my 30-year high school reunion. I admit there were classmates I envied and bad-mouthed during our school days. I will say there were not many, but a few. Throughout my life, my friends have primarily been a refuge. They have been there for me when the rivalry with my sister was hot or when my parents could not be there.

I am quite sure I’ve romanticized them somewhat, but the inhabitants of my hometown, have often offered the sympathetic joy and enthusiasm I needed. Over the years, Facebook has provided connection with these old friends.

The reunion was a rare treat. I got to experience the joy and connection in person. Thirty years post high school, we had all experienced love and loss. The playing field was basically level. We simply enjoyed catching up with each other.

Your success is my success

I took Mark (fiancé) home for the reunion. My classmates embraced him and genuinely wished us well. Many old friends congratulated me on my book. Their excitement for me, beaming out of their eyes. It’s hard to put into words how much that support and sympathetic joy meant to me. I suppose I wanted Mark to see how magical and loving the people of my roots are.

I am equally happy when my old classmates succeed. It warms my heart to hear of their happiness. I genuinely want good things for them. I outwardly let them know that by cheering for them online, in texts or if possible, in person.

The closeness of my hometown (population 9000), made the disconnected lifestyle I once led here in the suburbs of Minneapolis, that much more amplified. I missed the communal joy and even the communal sadness of my hometown community.

If you don’t have a built-in cheering crowd, make one

I’m building a close community here in Minnesota. It feels fantastic to have friends and family members to cheer for daily. It is equally fantastic to feel their sympathetic joy in return. We recently had friends travel to Italy for an anniversary celebration. I noticed how excited and happy I was to receive their photos via text. It was easy to wish them fun and joy on their trip.

The cool thing is sympathetic joy is a true sense of joy for ourselves. We can feel wonderful when others are happy. Even more amazing, this works with friends, strangers and people we don’t like. All we have to do is allow ourselves to let their joy resonate within us, instead of letting it feed our envy. Instead of bringing others down to elevate ourselves, we tap into the good vibes they feel. It takes restraint and a re-training of our knee-jerk reactions but it fills us in the best way.

I tell my kids, just because others won does not mean you lose. There is more than enough success and love in the world. We can all share in the joy instead of the competition.

Is there someone you can’t stand to congratulate? Why is that? What if you felt their success as your success? What if we looked at others’ lives as boundless opportunities for joy?