Welcome to Joy Lab!: [00:00:00] Welcome to the Joy Lab podcast, where we help you uncover and foster your most joyful self. Your hosts, Dr. Henry Emmons and Dr. Aimee Prasek, bring you the ideal mix of soulful and scientifically sound tools to spark your joy, even when it feels dark. When you're ready to experiment with more joy, combine this podcast with the full Joy Lab program over at JoyLab.coach.
Henry: Hello, I'm Henry Emmons, and welcome to Joy Lab.
Aimee: I'm Aimee Prasek. So Here at Joy Lab, we infuse science with soul to help you uncover joy. To do that, we focus on building the elements of joy, the positive emotions and inner states that become the building blocks for a joyful life. So the element for this episode is sympathetic joy, and if you're like me, when I first heard that term, I didn't resonate with it. I think of sympathy [00:01:00] being more line with compassion, uh, and being with sort of someone else's suffering. So it cues up sadness for me. But sympathy I suppose, is really a neutral term. So we're capturing this other side it, with someone else's joy.
Henry: Yeah, You know, maybe we should come up with another term, Aimee, something that's a little more relatable. So, you know, the idea is that you're not alone in this, that you can share in someone else's joy. So what do you think about multiplied joy?
Aimee: Yeah. Well, actually that makes me think of Multiplicity... who was that movie with, what's his name? Michael Keaton. So yes, I'll go with multiplicity joy, you got another one?
Henry: Now, Now, now how about, uh, how about shared joy?
Aimee: Yeah that's pretty obvious. I like that one. I also think of um, Fast and Furious Joy.
Aimee: There's like 47 sequels, [00:02:00] so it suggests that upward spiral, I think. Any others?
Henry: You like your sequels
Aimee: I do. I love my movies.
Henry: How about vicarious joy?
Aimee: Yes. I actually I really like vicarious joy, I think we'll go with that. So maybe there's a term that you, um, listening want to suggest as well. So please, we're open for any other suggestions. Um, but I think what I really do like about this element, is that it's a great follow up from gratitude for sure, the last element we worked on, um they're just both really built on our connections, our relationships, and these elements bring us together in ways that feel really good and it can happen really quick.
Sympathetic joy, or vicarious joy, also feels like it takes gratitude to another level. So we're really kind of stepping it up here. I also like that we work on this element amid some big holiday seasons. It's another that we can certainly do the gifts and such, but [00:03:00] there's so much more to share beyond that. You know, sharing our struggles, absolutely. But sharing joy too. And instead feeling like an outsider cheering someone on, with sympathetic joy it's this idea that we're really sharing in that joy, like it fills us up too.
Henry: Yeah, I know we talk about this a lot, but I think that the greatest obstacle to joy is the belief, which we pretty much all buy into, that we are really separate from one another, that we're isolated. And sympathetic joy just shatters that belief. The truth is what happens to you does also affect me. Now for a lot of us, that seems clear when it's something bad that happens to somebody else.
Cause you know, we can feel that ourselves. There's even something called vicarious [00:04:00] trauma, which therapists, for example, or emergency workers can experience because they just work with so many people who have experienced trauma. But what we are talking about here is vicarious joy. Happiness can spread from person to person, just like trauma can.
And it does reduce our sense of isolation because we actually feel the connection with them if we can just let ourselves feel, to take in, the joy that this other person seems to be feeling.
Aimee: Yeah this element really does shatter that belief, like you said, Henry, that isolation. Uh, maybe that's why it can be surprisingly hard sometimes to practice it because that belief can be hard to shake sometimes. There are, however, lots of ways to practice it. So in episode nine, we shared that great Dalai Lama insight on sympathetic joy. he [00:05:00] said, "Why rely just on your own good fortune to be happy? If there are 8 billion people in the world and you can be happy for their good fortune, then you have just increased your chances of being happy by 8 billion times." So that's our title for this episode because we really are presented with billions of opportunities to soak up joy alongside others.
And we'll get into some more ways to do that, to take advantage of those 8 billion opportunities. But first I want to hit on an interesting obstacle. We'll also get into a few more obstacles, uh, later on in episode 38, but for this one, I'll just highlight it by asking Henry question. So Henry, how much did you have in your medical training on how humans can bring in more good stuff into their lives? You know, versus just getting rid of what feels bad or what is is ailing them?[00:06:00]
Henry: Hmm, you want an exact number?
Aimee: You could probably put it on one hand? How many, how many minutes?
Henry: I don't think there was any, Aimee. when I was doing my psychiatry training, I think there was some of that in the family systems work that we were doing. Family systems, kind of the early the creation of that, you know, in the fifties, sixties, seventies, I mean, I think there was quite a bit of, uh, joy in it actually.
Some of the early pioneers were really charismatic people. And, but you know, ironically, I, during my residency training, I ended up taking some classes at a local seminary cuz they were teaching this stuff. And also some classes on y or union psychology cuz you know, although that's very deep and reflective, there's some joy or some good stuff in that too. But positive psychology, the kinda stuff we're talking about now, you know, it really [00:07:00] wasn't very well developed then. But also there was none of it in my training.
Aimee: Yeah You had to go all the way to the chapel across
Henry: That's right.
Aimee: to get it in, huh? Yeah.
Aimee: You know, I just think it's fascinating how little we focus on in healthcare in regard to actually caring for the entire self. It's certainly changing, as you said, Henry. Just there's just so much focus on getting rid of things. Like losing weight, not having those thoughts, stop smoking, don't talk like that. All these ways of sort of not being, and rarely any support on bringing in things that fill us up. It's like we're only given red buttons, and told to sit there and don't press 'em. Like give me some green buttons to mess with. And that's what Joy Lab is, I feel like. It's a lot of green buttons that we that we put out.
Henry: I like that.
Aimee: Yeah. Green button lab. Anyway. Um, so I'm a researcher. That's, that's my training. I love to burrow in all this research. And like in [00:08:00] practice, as you just highlighted, Henry, there's not a whole lot directly about sympathetic joy either, and bringing in this good stuff. It's growing though, because it works.
Henry: Yeah. You know, I think there are probably a lot of outside forces that just keep encouraging us to focus on what's wrong. So like, you know, in healthcare, for example, physicians, and I think therapists too, are trained to look for what's wrong and fix it. That's kind of our job.
Henry: And you know, insurance pays us to treat illness, not to make people feel good.
So, you know, news feeds and social media, they just all encourage us to see problems or to feel fearful because it generates more clicks, it gets more attention. You know, even political campaigning, it's a negative campaigning that appears to work because it gets people's attention. It sticks in their minds, more than, [00:09:00] than saying good things.
So I think that there are also, aside from these external factors, there are some internal things at work here too. You know, admittedly, I, I'm part of this, we are drawn to drama. You know, we like juicy gossip. We like flawed characters. It seems more than. People who are just really healthy, they don't seem that interesting.
Aimee: Boring, yeah.
Henry: So you know, the positivity just doesn't seem quite as compelling. And it might even feel a little boring for a while if your life is just going along really well. And some of us may even create a little drama just to, you know, shake things up after a bit. And I think too that it's hard to give our attention to people who seem happy if we are not. You know, so you hear the phrase that misery [00:10:00] loves company.
I'm not sure that's true, but I don't think misery loves the company of someone who's happy, happier than than you are at the time, because it just doesn't feel good to compare to that.
Aimee: Yeah, it's really hard to be amidst happiness, yeah. You just sit there and compare, when you're not feeling it. Dr. Rick Hanson, he's a neuroscientist, he often says, "Our brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones." And that feels even more real when you're in misery, I think. It's that Velcro for negative experiences that you can hardly peel apart. But, sympathetic joy has some teeth too, I think it can get in there. So that's what we're talking about today.
In episode nine, which I'd encourage you all to check out if you haven't, we got into some interesting research that sits on sort of the periphery of this element of sympathetic joy. Essentially how [00:11:00] this, the science of how our emotions and inner states spread. The word that's often used is emotional contagion. The idea here is that our mental and physical states are impacted by the emotions and states of those around us. Meaning we catch and spread emotions, and all the sensations that come along with it.
In episode nine, we also talked about a few terms neural resonance or brain to brain coupling and autonomic synchronization. So these tell kind of the same story as contagion really, but go a bit deeper, I suppose, because they describe that situation when someone experiences an emotion and all these associated areas of their brain lights up. And when we see them experience that emotion, the same areas of our brain will light up. And in some cases we don't even have to see their emotion, like their affect to catch that emotion.
This is the case, particularly with folks, we feel closer to, like [00:12:00] a friend or family member. So we interact with them, we'll likely match up with their mood and physiology in certain ways. Things like stress hormones, respiration rate lineup. Which is obvious in so many ways with someone you're familiar with, like your closest friend is in a bad mood and so you just come into the room and you start to feel it. Your mood starts to shift even before you've said anything, you just, you just notice a shift and you're like, "Okay, what's going on?" So, maybe the problem here is that also seems, as we've discussed, that negative emotions tend to be more transmissible. We talked about that in episode 30 when we talked about the negativity bias or survival bias. So the research on contagion and related phenomena really demonstrate that whether we like it or not, the emotional states of those around us impact us. And this is a big deal if you're not aware of your [00:13:00] own inner state or don't have some skills to buffer what's coming at you.
Henry: Yeah. Wow. You know, if you don't believe in emotional contagion, just look at what happened to our economy in the crash of 2008, which almost seems too long ago to remember now. But it was, it was really all driven by fear. And it just spread, that fear spread like wildfire. More recently, you know, we can look at the start of the pandemic, which was kind of similar.
It was almost like there was a shadow infection, uh, a pandemic of fear that was spreading at the same time. So, you know, it's especially important at this moment to know how to work with these forces because we are so instantly connected with what's going on around the world. And there's so [00:14:00] much information, including negativity coming at us.
It's very, very hard to filter all of this out. So, you know, many folks respond to this by disconnecting, you know, by dividing up into tribes. So you just spend time or talk with people who see the world like we do. That might seem appealing at first, but is it really what's best for our mental wellbeing? So we recently came across some interesting research that suggests it is not. The researchers compared four really, really big studies following a total of 50,000 people, which is a lot for studies like this.
And they were looking at the relationship between their social interactions and their degree of happiness. What they [00:15:00] found might seem counterintuitive at first because it is not the amount of social interaction that you have or even the type of activities you're doing. It's not even the closeness of the people you interact with that matters most.
What best predicts happiness is what they called the relational diversity of one's social portfolio. Researchers like you, Aimee, love terms like the relational diversity of one's social portfolio. So I'm gonna ask you to tell us what does this mean exactly.
Aimee: Yeah. Actually it's funny. When I was, starting on my PhD, I had a journalism mentor that said, "Don't do it. You're gonna become the worst communicator if you do." I was like, "No I won't, I'm gonna be [00:16:00] so much smarter." And he's, he was right. It's terrible. Yes, um, it is an interesting study. I don't understand the financial metaphor though. Definitely in a lot of jargon. Uh, again, as we discussed a few episodes ago, I generally work with wooden coins, so this is not my forte. But nonetheless, yes, I can, um, break it down.
So this study is really building on the solid evidence that having social connections is essential for wellbeing. But one of the questions that this study was looking at was the type of social connections, um, you know, what type might matter more, if any. So strong tie interactions, meaning interacting with our closest friends and family and weak tie interactions, which were interactions with folks that didn't feel so close to; like acquaintances, colleagues, neighbors, [00:17:00] people you coffee shops, strangers even, but those that you'll sort of cross a path with and interact with informally.
So the researchers found that having a diverse group of folks in your network, meaning having weak tie interactions and strong tie interactions was a strong predictor of wellbeing, subjective wellbeing, more so than just those with strong tie interactions. So both right, strong and weak. To kind of make sense of this, I like to think of this as the Kevin Bacon Effect. Six degrees of Kevin Bacon.
Henry: That's another movie reference!
Aimee: Oh my God. Yeah. I can't stop. Uh so the more we could stretch out our network, the closer we can get to Kevin Bacon, thus the happier we'll be, is how I see this. But really the idea is that you need some strong tie relationships, yes. You don't need many, Dunbar's numbers, [00:18:00] if you recall from some episodes ago. But those relationships um, certainly create a really strong web sort of around you, and that's important. So those strong ties matter. But those weak allow us to grow that web, that network, so that we have more touchpoints, more support, more opportunities, a diversity of that support and opportunities and touchpoints. Which can be for everything; more opportunities to keep the center of our web strong, even; more support when you're in a bind or you're sick; when you have that wider web or that network, it's easier to get a job; or just a cup of sugar if you're making a banana bread and you're short some sugar. So it's really interesting how these weak ties actually touch so many aspects of our lives. If we just stay in that bubble, that little bubble of strong tie relationships [00:19:00] and only interact with those few folks, we just do not have the same opportunities.
Henry: I love it when research helps us sort out what's actually most helpful to do.
Aimee: Kevin Bacon helped us do that, but yeah.
Henry: You're right. So in Joy Lab, we try to take lessons from science and turn them into practices that anybody can do. Really accessible practices. We try to be intentional, to turn these findings into experiments we can do for ourselves. So that we can cultivate the inner states that correlate with joy. So when we practice sympathetic joy or vicarious joy, it helps us to realize at a deep level how interconnected we all are.
Now, we might agree with this already at an intellectual level, but to really know it in your bones, that takes practice. [00:20:00] And that's because it requires of us a huge paradigm shift, a change in our way of thinking. It is so ingrained in us that we are separate, that we are not connected and we can't change that belief without giving it some attention.
Now, that does not however, mean that it has to be really hard to do.
Aimee: Yeah They don't have to be so hard. As the title again of this episode suggests we've got 8 billion little tips for you. So I'll start with number one. You can do 'em in any order. I'm just kidding.
Henry: Oh this is gonna be a long episode.
Aimee: Set your DVRs. Um, yes. Let's focus on one strategy, um, with folks that likely see in the next few weeks, particularly given you might be listening to this amidst the holiday season, but if you're not, this absolutely applies [00:21:00] anyway,
Henry: Yeah. Yeah, I think we agree. 8 billion is just too much. So we're suggesting that you come up with three people who you know, who seem to you to be genuinely happy. And genuine means it's not just a show of happiness, they aren't just packing their days full of fun stuff or just, you know, being social all the time.
So look, for example, for somebody who just seems comfortable in their own skin, someone who stays, you know, pretty steady when things get really stressful or, or just even who seems able to savor the little things in life. We'll take a lesson from the research on relational diversity and suggest that if you want, you can broaden your social portfolio here.
So if you know three people in your close circle [00:22:00] who seem really happy, that's great, start with them. But if not, just feel free to look outside that circle. Try to come up with three people you know well enough that you could, if you wanted to, have a a little conversation with them. So the idea here is to spend some time with someone who is happy and then just see what happens.
So we are testing this hypothesis that joy might be contagious. That it may spread from someone who has it to you. It might be more powerful if you do this in person, so you could just, you know, give 'em a call or text and suggest that you hang out together for a little while. But if that feels like too much or seems uncomfortable, this can be done as a mental [00:23:00] exercise too.
You don't have to be with them in person. So just even taking the time to visualize yourself sitting with this other person, you're just chatting, maybe sharing a cup of coffee or a beer or something, and you're laughing together, just imagining it even might be enough. Try it and see. And to make it even more tangible, see if you can describe at least two qualities about this person that makes you feel good. Write 'em down in your journal if you have one.
Aimee: Yeah, I love this little exercise. I'll add a twist to consider. You can just think of one person that you might see in the next 10 days or so. And I think as Henry said, you might stretch your portfolio out, those weak tie relationships are good places to look as well. just, it's funny when you start to think about that. I can think of John, our mail person for [00:24:00] 10 years who was just one of the most wonderful humans. I didn't interact much, but I could write many qualities down. Some neighbors that used to give our dogs popsicles. Like so it doesn't have to be anything specific necessarily that you would see in a How to Be Happy book.
These are things that fill you up or that, um that make you smile. It can be small, but you can write those qualities down. There are joyful people around you, so you can start with that mental exercise that Henry just described and, and write down things about that person make you feel happier. And maybe when you see that person, just notice if you feel a little better in their presence. And if you can try to chat with them. Uh maybe tell them that you're doing this practice on cultivating joy and, and you of them as someone who makes you feel happier when you're near them or think about them.
Henry: I love it. [00:25:00] And if you do have this conversation, try to notice whether there is a lift in the mood when they hear how you feel about them. And just notice, whether that seems to happen for both you and that other person. That is shared joy.
Aimee: Yeah I hope these little practices seem possible because that shared joy is so powerful. And in our next episode, we'll actually have a sympathetic joy meditation for you. I really encourage you to give it a whirl. I think you'll find it surprisingly powerful, and it could be some good fuel, um, some motivation to help work on the other strategies that we just mentioned too. So to close our time today, I'll share a quote from Sharon Salzberg, a really awesome teacher who has offered a lot around this element of sympathetic joy. This is from her book, The [00:26:00] Art of Mindful Connection.
"The practice of sympathetic joy is rooted in inner development. It's not a matter of learning techniques to make friends and influence people. Instead, we build the foundations of our own happiness. When our own cup is full, we more easily share it with others."
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