Welcome to Joy Lab!: 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
aimee: Welcome to Joy Lab. So, I'm Aimee, here to introduce actually a replay of an older episode. We wanted to pop in this one on this concept of sympathetic joy.
It's what we usually focus during this time of year in Joy Lab. And it's also something that Henry will touch on in the next lesson. This is one of those like fast acting practices, much like gratitude. It's something you can turn to for a really quick mood boost. It's powerful.
So enjoy this episode.
Henry: Hello, I'm Henry Emmons and welcome to Joy Lab.
aimee: And 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.
This might not be a familiar phrase for a lot of us, so let's start with a little background. So it's based on a Buddhist concept that's also called mudita. That's a word from Pali that roughly translates into taking delight in other people's well being. So, Henry, I think you can probably give us a little more background about this, like how does it fit into the larger context of mindfulness and really what we're doing here at Joy Lab.
Henry: Oh, sure. I'd love to do that. So, it actually has a very high place in Buddhist psychology, maybe because sympathetic joy is seen as being such a direct path to one's own happiness, which is a little bit ironic because it's really about learning to be happy for others. Anyway, it is known as one of the four divine abodes, which are sometimes called the four immeasurables, or the boundless qualities of the mind.
So I think you can see from these terms what an elevated concept this is. So just FYI, the other three divine abodes are loving kindness, compassion, and equanimity.
aimee: Yeah, I think it's interesting that translations of this concept include words like immeasurable and boundless and also home or dwelling.
So it makes me think of this grounded, familiar place within ourselves, that home, that is also infinite, and mysterious, and always nourishing. It's a place I like to hang out in. So, I think it's also interesting that as we set out to plan the Joy Lab program, we didn't consciously try to include the four divine abodes.
Yet, they all showed up as four of our twelve elements of joy. So, I think we might be onto something.
Henry: Yeah, I think we're in very good company here. So I think of these four as being the very highest qualities of what I call a good heart, or you might say an awakened heart. And they fit so closely with our entire premise at Joy Lab because these are positive qualities that can be cultivated. So we've talked before about neuroplasticity and how the brain is capable of change no matter how old we are. So we are always creating new pathways in the brain whether we know it or not. Some of them are helpful, some are probably harmful. And these four would be at the very top of the list of the good pathways, the helpful ones that can not only serve as antidotes for unhappiness, but but they can also make us better and happier people.
aimee: It seems like also such a natural follow up to gratitude, which was our, our previous element because they are both so relational and they, they bring people together. And sympathetic joy feels like it takes gratitude to sort of the next level, like gratitude on steroids or something. It reminds me that we are all in this together.
And in addition to sharing things, we can even share in each other's joy. So on its face, that seems like super obvious. Yeah, let's celebrate together. We all win then. But there are a lot of surprising obstacles to this element. These thoughts, like, to float in. Like, why should I celebrate your wins when you haven't celebrated mine?
Or, I should have gotten that job, or that fiancé. Now what's left for me?
Henry: Yes, I agree. We, we'll get into what makes this so hard a little bit later, but let's, let's first say a little bit more about what makes this so good. I often think that the single greatest obstacle to joy, is the belief, which we pretty much all buy into, that we are separate, isolated beings.
But if you really buy into sympathetic joy, it shatters that belief by saying, No, we are not so separate from one another. In fact, we are so intimately connected that your suffering is my suffering, and your joy is my joy. Or, as it says in 1 Corinthians, "if one part suffers, every part suffers with it. If one part is honored, Every part rejoices with it."
So if we practice it, finding joy in the well being of others will help us feel connected with them. And in a way, it is also just incredibly practical. To paraphrase the Dalai Lama, why rely just on your own good fortune? 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.
aimee: Yeah, 8 billion simple ways to boost joy. I love that. So the funny thing about this though, with these sort of 8 billion opportunities, is that there is actually a... Surprisingly tiny amount of research on the impacts or on the concept of sympathetic joy. Of course, I do still want to talk about a little bit of research.
And maybe it's still my pandemic brain talking, but I want to expand on this idea of a global potential for joy. And sort of the viral nature of emotions. So, uh, this phenomenon is often called emotional contagion. And that term and the pioneering work on this comes from Dr. Elaine Hatfield, and the idea is that we unconsciously mimic and synchronize with those around us.
Kind of getting after this idea that we're isolated beings, that myth, we're going to bust it here. So there are two things I want to highlight about this concept that I think really tie into sympathetic joy. The first is that our mental and physical states are impacted by the emotions and states of those around us. Meaning we are interconnected creatures.
And two, we need to have awareness. And be able to navigate that interconnectedness so that we're not constantly surprised by it or overwhelmed by it. Okay, so let's quickly dig in. There's an aspect of emotional contagion that Dr. Hatfield cites, which is called mimicry. Or more specifically, we'll talk about some motor mimicry.
This term describes how humans and some other species tend to mirror the facial expressions, the vocal sounds, and postures of others near them. I like to think about things like yawning, laughing, crying. You know, when we see someone else do any of these things, we are way more likely to do them too.
And almost feel like we can't control it. Like, who hasn't been kicked out of class for laughing too much? Henry, have you been kicked out of class for laughing too much? I'm not, I'm not
aimee: I had an issue with this. Um, but now going a bit deeper, imagine for a moment when your partner or someone else to you or someone else close to you is in a bad mood.
So how does that make you feel? Very likely it puts you into a worse mood as well. So this phenomenon is something scientists call neural resonance. Or even better, love this, brain to brain coupling. Sounds so sci fi, right? But it's actually not. It's a really robust, predictable phenomenon.
So, what happens here is when we observe another person's emotional state, really their affect, right, or their outward expression of that emotion. When we observe that, the same neural representation of their state is activated in us. Including all of the physical responses related to that state. So cool.
Okay, so I want to just go a little bit deeper here on another area of research, which is called autonomic mimicry or autonomic synchronization. Now this research explores the changes that are pretty much invisible externally and that we have far less control over. So the idea here is that we match the physiology of those near us.
So these aspects of contagion really make sense from an evolutionary perspective because we as infants can't talk or really do anything. So at infancy, we align our physiology with our caregivers. So that we can, hopefully, more successfully interpret the world through them. And so this resonance, this alignment, doesn't just shut off when we reach some age point.
And this is demonstrated by the synchrony of, um, things like heart rate, hormones like cortisol, and pupil diameter during social interactions. So, right, you'll face someone with eye contact. And a bit of conversation, and your pupil diameters sync up. Sit with a friend, and your heart rate and cortisol begin to align.
Your breath rate syncs up. So we actually align these autonomic functions with those around us. Generally those who we feel closer to. All right, I should wrap this up. Clearly, we are not isolated beings. And we have 8 billion folks milling all around with billions of viral emotions. So acknowledging this, we need to have continued awareness and strategies to take that on daily.
Because this alignment isn't just toward the positive. In fact, a lot of research on emotional contagion, finds that the emotions that we might call more negative seem to be more contagious. But that's why we practice our elements of joy, I think. And why sympathetic joy might be a particularly effective tool to not only buffer those incoming emotions, but to put something positive out into the world that spreads.
Because it spreads. It will spread. All right, so we've talked about all these things, um, these good reasons to practice sympathetic joy, the research behind it, it's probably time we dig into why it's not so easy. Henry, you can
Henry: tackle that. Yes, I'll take the, I'll try to take a crack at that. You know, that, that whole concept of emotional contagion, I just think is so powerful and so apparent when we look at.
You know, how things flow through our world these days. Well, as we said earlier, this idea of finding joy in other people's success or good fortune isn't actually so easy to do. Now, sometimes it probably is easy. Like for me, when my sons were little and they just delighted in toddling around the house, you know, it's pretty hard not to take joy in that.
Or when they got older and they fell in love and they were so happy. Again, who can't be joyful for that? Or like when, when I've just received some really great news, I don't want to keep it to myself. I want to call someone and share it with them. Somebody who I know is going to share my joy, which will make me feel even happier.
But, let's be honest, it's a little different when somebody else appears to be having the kind of success that we want, but we're not having. Or when you go on social media and it looks like everybody is having so much fun and they look so happy, but you're just not feeling it. And we hear a lot these days, at least in the mental health world, about how that very thing appears to be feeling a rise in stress and depression, particularly among young people and children. It's almost as if we're caught in the opposite of sympathetic joy, where we are seeing somebody else being happy or successful, and then it actually makes us feel worse.
aimee: Right. Yeah, take some time on social media for a taste of that.
Uh, I can't remember who said it as it relates to like scrolling on social media, but we feel our feed. There's that emotional contagion, right? And rarely does it make us feel more joyful, at least on social media. So but before social media, there was advertising or even watching people in films or TV who are good at acting happy.
So it's not a new problem, right? Even among career meditators or practitioners like monks, sympathetic joy has traditionally been considered the hardest of these higher qualities to practice. You know, it's funny that when I think about how hard it is, uh, when my three year old and I are playing, like jumping over cracks in our driveway or something, she just lights up with glee when I successfully jump over a crack.
She's experiencing total joy with my success. And when I see her, that excitement, then I get more excited. I'm like, yeah, I just jumped over that crack. Like, so we just continue to sort of, amplify that joy together. But, you know, as we sort of go along with life and after many years of adulting, it just doesn't feel so natural.
So I think we can look more at why this is hard from two perspectives: cognitive science and spiritual teaching. So Henry, why don't you start us off by looking at those cognitive roadblocks.
Henry: Sure. So there are two well known errors or cognitive distortions that come into play here. And they're, in this instance, they're referred to as fallacies. So the first is the fallacy of fairness, and the second is the fallacy of scarcity. Now it's interesting that both of these distortions are built on the error that we mentioned earlier.
Which I think is possibly the biggest fallacy of all. This belief that we are fundamentally separate from one another. Now it's easy to see why fairness is so lodged into our thinking. I think we've been taught about this since we were little kids, at least kindergarten, maybe preschool. And it's really pretty central to our western and democratic ideals.
But the mind loves to take these universal ideas and give them just a little twist. Like, "Hey, why didn't I get what they have? I deserve that promotion more than he did. Or, I worked so hard at taking care of myself. Why did I still get sick? It's not fair." So the evil twin, so to speak, to fairness, is scarcity.
The belief that the good stuff that we all want is limited. So if somebody else gets it, there's not enough left for me. In a world of scarcity, there just have to be winners and losers. And while it might be okay if somebody close to me wins, I might not be so happy when it's somebody I don't know, or even worse, somebody that I really don't like.
The Buddhist literature calls these obstacles the near enemies and the far enemies of joy. I really like that poetic language. The far enemies are the more obvious. In this case, feeling envy or jealousy. Which both arise pretty naturally from our constant competitive comparing ourselves to others. The near enemy is trickier because it's some form of deception.
And it can really be subtle because we're pretending to be something that we're not and we don't even realize it. Usually. So, for example, this is a, I think, a pretty relatable example. Think about watching some kind of a televised award ceremony. And, you know, the cameras love to scan the row of people who just did not get the award.
And sometimes you can see the strain on their faces as they try really hard to look happy. for the winner. And remember, these are the best actors in the world. So believe me, I am not throwing anybody under the bus here, because we can all relate to that, can't we? So like we said, this is hard, and it might be because it goes to the very heart of our real problem.
And here's a quote from a Daoist philosopher called Wei Wu Wei. This is a quote, by the way, that I find sort of hard to understand, to get my mind around, but I think it's really profound. So here it is.
" Why are you unhappy? Because 99. 9 percent of everything you think and of everything you do is for yourself. And there isn't one."
Now, like I said, it's hard for us to get our minds around the idea that there isn't really a me, or a personal, separate self from you. That's why we need a practice like this, some kind of a heart practice, because it bypasses the limitations of our thinking minds. So, what we're really...
What we're talking about is to realize at a deep level how interconnected we all are. We might agree with that at an intellectual level, but I think we really have to have models of genuine connection in order to make it more real. So Aimee... Will you give us an idea of what a world like that might actually look like?
aimee: Yeah, there's actually a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, which gives us like a vision, I think, of this possibility. It's called Wandering Around an Albuquerque Airport Terminal. So I'm going to read it.
" After learning my flight was delayed four hours, I heard the announcement. If anyone in the vicinity of gate 4A understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.
Well, one pauses these days. Gate 4A was my own gate. I went there. An older woman in full traditional Palestinian dress. Just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly. Help, said the flight service person. Talk to her. What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be four hours late and she did this.
I put my arm around her and spoke to her haltingly.
The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought our flight had been canceled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for some major medical treatment the following day. I said, No, no, we're fine. You'll get there just late. Who is picking you up? Let's call him and tell him.
We called her son and spoke with him in English. I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane. And would ride next to her, southwest. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons, just for the fun of it. Then we called my dad, and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic, and found out, of course, they had ten shared friends.
Then I thought, just for the heck of it, why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her. This all took up about two hours. She was laughing a lot by then, telling about her life, answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamou cookies. Little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts out of her bag and was offering them to all the women at the gate.
To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the traveler from California, the lovely woman from Laredo, we were all covered with the same powdered sugar and smiling. There is no better cookie. And then the airline broke out free apple juice from huge coolers, and two little girls from our flight ran around serving it.
They were covered with powdered sugar too. And I noticed my new best friend, by now we were holding hands, had a potted plant poking out of her bag. Some medicinal thing with green, furry leaves, such an old country traveling tradition. Always carry a plant, always stay rooted to somewhere. And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, this is the world I want to live in.
The shared world. Not a single person in this gate, once the crying of confusion stopped, has seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too. This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.
Henry: Not everything is lost. Even though, more and more, we do seem to be living in a world of disconnection, of us versus them, some form of tribalism. Is that really the world we want to live in? Or is it the shared world?
Thank you so much for listening to this Joy Lab podcast. We hope you'll also join us in the Joy Lab program where we develop the skills you need to live the elements of joy and to create your own thriving and connected life.
aimee: Thank you for listening to the Joy Lab podcast. If you enjoyed today's show, visit joylab.
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