Articles January 1, 2001

Resilience Through Joy and Gratitude

Oren Jay Sofer

The teachings on Right Effort in the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism offer a valuable guide to resilience. Right Effort teaches us to strengthen healthy qualities that are already present, to cultivate wholesome states that are not yet present, as well as to set aside and avoid unhealthy states.

This is an essential part of developing resilience: strengthening the positive qualities in our hearts and minds. The cultivation of all the brahmavihāras can be understood in this way. The third in this series of qualities of the heart is mudita: joy, gladness, and celebration in the happiness of others. This is a particularly potent quality for resilience.

Mudita is the feeling of happiness that we experience in relation to another’s happiness. When one considers our ordinary responses to the success and well-being of others, it may not always be, “Hey, that’s so great!” Sometimes it’s the opposite.

Say for example, someone is doing really, really well. Everything’s going for them. They’re healthy, they’re happy, and they’re meeting with a lot of success. As Sharon Salzberg says, there can be that sense of, “Could you turn it down just a little bit?” It’s as if we think, “I’m glad that you’re happy, but could you not shine quite so brightly?”

This comes from the mistaken notion that happiness is a limited resource. Somewhere just below the surface of awareness, we may believe that if you’re really happy, somehow it’s going to limit the amount that I can be happy. Or if you’re experiencing joy, success, and well-being, the amount of abundance you have somehow reduces the amount that’s available to the rest of us.

As we explore each of these heart qualities known as brahmavihāras, one way of understanding them is as the absence of something else. Lovingkindness is the absence of ill will. When the heart is not affected by ill will or hostility, its natural response is kindness. Compassion is the absence of cruelty. When there’s no cruelty or hostility in the heart, the natural response is to care. When there’s no greed, when there’s no craving or jealousy in the heart, the natural response is to celebrate and rejoice in the face of another’s happiness. When there is no reactivity, the heart stays balanced with equanimity.

When you think about it, if I want something that you have, then it’s harder to genuinely celebrate that for you because the craving I feel gets in the way. But if I can release that wanting—if I’m not coveting what you have—then I can celebrate and rejoice with you.

It’s easy to see this when somebody in a different field or occupation experiences success. It’s very easy to feel happy for them. My partner and I were watching the Winter Olympics earlier this year and seeing some of the figure skating performances. To see an athlete, an artist who’s trained for years, have an impeccable run moved me to tears. I felt so much joy seeing all of the conditions come together in that moment of success. It was easy to feel that joy—I’m not a figure skater. It’s completely natural to feel happy and celebrate the flowering of human potential when we see something like this.

Some friends of mine have a 2-year-old daughter, and recently sent me a video of her in the rain. She’s wearing these little boots and jumping up and down in the puddles, splashing and squealing with joy. Her whole face was lit up. Even thinking about and imagining that image, notice how the heart can feel uplifted!

That’s mudita: this quality of feeling the happiness of another. This is innate. This capacity to have an empathic response—a resonance—is innate. When empathy meets the happiness and the success of another, when there’s no craving or constriction, the natural response is, “That’s great! I’m so happy for you!” We rejoice.

The Dalai Lama once said that when you count other people’s happiness as your own, your chances for happiness increase by 6 billion to 1. (Now it’s 7 billion to 1.) The cultivation of this quality starts to dissolve the boundaries between self and other. We touch into a space that’s more expansive and connected.

We can cultivate this in a similar way to the practice of lovingkindness or compassion. Think of someone who’s enjoying some success or happiness. Then, allow the heart to really connecting with that, to feel it. You can try using a simple phrase to enhance the joy you may feel. “May your joy and happiness increase,” or “I’m so happy for you. I appreciate the blessings in your life.” We’re aiming the mind, connecting with that quality of joyful appreciation.

There are other ways to expand the practice of mudita. One is appreciating beauty. When we see something beautiful—like watching figure skating—there’s the joy that I felt for the person, knowing the countless hours of practice that had gone into that performance and everything that was riding on it for them personally. And there was a pure appreciation of the beauty and artwork of human expression in dance.

Be in nature: look at a tree, or listen to the sound of the fountain, the sound of a stream in a meadow, and allow your heart to be touched. Allowing ourselves to be moved by beauty can be considered an aspect of appreciative joy. It’s the delight and happiness that we feel in response to goodness. We can train our mind to dwell in this aspect of the brahmavihāras, in this ability to see in a different way. This ability is an essential dimension of resilience.

Gratitude is a related practice. It’s distinct but closely connected to this quality of appreciative joy. Appreciating the blessings in one’s own life brings a sense of gratitude. Gratitude is feeling a kind of happiness for oneself—for the well-being, for the goodness, for the blessings in our own life.

There’s been a tremendous amount of research done on gratitude and its connection with resilience and well-being. It’s one of the most simple and direct ways to bring more happiness into your life: every day, take some time to reflect on gratitude. Don’t just think about it—actually feel it, take it in and let it nourish you.

This is a central part of the whole structure of the Buddhist monastic community: it survives entirely based on generosity and the donations of lay people. At the main meal of the day at any Buddhist monastery, there’s what’s called the anumodana blessing. The word itself is related to mudita and means “rejoicing with.” Anumodana is the sense of rejoicing in the goodness of generosity. It’s not so much saying, “Thank you,” but more the sense of, “I celebrate the good that you’ve done in being generous. I’m happy for you—for that beauty in your own heart.”

What’s so powerful about these qualities of compassion, appreciative joy, and gratitude is that they go beyond our personality. This is not about becoming a nicer person. It’s not about becoming likable and more socially acceptable. These qualities are more deeply rooted in us, in our biology, and in our spirit. They access a level of the heart that is deeper than the personality.

If you watch other mammals or study them or read about them, you will see these qualities appear inside you. Watch puppies play, and you’ll experience mudita. You may even see them experiencing mudita, feeling joy and playfulness with one another. Observe a child playing with a kitten and see how the joy flows between them.

There are many beautiful stories about the compassion of elephants, who are extraordinarily sensitive, empathic creatures. I’ve read stories of elephants returning to the bones of a deceased relative to visit them. Elephants greet each other by touching one another’s face with their snout. The tips of their snouts are incredibly sensitive. They can pick up a feather with the tip of their snout, it’s so refined. So in this particular instance, they returned to visit the bones of their matriarch and stroked the edge of her jawbone with their long nose. There’s the sense of connection, knowing the memory. One can imagine they are remembering that being.

A man named Anthony Lawrence ran a game reserve in South Africa called Thula Thula. He had worked for much of his adult life to protect wild elephants and give them a home, and there are remarkable stories of his relationship with them. In 2012 he passed away. 12 hours later, from hundreds of miles away, this one herd of elephants whom he had protected and spent a lot of time with all came back to his house to visit. Somehow they knew he had died, and they all just picked up and traveled hundreds of miles straight to his house on the reserve. They spent about 12 hours there on the property, just lingering after he died.

These qualities of the heart go so deep—deeper than our personality or our individual history. This is part of our heritage as conscious creatures on this planet. Mudita begins with celebrating the happiness, well-being, and success of others, but it opens into a much broader and refined attention to joy, happiness, beauty, and goodness in life. We can learn to be nourished by that, to let that joy and appreciation uplift us.

Oren Jay Sofer

Oren Jay Sofer

Residential Retreat Teacher

Oren Jay Sofer teaches meditation internationally. He holds a degree in comparative religion from Columbia University and is author of "Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication" and "Your Heart Was Made for This: Contemplative Practices to Meet a World In Crisis with Courage, Integrity, and Love."