I was recently speaking with a group of college students. They were busy looking for jobs. Most of them had interviewed with several companies but hadn’t gotten any offers yet. However, one of them had received a job offer from her dream company. Despite the stress of job hunting and feelings of envy, the students were planning to throw a party to celebrate their friend’s success.
Last year, the New York Times published a widely read article on “freudenfreude”. The piece kicked up quite a storm when people realised that the term was, in fact, made up by social scientists! But while the fictitious word (inspired by “freude”, meaning joy in German) may be a recent invention, the idea behind it has been around for centuries and holds immense value.
You’re probably already familiar with the concept of schadenfreude, which refers to the pleasure we take in someone else’s misfortune. (I wrote a piece about it a few years ago, which you can read here.)
The opposite of schadenfreude is freudenfreude, referring to the joy we feel at another person’s success, even if it doesn’t directly involve us. This idea is also expressed in Buddhism as “mudita”, meaning sympathetic joy or rejoicing in the good fortune of others.
In the Buddhist school of thought, mudita is one of the most important qualities a person can cultivate, alongside “metta” (loving kindness) and “karuna” (compassion).
This week, my message focuses on the power of freudenfreude and how it can benefit us at multiple levels. What are the obstacles that prevent us from feeling happy at someone else’s success — and how can we overcome them?
Over the past decade, social scientists have begun looking more closely at freudenfreude and have found that its implications range from the social to the personal. Dr Catherine Chambliss, a professor of psychology, calls it the “social glue” that holds relationships together. As she notes in her paper, published in the World Journal of Psychiatry and Mental Health Research:
Freudenfreude is mutually reinforcing and fosters greater intimacy…. When others report success to us, they generally hope for an empathic response of shared joy. If instead they get a negative, competitive reaction, they may respond with confusion, disappointment, irritation, or all three. Ongoing lack of Freudenfreude eventually can pose a fatal challenge to a relationship.
The ability to find joy in others’ success also offers benefits us at an individual level. The heartfelt sharing of someone else’s happiness boosts our mood, increases emotional resiliency, and elevates overall wellbeing. Acting as an antidote to excess envy or jealousy, it allows us to nurture a more positive, joyful state of mind. Improved social connection also indirectly benefits our mental and physical health.
To test your own freudenfreude, recall the last time someone shared a piece of positive personal news with you. Did you feel happy for them and respond with gladness and excitement? Or did you feel jealous and maybe even try to poke a hole in their happiness bubble?
If you felt the green monster stir within you, don’t beat yourself up. Jealousy is part of human nature. What matters is what we do with it. We can feed it and allow it to govern us — or we can tame it and allow more positive emotions to take its place. The NYT article gives an excellent example of how to do the latter:
When Eugenie George heard that her friend passed a financial counseling exam, at first her heart sank. She had failed the same test weeks earlier, and she needed the credential to advance her career. But then, instead of stewing, she called her friend: “I told her I failed and admitted I was jealous,” she said. Ms. George knew that being upfront would defuse her envy, but she was surprised when it shifted her attitude so she could share her friend’s happiness, and experience her own, in turn. “I congratulated her and told her she inspired me.”
Besides jealousy, there are other barriers to rejoicing in someone else’s success. In a zero-sum context, like vying for a promotion at the workplace, another’s gain might seem like your loss — which can hurt. Additionally, those who are highly competitive or insecure might draw comparisons and focus on their own shortcomings, leading to a dip in self-worth that can get in the way of freudenfreude.
Modern culture, especially at the workplace, places great emphasis on individual success. This makes it difficult for mudita to arise naturally, since it is rooted in notions of collectivism and oneness. Researchers have also found that people with mild depression score lower on freudenfreude, which undermines their relationships, which in turn increases depression — a vicious cycle.
Luckily, like empathy, freudenfreude is a skill that can be developed. It all comes down to setting an intention and re-training the way you respond, so you can eventually change the way you feel. For example, when mildly depressed people underwent Freudenfreude Enhancement Training for just two weeks, they were better able to find joy in others’ success, leading to improved social interactions and a happier mood.
A practical guide to freudenfreude
Here are six steps to foster a joy-sharing mindset:
1. Practice SHOY.
SHOY (sharing joy) was developed by Dr. Chambliss and her team as an essential step in their Freudenfreude Enhancement Training. It involves actively engaging with the other person’s success by expressing happiness, inviting them to share details and listening attentively. What is the story behind their achievement? How do they feel about it? What comes next? Even if your heart isn’t in it at first, keep going. Eventually, the old saying comes true — joy shared is joy multiplied.
2. Try your hand at “bragitude”.
Another practice created by Dr. Chambliss, bragitude amplifies freudenfreude and spreads it around. It means expressing appreciation when another person’s achievement or assistance enables your own success. For example, if a colleague led an award-winning initiative that has benefited you or your team, you could share your gratitude with them. This way, both you and your colleague get to enjoy each other’s accomplishments. (By the way, bragitude can even be something as simple as saying “thank you for sharing that with me” when someone tells you their happy news).
3. Celebrate in different ways.
Participating in someone else’s joy can look like different things. It could be as simple as congratulating them and initiating a discussion. It could involve sending a WhatsApp message, email, or letter. It could even mean organising a party or event to honour their success. Depending on your relationship with the person, you can explore a variety of ways to cultivate freudenfreude.
4. Reach for happiness.
We tend to think of good news as something that comes our way naturally. But what prevents us from seeking it out? You can cultivate freudenfreude by proactively inviting the people in your life to share their wins. A simple question like “What is the best thing that happened to you this week?” can yield delightful surprises that enhance joy for you as well as the other person.
5. Let multiple emotions exist.
Even as you take pleasure in someone else’s accomplishments, a twinge of envy might remain. And that’s all right. Caring and competing are two contradictory yet intrinsic facets of our nature. Experiencing slight envy doesn’t detract from the joy you feel and express.
One way to cultivate mudita bhavana organically is to let the following thought flow through your mind when you feel a stab of jealousy: “I’m happy that you’re happy. I rejoice in your success.” It’s also useful to draw a distinction between benign envy, which fuels motivation and healthy rivalry, and malicious envy, which causes deep discontent and drives harmful behaviours like gossip and sabotage.
6. Promote camaraderie.
This recommendation is for managers and leaders who wish to inculcate freudenfreude in their teams — a good way to curb unhealthy jealousy at the workplace. Avoid creating toxic zero-sum scenarios, where one person’s victory translates to another’s failure. Instead, share each team member’s success as a cause for collective celebration. Invite the whole group to take pride in the win and recognise other team members who played a supporting role. Role-model freudenfreude by sharing credit for your own achievements.
As the good-natured counterpart of schadenfreude, freudenfreude offers us a happier and kinder way to live our lives. Being able to participate in someone else’s joy is good for them, good for us — and good for everyone around us! So go ahead and call your partner, friend or colleague and ask them: “What is the best thing that happened to you this week?” Rejoice together and feel yourself grow lighter and more joyful.