Are You Sympathetic to Others’ Joy, or Just Their Sorrow?

The title of this post might seem oxymoronic. “Isn’t sympathy reserved for people’s struggles?” you might ask. Turns out, it’s not. The most powerful impact of your sympathy might be when it’s directed at people’s triumphs.

What Is Sympathetic Joy?

Sympathetic joy is just what it sounds like — focusing your powers of sympathy on the good fortune of others. It’s celebrating their joy. You’ve probably enacted joyful sympathy many times before:

  • Jumping up and down and doing a happy dance with your sister when she lands her first job.
  • Agreeing with a smile to play the new board game your husband is beyond geeked to play.
  • Taking the time to listen to your friend who can’t wait to tell you about his promising new beau.

It’s about taking the same practices you use in sorrowful times — making sure the other person has space to feel their emotions with your support and validation — and applying them to the joyful times.

A Missing Concept

I first heard about sympathetic joy from a talk put on by the University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizational Studies. Professor Ram Mahalingam said we have terms for wanting what someone else has (jealousy, coveting, envy). We have words for helping someone through a hard time (condolence, pity, commiseration). But we have no word for celebrating what someone else has.

Since we’ve plunged into the madness of the Coronavirus era, this concept has been on my mind. The past few months have been a bit of a nightmare, and we’ve all seen examples of people showing the best of themselves. This is clearest when folks need help: GoFundMe campaigns for people and businesses trying to make rent, masses taking to the streets to mourn the senseless killings of others, a jogger affixing her mask when running by an elderly couple.

But maybe these gestures of commiseration and support only stretch half our powers of sympathy. Amid so much sorrow, life continues. Babies are born, tests aced, braces removed, cancers cleared, half-marathons run, and multiplication tables memorized. These small victories are the stuff of life, and they need celebrating.

Avoiding the One-Way Sympathy Trap

It can be tempting to downplay or ignore these small wins in the context of daunting hardship. Well-meaning people can even meet these opportunities for sympathetic joy with sympathetic sorrow.

I experienced this when I got married at a tiny outdoor ceremony this summer. Some guests shared their support by lamenting how different the downsized wedding was from the original plan. It seemed easier for these folks to sympathetically acknowledge the downsides of the situation than to sympathetically celebrate what we were able to do.

While this sympathy was well-intended, it misfired. It reminded me what I was missing out on. Worse, I felt obligated to then cheer up the person trying to show their sympathy to me. I would have preferred to talk about the exciting plans we did have. That would have given me some permission to spread my own feelings of happiness.

This experience helped me see the value of sympathetic joy and the opportunities to enact it that I’ve been missing in my own life. I’ve resolved to make a practice of it in my professional and personal life.

Lending a Shoulder to Laugh On

If we’re going to make it through this year (these years?) together, it’s up to us as members of a community to take sharing in joy as seriously as we do sharing in sorrow. Here are six sympathetically joyful practices that don’t cost a thing and might fan the flames of a colleague’s bright moments in a dark time:

  • Go big on birthdays. Make people handmade cards. The less artistically inclined you are, the more endearing this is.
  • Pets and young kids are so often sources of joy. Take the time to memorize the names of your coworkers’ little loved ones, and ask about them, laughing along with funny stories.
  • Be aware of others’ anticipations. People often signal important events on the horizon. Make a note of who is starting to look for a home, who is awaiting the arrival of their baby nephew, and who cannot contain their excitement around the release of the Top Gun remake. Check back in on these events as they approach, and make sure to celebrate when they arrive.
  • In these isolating times, letting someone get a little off-topic in a work meeting can be an act of sympathetic joy. When someone goes on a tear about their new Animal Crossing conquests, letting them talk about it with a smile on your face is a gift. (This is one, I admit, I struggle with!)
  • Notice people with fresh eyes. Did your colleague (at long last) get a haircut? Make sure to tell them you noticed. See a new piece of art on their Zoom background wall? Ask where they got it. Showing interest in the changes in people’s lives is an act of sympathetic joy.
  • Run an ice breaker at the beginning of a meeting to ask people what’s bringing them joy this week. Then, where possible, adopt these activities, media, and ideas into your own week. Ask for that raisin bread recipe, try out that French Netflix movie, or take a drive to enjoy the fall colors. Swap positive shared experiences with the recommender afterward.

The Secret Gift of Sympathetic Joy

I’m not trying to argue that we must all strive to be happy these days. There are plenty of reasons to feel difficult emotions at work, at home, and as members of larger communities, and feeling them is necessary. In these times, it’s lovely to have someone to extend sympathy.

But I am arguing that today’s difficulties cannot eclipse or erode the joy that remains. As friends, family members, and colleagues, we’re all called to wield our sympathy — in times of sorrow and of joy — to help one another get through together. As I consider this new term and new practice in my life, I hope I’ll begin finding more joy.