Freudenfreude

Freudenfreude: The Power of Celebrating Others’ Success

Rejoicing in the success of others has had many names across time and cultures. It’s referred to by contemporary social researchers as freudenfreude, inspired by freude, the German word for “joy”, while for Buddhists it’s mudita. Regardless of what we call it, relishing the success of others is crucial for strengthening your relationships and for bringing more happiness and contentedness to your life.

The evolution of the human mind has left us with something both marvellous and complicated. On the one hand, evolution has given us a brain that has enabled us to land on the moon, plumb the depths of the sea and solve many of the universe’s secrets. Yet evolution has also left us with duelling qualities that are perhaps not as useful, such as the two essential yet conflicting motivational forces of survival and cooperation.

These two behavioural influences have been important in enabling the survival of our species. We evolved to understand there is safety in numbers, that when we work together, when we care for each other, we ensure our welfare and security. Indeed, our physical and psychological wellbeing is dependent on the need to belong, to feel supported, validated and protected.

Yet we also evolved with our survival instinct completely intact. This crucial impulse is our most powerful motivator, with just about everything we do in service of it, whether we are aware of it or not. And while our “fight or flight” response is our best-known expression of the survival instinct, it is not the only way our need to protect our physical and psychological selves is expressed. Indeed, when we feel our sense of self being threatened, the quality of our relationships can be affected in pursuit of self-preservation.

You would have felt this in that tug in the gut between the joy experienced upon hearing a friend’s good news and the twinge of disappointment that we’re not experiencing that same good fortune. In fact, when we are with others, while one part of our nature behaves appropriately, responding with empathy, the other part operates with a primitive competitiveness that can undermine the authenticity of our relationships.

These two powerful yet contradictory forces — competitive striving versus empathic, compassionate cooperativeness — can create a tension where instead of celebrating the victories of others we feel threatened, as though the success of someone else means there is less opportunity for success for us. We can have the view that success is a finite resource, and if someone else has it, we necessarily miss out.

These innate survival reactions to others’ successes can irretrievably damage our relationships when we don’t acknowledge they exist or when we buy into that competitive pull. As such, understanding the role of freudenfreude in protecting our relationships and building a communal sense of joy can be vital to our social success and psychological wellbeing.

The science of freudenfreude

As we have seen, the success or good fortune of others can pit caring and competing against one another, so being able to manage the balance between these conflicting aspects of our nature is an important part of social intelligence. Learning how to be authentically responsive to the positive emotions of others when they share good news requires us to consciously suppress our natural competitive reaction and to rethink our desires. And while it can be difficult, research shows it may be vital to our ability to have mutually enjoyable relationships.

The role of empathy

Empathy is often cited as being crucial to the development and maintenance of all our relationships — from our most intimate to the fleeting.
Our ability to empathise with others allows us to step into their hearts and minds to feel their emotional experiences as if they were our own. It helps connect us on a level that engages our humanity and commonality.

The powerful connection that empathy produces enables us to act in a prosocial way to help relieve another person’s distress, provide them with emotional support or help sustain their happy mood by celebrating their good fortune. And it is this last experience that is the most important when thinking about freudenfreude: something scientists call positive empathy.

We most often talk about empathy in the context of providing support and care when someone has experienced loss, trauma or disappointment. In this scenario, we provide comfort, we validate feelings of grief, we encourage and we express our care. With positive empathy, however, we celebrate, congratulate and exalt in someone else’s success.

And the benefit of positive empathy works both ways, providing a glow of joy to the giver of positive empathy and the receiver of it. For example, when we turn to others to share our positive emotions, the other person has an opportunity to empathise and enhance our positive feelings, which, suggest researchers, may be especially important for strengthening social ties.

This is reflected in research that found that when we receive a highly empathetic response to a positive event in our lives, levels of satisfaction, intimacy, commitment, trust, liking, closeness and stability are increased between the parties involved. Research has also found that those in an intimate relationship reported an increased sense of positivity on days when their partners disclosed positive events to them, and that supportive responses to positive events are more closely related to relationship wellbeing than supportive responses to negative events.

Overall, this suggests that positive empathy, rather than empathy for negative events, may be more closely associated with feelings of social closeness and intimacy. Indeed, when we don’t receive those congratulatory expressions when we share our good news, we can feel deflated, uncertain and even a little foolish. When we celebrate each other, it seems, we forge tighter bonds, falling into each other instead of away.

But the benefits of freudenfreude aren’t just to be found in expressing genuine joy when those closest to us have a win in life. Indeed, to fully practise freudenfreude, we need to find genuine happiness in the success of everyone and anyone, especially for those we envy or have difficulties with.
While the practice of freudenfreude has many social and personal benefits, it is, like so many endeavours, one that can be difficult to enact. As mentioned, some of our inherent human characteristics challenge the pursuit of sympathetic joy at a subconscious level, including social comparison and envy.

Social comparison

An automatic response in the mind, social comparison, is a common human trait that is first seen in young children when they express a desire for whatever toy another child has. It continues through childhood and intensifies in adolescence as we try to work out who we are and where we fit in. Spilling into adulthood, it can be seen in the pursuit of a great job, a soulmate and building the perfect life.

In psychology, social comparison refers to the act of comparing certain aspects of ourselves — like our behaviour, values or professional status — to other people to get a better sense of where we fit in. Researchers have identified three drives attached to social comparison: self-evaluation, self-improvement and self-enhancement, all of which can lead to positive change in our lives as we work to meet our goals.

Yet comparing ourselves to others, while a natural human behaviour, has a potentially significant and dangerous downside, and that downside is envy.

Envy

In psychology, envy is described as a negative emotion of dissatisfaction, discontent and resentment generated by the desire for the possessions, qualities or achievements of someone else.

A complex emotion, envy can involve a range of elements including desire, feelings of inferiority, ill will toward the envied person, resentment and guilt.

When we experience envy, it is usually because we have a sense of dissatisfaction with certain aspects of ourselves and the life we have. Indeed, envy occurs when we believe that if we have what someone else has, our lives would be better, happier, more enjoyable and more secure. It is an emotion that is entrenched in Western societies, where how we look and what we have are constantly assessed through the media, social media and advertising.

Research has identified the existence of two types of envy: malicious envy and benign envy. Malicious envy focuses on the person we envy and involves an active wish for that person to not have what it is we want. The experience of malicious envy can involve negative intentions towards the other person, where we want to deprive them of what we desire, and it can trigger us to take action designed to undermine or destroy the other person’s success or reputation.

Benign envy, on the other hand, is more general and tends to focus on obtaining the desired object or achieving the desired status, without any ill will toward the other person. Benign envy can be a motivating emotion to get us closer to our goals; malicious envy, however, can be destructive to ourselves and to others.

How to practise celebrating the success of others

While barriers exist there are a number of ways we can strengthen our capacity to experience positive empathy and reap the benefits that flow from it. Some of these come from social psychology and others from Buddhism and mindfulness.

Seeking out joy

Proactively seeking out joy involves asking others to elaborate on their successes when they share them with us or inquiring about the best thing that happened to someone that day or during the week and then pursuing the details. Validating the person’s feelings with your own expressions such as “I’m so happy for you,” “That is so wonderful” or “You are so deserving of wonderful things” is also important to not only feed their joy but also our own.

Gratitude

It is easy to get stuck in envy when we only pay attention to what is missing from our lives rather than appreciating what we do have. Adopting the practice of gratitude regularly, even daily, allows us to experience joy in healthier ways.

As a practice, gratitude has been found to boost wellbeing in many ways and doesn’t have to be complicated to incorporate into our lives. Indeed, it can be as simple as expressing your gratitude each day for something that you have or something you’ve experienced, or it can be more formal such as engaging in a guided gratitude meditation.

A simple practice might look like reflecting on all the people and things you are grateful for in life, as well as the things that have given you an opportunity to learn and grow. Other ideas include keeping a gratitude journal or using a mantra such as: “With gratitude, I see the world in a new light. Each day is an opportunity and a gift.”

Loving-kindness

Loving-kindness is another way to connect to other people’s joy while learning how to really feel it. This can look like bringing your attention to someone in your mind’s eye and using mantras, wishes or blessing phrases such as, “May your happiness and good fortune grow and never leave,” to expressing genuine affection and pleasure in someone else’s happiness.

To begin, practise loving-kindness for the success and happiness of someone close to you — a friend or a loved one, which is generally easier to do. Once you are comfortable with this, you can begin to express joy for somebody you don’t really know, then eventually expanding your practice to somebody you find challenging. This expanding circle of positive empathy can be practised formally, or informally during the day as you think of people or come across them in person.

Creating authenticity in our interactions with others takes time and effort, and the rewards are vast for ourselves and for our relationships. We can build others up at the same time we build ourselves creating joy wherever we go and with whomever we come across. When so much animosity and rivalry exist in the world, it is important to know that we can enact change through the simple act of wishing others well and appreciating their success.

Article Featured in WellBeing #204

Nikki Davies

Nikki Davies

Nikki Davies is a freelance writer and teacher. She has a background in psychology and is currently working in education in the wellbeing sector.

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