I recently visited a friend in Malibu, a spectacularly beautiful beach town north of Los Angeles. As I walked along the sand, I was captivated by the warm breeze, the sound of the ocean, and the light glinting off the water. Glancing at the luxurious houses lining the shore, I imagined that this was as good as it gets.
Then the rains came. Hour after hour, day after day, rain pounded down. My friend's garage roof leaked. The stuff she was storing there all had to be moved. When the storm was over, battalions of ants marched through her kitchen. In the midst of the chaos, a national news correspondent called and asked if she could come out with a television crew to film the scene. Puzzled, my friend asked, "Why?" The woman replied, "Well, all around the country people get excited if they hear that something's gone wrong in Malibu."
We relish others' misfortunes when we begrudge them their apparent happiness. Hearing about another person's success, we might think, "Oooh. I would be happier if you had just a little bit less going for you right now. You don't have to lose everything, of course; just a slight tarnishing of that glow would be nice." We react as though good fortune were a limited commodity, so the more someone else has, the less there will be for us. As we watch someone else partake of the stockpile of joy, our hearts may sink—we're not going to get our share. But someone else's pleasure doesn't cause our unhappiness—we make ourselves unhappy because our negativity isolates us.
An alternative to feeling painfully cut off is to learn to rejoice in the happiness of others. In Buddhist teaching, this is called sympathetic joy. The term is unusual; sympathy is commonly used in the sense of feeling bad for others. Learning to share their joy revolutionizes our thinking about where we can find happiness. Usually we rejoice in what we get, not in what others have. But sympathetic joy is a practice of generosity, and giving isn't just about doing someone a favor—it makes us feel better.
From the May 2001 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.