Schadenfreude is the German word for the feeling of joy you get when something bad happens to someone else. I used to think that it was a credit to the Germans that they had a word for such a delicious emotion, but lately I’ve begun to think that maybe it’s a credit to English that we don’t have one. After selflessly generating a whole lot of schadenfreude back in 2016 I’ve come to look at this emotion in a whole new way.
It’s one of those easy emotions, cheap and dirty, one that makes you feel great in the moment – for a moment – but that leaves you spiritually hungover with the residue of unpleasantness. Negative emotions, even the ones that paradoxically make us feel good in the moment, don’t leave us feeling good in the long run. Schadenfreude is just our worst, most bitter impulses being fed and validated. As Morrissey, the master of negative emotions, sang in We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful:
We hate it when our friends become successful
And if they’re Northern, that makes it even worse
And if we can destroy them
You bet your life we will
If we can hurt them
Well, we may as well
It’s really laughable
Ha, ha, ha
You see, it should’ve been me
It could’ve been me
Everybody says so
They say :
“Ah, you have loads of songs
So many songs
More songs than they’d stand.”
This song, pointedly, did not play at a wedding I attended last week.
At that wedding, the marriage of my dear friends Todd and Julie, there was an experience that was directly the opposite of schadenfreude. If schadenfreude is the greasy, shitty diner food you scarf down at 4am after a long night at the bar, the emotion that permeated their wedding was a gourmet meal handcrafted with love by someone who knows your every taste and desire. It’s an emotion of fulfillment, not bitterness, and it’s an emotion that opens the heart and brings you to a higher state of happiness.
We, of course, don’t have a word for it in English. But there is a word for it in Sanskrit and Pali, the language we believe the Buddha used for his teachings, and that word is mudita. Mudita is empathetic or appreciative joy, the literal opposite of hating it when our friends become successful. It’s possibly the best feeling in the world, and it is the key to all-day happiness. If you can cultivate mudita in your heart you will experience unparalleled positivity all the goddamn time.
Weddings are not always great sources of mudita. Sometimes they’re over-managed affairs, sometimes they’re desperate depositories of other people’s sadness. I’ve been to weddings where the gaiety barely covered deep jealousy and despair; people upset that they weren’t the ones getting married, parents unable to cope with the passage of time, guests who felt resentment at having to waste a day at a party for someone they, it turned out, didn’t like that much. I’ve been to weddings that were doomed from the start; one, a few years ago, where a pathological liar and philanderer acquiesced to marry his long-suffering girlfriend, and we all suspected it was just a countdown clock until the whole thing imploded. (It was. No schadenfreude here; I feel such sorrow and compassion for both of them)
A wedding can be fraught with expectation, laden with fear. The open bar at a wedding can be a landmine, waiting to be stepped on by the right person with the right heavy gait. If you hate weddings, I get it. But if you hate weddings, that’s maybe because you didn’t make it to Todd and Julie’s wedding.
I can tell you what the wedding was like, how it was on a balcony on the 69th* floor of the US Bank Building here in Los Angeles, so high up that the mountains in the distance were below us and that helicopters flew by at eye level. I could tell you about the dress that Julie wore, a gorgeous and stunning ivory gown that came in tight at her waist before it blossomed out, topped off by a gossamer cape and sparkling necklace that turned her into a hip princess. I could tell you about the awesome, cool and funky songs that the bride and groom entered to, leaving behind staid music choices in favor of sounds that reflected their lives and personalities. I can tell you how the dessert was soft-serve ice cream pies from Magpie’s, some of the finest sweets you can find in a city filled with fine sweet treats.
But none of those things capture what made this wedding a source of mudita. That stuff – as great as it was – were all testaments to wedding planning and good taste, and plenty of oppressively bad weddings have those in spades. That doomed wedding? It happened at one of the more gorgeous venues I’ve ever been to. It was a really nice wedding. Great food.
The difference was the people. It was Todd and Julie, who are open-hearted people whose love for each other only slightly – slightly! – eclipses the love they feel for the people in their lives. These are the kind of people you feel lucky to know, the kind of people whose first thought is always about how you’re doing, how you’re feeling, how they can make your day a little bit better. They’re the kind of people that you meet all too rarely in this life, people who don’t center themselves in every situation but instead live in almost constant emotional service for everyone around them (and not in a doormat way, I should clarify. They have smart and strong boundaries, and I feel sad for the people who cross them). That you should meet a person like this in your life is a blessing; that two people like this should meet one another and fall in love is almost religious in the magnitude of its rightness.
People like this, they make sympathetic joy easy. The real definition of mudita is feeling happy for others without any self-interest getting in the way. Pride isn’t the right emotion, exactly – that involves a sense that the happiness of others reflects upon you. No, mudita is like the feeling you get when looking at a stunning sunrise or a work of art that brings you to tears; it has nothing to do with you, it wasn’t created by you and it doesn’t benefit you but you are overwhelmed with happiness about it.
I think this is how Todd and Julie feel a lot of the time. Mudita is a feeling you get when you decenter yourself from the world, when you accept that the universe isn’t your stage and that if all of life is indeed a play, you’re not the lead. You can stand on the side and admire whoever is taking center stage at the moment, not feel like you’re being ignored or that your time is being eaten up by someone else. You can be grateful for your unique vantage point at this moment, not bitter that you aren’t the one in the spotlight. It’s a wonderful feeling.
Mudita is the realization that happiness is an unlimited, eternally renewable resource. Someone else’s happiness doesn’t diminish the amount of happiness in the world; if anything mudita is the process in which we take someone else’s happiness and we multiply it, offering it to ourselves and others. Happiness is like tribbles – it keeps reproducing itself forever and ever. If you’re in the right mind state, anyway.
I wept maybe four or five times at the wedding. I wept when Julie walked down the aisle, I wept at the vows, I wept at the speeches, I wept at the first dance, I wept when I told the bride and groom how much they meant to me. The tears were necessary, because the mudita I felt that day made my heart burst again and again, like a rain cloud offering the gentlest sun shower on a hot day.
And I know I wasn’t alone. The speeches that day were astonishing; it wasn’t that everyone was a public speaker (although some were, and they were awesome), but rather that the emotions were so real and unfiltered. Todd and Julie brought out this mudita in everyone, even the people who would never imagine there was a word for how they felt. None of the speeches had that “We’re losing a daughter but gaining a son!” vibe, or the quasi-comedic warnings about the rigors of married life. There was no room for those kinds of things, because all anyone wanted to do – even the people gently roasting Todd, whose sense of humor includes a lot of ball-busting – was explain how happy these two people made them.
This isn’t just being happy for someone. It’s being happy with someone.
Have you felt that? Have you felt that towards someone else, the deep gratitude that they simply exist? I watched that displayed again and again. I can’t even imagine what it must have felt like for Todd and Julie to have that love radiating onto them, reflected off a hundred happy faces. I hope that they understand that they made that happen, that the way they live their lives created so much love and gratitude towards them. This was karma in action; the seeds they had sown over their lives were blossoming before their eyes, with the lights of Los Angeles glittering like a carpet of jewels beneath them.
To be able to see other people be happy and to partake of that happiness – it’s like finding free happiness everywhere you go. I’m so grateful to Todd and Julie for inviting me to their wedding and allowing me to just mainline all that sweetness and love. What a gift I was given. A full week later and I’m still buzzing from the love; the happiness sticks with me. That’s a benefit of focusing on these positive things; by leaving less room in my heart for negative stuff I have more room for the positive, and I was able to top off my tank that day.
I encourage you to find mudita where you can. It doesn’t always come in the concentrated dose I got at the wedding, but it is everywhere around you. It’s in the hand-holding of two lovers on the street, it’s in the pride on a mother’s face as she watches her child at the park. It’s in your Facebook friend posting about their new job, it’s in the guy at work who isn’t you getting a raise. It’s in the small victories you see everywhere, and the gentle comforts that others find.
What mudita really is is the realization that there is true abundance in the world. There’s enough for you – enough everything (that matters) for you. But there is especially enough love. More than enough, and the thing about love is that it’s only valuable when you’re using it and sharing it. Thank you, Todd and Julie, for sharing yours with me.