The Softer Side of Joy

Matt Flynt
Matt Flynt

Mindfulness wooden sign with a beach on background

You've heard of mindfulness, but do you know how deep and far it resonates? Join Matt on this exploration of one of the most powerful and complex human emotions—joy—and how mindfulness plays a bigger part than you might even realize.


The softer side of joy, you might ask? Joy is already soft; how can there be a softer side? For many of us, joy is a natural state that comes when we do something we enjoy: going for a run, reading a book on a Saturday afternoon, playing a favorite game with children, playing an instrument, spending time with a loved one, eating a favorite meal, to name a few.

At times, we know what activities bring us joy and we seek them out. While at other times, joy arises naturally and unexpectedly. For example, we may be walking out of the house early in the morning thinking about the day ahead and suddenly, a brilliant late spring sun hits our face and a warm breeze flutters at our clothes and there it is. We forget our thoughts and, for a moment, we are present to the experience and joy arises. Just like that, joy is there, however fleeting.

If we are lucky, we may find more moments of joy throughout our day.

Whenever joy arises we feel good; it brings gladness, a sense of ease, it softens us. So far, I've mentioned examples of joy that come from activities that one enjoys for oneself. The Buddha taught us that there is another joy, a subtler joy that one must consider. Muditā is a Pali word that can be translated as "appreciative joy" or "delight from the well-being of others." It describes the joy that arises from learning of the good fortune or success that another has received.

This is precisely where we tend to complicate joy. If we are honest with ourselves and reflect deeply on our internal experience, we will likely discover that there are times when embracing the good fortune of others is challenging. It may challenge us very subtly, such as learning of the success of a dear friend. We are happy that they got that big promotion, but a barely audible voice says, "Why not me? I deserve that too." Or, at times the challenge is quite obvious—someone we strongly dislike just bought their dream home and we think, "Oh no, she does NOT deserve that. She is a terrible person."

I experienced an example like this recently: A friend of mine who works for a large bank in New York received a promotion that came with a substantial increase in salary. Soon after, he and his family moved into a beautiful and spacious apartment. He is smart, hard-working, has a lovely family, and his promotion and salary increase were well deserved. What should have been an opportunity for me to celebrate in his joy was difficult for me. Though I could acknowledge his success, my heart seemed to be resting in a place of slight resentment whenever the topic came up.

In Buddhist philosophy, muditā, or "appreciative joy," is what is known as a brahma-vihara. Brahma-vihara is sometimes translated as "boundless state." Along with loving-kindness (mettā), compassion (karunā) and equanimity (upekhā), these are qualities of heart that one can cultivate. In the West, there is a tendency to think of qualities such as these as something one does or doesn't have. For example, we say things like, "She is a kind person" or "He is a very compassionate man." In Buddhist philosophy however, since these are qualities of heart, one can actively develop these qualities by bringing awareness and intention to one's speech and actions. This gives hope to those of us who struggle with the opposites of these "boundless states." According to this philosophy, the more one develops the brahma-viharas, the more difficult it becomes for feelings like discontent, ill will and resentment to take root.

When I reflected on my experience with my friend, what I discovered was that my difficulty in feeling joy for his success had nothing to do with him. My heart was closing off to joy, not because he didn't deserve my joy and support—but because my heart was closing off to protect itself. Upon deeper reflection, I realized I felt somehow less-than that I didn't have the beautiful apartment that he did, I felt that I should be the one moving into a larger apartment instead (leaving my current Manhattan shoebox long behind).

There is something strange that the mind does in situations such as these: If we believe the narrative of the mind, then we tend to get stuck in such dualistic thinking of deserving versus undeserving and good versus bad. Though there may be a practical side to this sort of thinking, what happens on a more subtle level is that our hearts begin to harden. We begin to limit the natural arising of joy and think that by administering our joy for those who "deserve" it and withholding it from those who don't, we will somehow be better off.

Ultimately, if we restrict our joy, we are restricting our hearts and in turn are restricting our own ability to be happy. Instead, if we can soften ourselves, we open ourselves further to the world. Letting go of the hardened part of our experiences is what enables our joy to go deeper.

This is the softer side of joy.

I invite you to look more closely at this in your own heart; let this appreciative joy soften you and your heart. The next time you learn of another's success or good fortune, welcome it with awareness. If the joy for their success comes easy, then enjoy it. If it doesn't, look within and reflect—see where you can soften.

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Matt Flynt

By Matt Flynt

Matt has worked at The Leadership Program for over eight years and is currently the Director of Programmatic Initiatives. Matt leads a team of fifteen Community School Directors spread across Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx, NY. Matt believes in the focusing and restorative powers of mindfulness as well as the timeless wisdom of the teachings of the Buddha as important guides for life.