Picture the scene. It’s several years ago and I’m in a gay bar, standing on my own.
Nearby, a group of guys share a joke and burst into laughter. I immediately feel myself turning inwardly defensive. I might even throw them a look.
‘What are they laughing at?’ I find myself thinking. ‘Are they laughing at me? Cliquey, bitchy queens… thinking they’re so hilarious!’
It’s embarrassing how quickly other people enjoying a good time prompted this antagonistic reaction in me.
I’m stood there on my own, no doubt feeling a little self-conscious. They’re a few feet away, appearing to be having the time of their life. And I resent them for it.
‘We were those two queens cackling in the corner…’
I can’t identify that exact moment my attitude changed, but I’m pretty sure it was linked to a realization I had when on the other side of the equation.
I used to have a good friend who I’d frequent the bars with. One of the things we liked about each other is that we had a knack for making each other howl with laughter.
We were those two queens cackling in the corner, swapping stories about men, friends and putting the world to rights.
It wasn’t meant maliciously. We weren’t harming anyone. We just got high from making each other cry with laughter.
However, one day it occurred to me that, unbeknownst to us, there were probably other men in other parts of the bar thinking exactly the same of us as I thought towards others when I felt alone and excluded.
But our laughter was nothing to do with them. And by the same token, it was ridiculous for me to take it personally when I heard or saw other people having a better time than I was having.
Instead, the next time I overheard the laughter, I thought back to a moment when I was in the same position, and my friend made me laugh. Just thinking of that moment, and the joke, made me smile. I had to stifle a giggle. I didn’t feel defensive, but allowed myself to bask in the memory.
This felt good. So much so, that the next time I was in that situation, I did it again. And again.
Not at first, but over the course of the following weeks and months, I found that this simple exercise began to elicit a Pavlovian effect on me. I didn’t have to work hard to think of a funny memory. When other people laughed, I found myself smiling.
Now, the sound of other people laughing makes me feel good. I feed off the energy.
I sometimes witness my old behavioral response in other gay men – particularly younger guys. Nowadays, it’s not just the laughter of guys in bars, but those who have the audacity to appear happy on social media – routinely dismissed as being narcissists or exhibitionists.
Whatever happened to basking in someone else’s success or happiness?
Discovering sympathetic joy
I was reminded of all this when reading Johann Hari’s arresting new book on depression and anxiety, Lost Connections. In it, Hari talks about ‘sympathetic joy’. It’s not a term I’d come across before, but I guess sums up my own little exercise.
He recounts a friend, Rachel, who shared with him her own admission about envying others. There was one female cousin in particular who would elicit a deep, irrational feeling of envy in Rachel.
Aware these feelings of anger and envy were unattractive and made little sense, she set out to tackle them.
She realized that we are made to feel – partly by the relentless advertising that assaults us – life is a competition: Who can be happiest, richest, prettiest, most successful? We begrudge those who we think are doing better than us.
Her solution was to explore ‘sympathetic joy’ meditation. In her mind, she would picture something good happening to her: a promotion; a particular achievement; falling in love; whatever. She would concentrate hard to feel the joy that might elicit and let that feeling flow through her.
Then, she would picture someone she loved enjoying the same success or achievement, and would try to imagine the joy they felt.
Then – and this is the harder part – she would picture someone she didn’t like, or a stranger, and try to picture the joy they felt when something wonderful happened to them.
Again, not instantly, but with lots of practice, she found her original instinctive feelings of envy fading. Joy in others can breed joy.
‘You think that certain things aren’t malleable,’ Rachel told Hari, but ‘they completely are. You can be a total jealous monster, and you think that’s just part of who you are, and you find you can change it doing some basic thing.’
I know some of you will be reading this, rolling your eyes and thinking: ‘What nonsense!‘ or ‘Who does he think he is?’ I probably would have done so myself, a few years ago.
All I know is that I find myself reveling in the success of others in a way I didn’t before. And smiling a hell of a lot more.