Lately I’ve been reading Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, by Johann Hari. I won’t quite say that it’s life changing, but it’s pretty darn close. It’s giving me new ways to think about and deal with my depression/anxiety. One of the things discussed in the book is the idea of sympathetic joy. That’s basically a form of meditation where you visualize yourself feeling genuinely happy for the success/good fortune of others.
It begins with you visualizing happiness for yourself and then extending that to people you like, sort of like, don’t like, and actively dislike (or don’t even know). As you can imagine, it gets more difficult as you progress to the people you don’t like. It’s darn hard to be happy for people you dislike! Instead of saying things like, “Oh, she just got lucky,” or, “Fine, he’s sold a million books but I bet his wife hates him,” you try to project genuine happiness. “He’s sold a million books. How awesome!”
The idea is that practicing sympathetic joy squashes envy and eliminates the pain you feel when you feel “less than” or left out. It helps with depression and anxiety caused by envy, plus it just makes you a kinder person. You move from thinking of success as a finite commodity, to understanding that there’s plenty of happiness and success to go around. It’s not that someone else’s success (intelligence, love, happiness, etc.) takes away from yours, but rather that we can all have these things. They aren’t finite, and someone having some does not diminish the amount available. Competition is not necessary.
That’s the gist, anyway. Read the book if you want a more coherent explanation.
So why am I writing about this? Well, first of all, it’s been helping me. I never really thought of myself as an envious person. Sure, I see the success of others and feel a little pang of envy. I want that for myself. But generally I’m good about realizing that what I do have is awesome.
Still, since beginning to practice sympathetic joy, I’ve realized that I’m not as loving as I thought. I still get that moment of, “Oh, how lucky for him,” or “Yes, but…” when thinking of other’s successes. Putting that aside and being genuinely happy for someone else hasn’t come as easy as I thought it would. Especially for people I dislike. Plus, it’s pointed out some ugliness in my own world. Yes, I am tainted by the envy monster, and sometimes it aids my depression. Working to overcome this is actually making me feel better. And be better.
Second, I’m beginning to think a lot of authors need to start a sympathetic joy practice. Seriously. If you don’t follow book drama on social media, there have been a few weird things going on lately, seemingly spurred by some serious envy and a misplaced desire to guard their own success from others. There has been a misplaced allegation of plagiarism by a first time author against a titan of publishing. There have been a few attempts to trademark common words to stop other authors from using those words in their own titles or books. These incidents plus others show that an awful lot of authors are trying very hard to tear other authors down. Or, at least prevent them from ascending the same heights of success.
Why? There’s plenty of room for everyone. One person’s success does nothing to hinder another person. There is plenty of room for all, provided you have a story, article, book, or poem that others wish to read. If anything, you could argue that success breeds success. Take this example: The success of Fifty Shades of Grey ( you can argue about its content or quality, but you can’t deny its monetary success) opened up a wider market for erotica writers. Same with Twilight or Harry Potter opening up the YA market. When one person is wildly successful, that often opens up opportunities for others.
So why all the drama? Why all the attacks? Why not just be happy for others and then focus on your own efforts? I don’t have a ready answer. Perhaps it’s somehow tied up with the culture’s work ethic which says, “Get all you can; stomp on anyone you need to in order to move ahead.” Maybe it’s just human nature to rip others to shreds. I don’t know. All I know is that being happy for others is a better, saner way to live.
I’m not suggesting that you overlook legitimate theft of your intellectual property, or that you get all excited if you are genuinely mistreated. But I am suggesting that you stop and think before spouting off on social media, or taking ridiculous legal action against your fellow authors. Check your facts, then check the place in your head where this anger is originating. See if there’s a way to celebrate others instead of humiliating them.
Your fellow authors can be your friends, allies, champions, mentors, and sounding boards. They don’t have to be your bitter enemies in a quest for success. You don’t have to stomp on them to get where you’re going. You can work together and celebrate each other. Give a little joy to them and you may just find more joy in yourself.
Of course, it’s not just authors who need to learn to be happy for others. We all could benefit from practicing sympathetic joy for one another. Even our “enemies.” Heaven knows, in the current climate we could all use more joy and kindness. There’s enough love, happiness, and success in the world to go around. There’s no need to be envious or snarky over someone else’s happiness and achievements. Take joy in it, and take joy in your own. The world, and your own head, will be a better place.
(Photo courtesy of jill111)