"Mudita or Schadenfreude?" by Allen Weiss, MD, MBA, President & CEO

How Do We Relate To Others - Mudita or Schadenfreude?

February 15, 2012 - These two unusual words express vastly different ways of looking at the world.
Mudita is a word used by Buddhists to mean “rejoicing in the good fortune of others as joy, especially as sympathetic or vicarious joy that comes from delighting in other people’s well-being.”
Schadenfreude is a German term defined as delighting in others’ misery.
The traditional example of mudita is the pleasure a parent sees in a growing child’s accomplishments and successes. Mudita is not profiting or benefiting from this success directly, but rather seeing someone else succeed. This good and satisfying feeling can be self-perpetuating, as people who enjoy mudita typically bring success to any environment in which they find themselves.

The lesson here is that the attitudes we bring with us to a large extent control our destiny. How we approach someone else or any situation determines the outcome more than the actual facts or other tangible differences.

There’s an oft-told story about a traveler stopping at the edge of town to fill up his car with gas. He asks the attendant, “What kind of people live in this town?” The attendant responds with a question, “What are the people like in your old town?” The traveler replies, “Not so nice, not too considerate or kind.” A few days later, the traveler returns to the gas station and the attendant asks about the personality of the town’s people. The answer, “Not so nice. . . ”

A different traveler has a similar experience, stopping at the edge of a new town and asking the attendant about the town’s people. The attendant asks the same question with the response is, “Nice, warm, friendly, supportive folks happy with themselves and each other.” Sure enough, on departing this town a few days later, the traveler stops at the gas station and is queried. The traveler responds warmly, “Great people—helpful, warm, friendly, supportive.”

What we bring is usually what we take away—in the workplace, at home, or in a marriage.

“Envy At Work,” a Harvard Business Review article a couple years ago, explains how this deadly sin can sabotage a company. The worse the economic stress, the greater the paranoia about job security which results in increased jealousy and envy. This downhill spiral leads to worse performance individually and corporately, as relationships are damaged, performance impeded, and people dwell on each other rather than servicing the customer or whatever they are supposed to be doing.

In business as well as personal situations, the two common manifestations of envy are disparagement and distancing.

We make ourselves feel better by belittling the accomplishments of others, and we separate or distance ourselves from those whom we envy. A much healthier approach is to embrace the success of others, to learn and grow by copying best practices and emulating those we should admire. Psychologists note that the better we know people, the more intense feelings we have about them—either good or bad. Strangers have little effect on us, whereas close personal acquaintances create intense feelings. We all do better—as do our professional organizations and personal lives—when we channel those feelings in positive directions.

Burning up energy by trying to repress harmful feelings is akin to holding a grudge. Both short and long term, the ill feelings end up hurting the person holding the grudge rather than the alleged transgressor. Holding a grudge is like taking poison and expecting someone else to get sick and die.

The benefits of forgiving, according to Katherine M. Piderman, Ph.D., staff chaplain at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, include:
• Lower blood pressure
• Stress reduction
• Less hostility
• Better anger management skills
• Lower heart rate
• Lower risk of alcohol or substance abuse
• Fewer depression symptoms
• Fewer anxiety symptoms
• Reduction in chronic pain
• More friendships
• Healthier relationships
• Greater religious or spiritual well-being
• Improved psychological well-being
Stopping the downhill spiral is not easy but very much worth the effort. Mudita can be intentionally developed by following a few simple techniques.
Start with identifying what makes you jealous. When meeting someone who is smarter, prettier, richer or more successful—are you happy or troubled? Most people (if they’re perfectly honest) are envious unless they are self aware of their own tendencies. If you are insecure or lacking some trait which you think is important and you perceive someone else is successful in with these traits, are you upset or happy for them?

Focusing on yourself, not others, is much more important than trying to keep up with the “Joneses.” Affirming your own self worth is probably the most therapeutic mental maneuver you can do. Realizing that you are playing your own game and not someone else’s is fundamental for mental health and success in any relationship.

Generosity of spirit is akin to having joy in other’s success. This positive attitude is also important in successful marriages. A recent New York Times article referenced the noted marriage researcher John Gottman who found that successful couples say or do at least five positive things for each negative interaction with their partner. This is not an easy goal but then again, most worthwhile goals are not easy. Sexual intimacy, commitment, and communication are the acknowledged behaviors and characteristics of successful relations—but generosity, which goes along with mudita rather than schadenfreude, makes an added difference.

This feeling of generosity is also multigenerational. Children of happy and generous couples are nurtured in an environment which perpetuates positive feelings and attitudes such as self confidence. As successful children grow up and take on worthwhile roles in the “adult” world, their parents have the pleasure of seeing further contributions to society and each other. Thus the joy of appreciating others success becomes self-perpetuating. The virtuous cycle continues with enhanced energy.

Mudita versus schadenfreude—how do we live our lives? Is our natural tendency to be positive and joyful with others’ success—or be filled with envy and jealousy?

Understanding these concepts and putting these thoughts into our everyday behavior will make a significant difference in many important ways—at work, at home, or in the community.

When you embrace mudita, you and everyone around you will be better for it.

Past Health Advice Articles

Dr. Allen Weiss is CEO & President of the NCH Healthcare System. He is board certified in Internal Medicine, Rheumatology and Geriatrics, and was in private practice in Naples, Florida from 1977 - 2000. Dr. Weiss is active in a variety of professional organizations and boards, and has been published in numerous medical journals, including the American Journal of Medicine and the Journal of Clinical Investigation.