Our cats love my partner. When presented with two laps, the cats will choose hers, almost every time. In the morning, our kitten Leif nurses on her shoulder, his little paws making biscuits.
Am I jealous? Nope. I feel really happy seeing a woman I love being adored by cats I love.
Scientists have a name for this feeling, which they borrowed from the Buddhist ethic of Muditā: sympathetic joy, which is sometimes called appreciative joy, empathic joy, vicarious reward, or (more broadly) positive empathy. By whatever name, it’s the unadulterated goodness we feel when something good happens for someone else.
That sounds great, but there are times when it can be hard to feel sympathetic joy, yes? Especially if we’re feeling personally threatened or unhappy with our own lives. There are many unpleasant emotions that can diminish the opportunity to share in other people’s joy: fear, jealousy, envy, stress, and resentment, among others.
Even if we do experience sympathetic joy with most people most of the time, there will still be times when we just want that warm fluffy cat on our own laps instead of someone else’s, or fall into despair over why the cat (or our boss, or the world) doesn’t like us as much.
Research is starting to document why sympathetic joy happens and when it doesn’t. It’s discovering as well why sympathetic joy is good for us and good for the people around us—and how we can cultivate more of it in our lives. Here’s a rundown of what the research so far suggests.
The rewards of sympathetic joy
Sympathetic joy might sound noble, but what’s in it for you?
I’m kidding, sort of—in fact, there are benefits for the person who can connect with another’s joy. Several studies show how witnessing another’s good fortune can activate the brain’s reward system. Beyond just feeling good, the ability to feel sympathetic joy has been linked to greater life satisfaction and happiness.
More sympathetic joy might also help make us a more compassionate society. More and more studies are finding a link with sympathetic joy and our willingness to help other people—and the likelihood we’ll actually do it.
Sympathetic joy also seems to result in better personal relationships. A 2018 paper found that “although having a partner who empathizes with one’s negative emotions is good for relationships, having a partner who (also) empathizes with one’s positive emotions may carry even greater benefits,” as the authors write.
Polyamorous people—those who have multiple romantic relationships with the consent of all involved—have a name for the happiness of seeing your partner experience pleasure or fall in love with someone else: compersion. A 2013 study of just over 300 polyamorous people found that the more they experienced this species of sympathetic joy, the more satisfied they were with their relationships—a result echoed by two other studies published last year in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, one of which involved 5,000 people.
Sympathetic joy may also result in better outcomes on the job. One 2016 study measured sympathetic joy in over 1,200 predominantly white teachers who mainly taught students of color. The teachers who were more likely to take joy in their students’ good experiences felt more connected to them—and the students had higher academic achievement. Another study of teachers and frontline health care workers found that those who experienced more sympathetic joy on the job showed less burnout and higher satisfaction at work.
This is a good place to mention that there are many unanswered questions about sympathetic joy. Most of the studies I read were conducted with young people in China or the United States. So, what does sympathetic joy look like elsewhere in the world? How does culture shape it? Does sympathetic joy have a developmental arc, rising and falling over the course of our lives?
While we may not yet have good answers to those questions, neuroscience is starting to map what path sympathetic joy takes through our bodies.
What sympathetic joy looks like in your brain
In recent years, scientists have tried to figure out if sympathetic joy looks different from other kinds of connection in the human brain, such as when we become distressed by other people’s pain. The answers are revealing why sympathetic joy is so powerful.
We’ll start with the overlap. For example, studies from the early 2000s show that empathy for other people’s good and bad feelings both activate the medial and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, which are associated with identifying, and assessing the significance of, our own and others’ mental states. Similarly, good feelings in ourselves and the good ones we perceive in other people both engage the nucleus accumbens (which signals pleasure) and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (which supports learning to like whatever or whoever brings that pleasure).
So, given those similarities, what makes sympathetic joy distinct in the brain? A series of studies published during the past few years have shed more light on what makes it different from other kinds of resonance—and it seems to come down to a question of emphasis.
One group of researchers slid study participants into functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machines as they watched an episode of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” (yes, this is funny) to try to measure their brain activity as they saw happy and sad scenes in the TV show.
In fact, there were differences in brain response to positive and negative events on the screen, with empathic joy engaging frontostriatal circuitry more strongly. This neural pathway is thought to start in the prefrontal cortex, and it seems to support deliberate mental processes like regulating emotion, planning, and decision making. On the other hand, witnessing negative experiences provoked a stronger response in the insula, an area that signals visceral experiences like pain or present-moment awareness.
That result is echoed by a 2021 study, which found that while all kinds of empathy activate frontostriatal circuitry, sympathetic joy triggers more activation, engaging “a much broader network of prefrontal subregions relative to empathy for negative emotion,” as the researchers write.
What blocks sympathetic joy?
Why do those findings matter for you and me? It suggests we tend to respond in a more straightforward way to people in trouble, in identifying their pain and even feeling it in ourselves. Sympathetic joy can involve more mental processes, like deciding what deserves our attention, and choosing how to interpret that information and how to respond to the situation. In other words, sympathetic joy may just have more moving parts.
It can also be stymied by other feelings. Sometimes, it’s our anxieties that get in the way of our natural inclination to be sympathetically joyful. If a friend loses their job and you see their distress, it is very likely that you’ll feel genuine concern, which would automatically light up this brain circuitry. But if you kinda hate your own job and the same friend then gets a better one than yours…well, it’s entirely possible that those same prefrontal subregions won’t glow with happiness for them.
You can be forgiven for feeling envy instead of joy on their behalf; it’s pretty common. Indeed, a study published this year by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that social comparisons with people perceived as doing better than us were more likely to provoke envy and schadenfreude than sympathetic joy. There are quite a few studies showing that anxiety reduces empathy—and it seems sound to speculate that feeling anxious might affect your ability to feel sympathetic joy.
Differences with other people can also get in the way of feeling empathy for them, especially if the difference involves status and power. As people’s incomes rise, for example, empathy for those lower on the ladder tends to fall. Many, many studies show that we have a harder time feeling empathic concern for people in out-groups—racial, national, or otherwise. While there doesn’t seem to be much research on sympathetic joy toward people in out-groups, the studies to date do suggest that human differences would make it harder to feel.
How to cultivate sympathetic joy
For those reasons and more, there are times when it can be hard to feel sympathetic joy. I’m not always happy to see the cats purring on the lap of my partner. Sometimes I even think: Why do they prefer her to me when I’m the one who feeds them, dammit? It really isn’t fair, now that I’m thinking about it.
If you find self-pity, jealousy, or envy chasing away your sympathetic joy, remember that you can get it back with some intention and effort. Fortunately, sympathetic joy is like a muscle that you can build up with some mental exercise, just like any other feeling or behavior. You can start by taking our new quiz measuring your sympathetic joy—the results will not be scientific, though it is based on a validated scale developed mainly in China.
Finding out where you stand according to the quiz might help you to reflect on your capacity for feeling good with other people when they have a good experience—and it will give you a starting point for cultivating that ability. This will involve learning to better manage your own distress, reducing the compulsion to make comparisons, and strengthening your sense of common humanity with other people.
Here are some exercises researchers recommend for opening the door to positive empathy, most of which are borrowed from other articles in Greater Good or from our website of science-tested practices, Greater Good in Action.
Watch a competition without taking sides. This suggestion comes from Kelly McGonigal in a 2017 article for Greater Good. “Appreciate the effort, skill, or artistry of all competitors—and celebrate the joy of whoever wins,” she writes. “Feel glad for their success, and watch how they celebrate it with others. See if you can extend your empathic joy to how they share the moment with friends, family, coaches, or teammates.”
Capitalize on positive events. When people close to us—friends, family members, significant others—tell us about positive things that happened to them, these moments have the potential to make us feel significantly closer to one another—depending on how we respond. This activity offers tips for responding in a way that has been shown to nurture positive feelings on both sides of the relationship and to increase feelings of closeness and relationship satisfaction.
Try to ease envy. Life is full of reminders of what we lack. In a 2013 article for Greater Good, psychologist Juliana Breines suggests five steps to reducing desire for what other people have, including naming envy and cultivating gratitude.
Write a self-compassionate letter. Writing in a self-compassionate way can help you replace your self-critical voice with a more compassionate one—one that comforts and reassures you rather than berating you for your shortcomings. First, identify something about yourself that makes you feel ashamed, insecure, or not good enough. Write down how it makes you feel. Then try expressing compassion, understanding, and acceptance for the part of yourself that you dislike. Feeling more compassion for yourself can help open the door to feeling joy for the good things in the lives of other people.
Try loving-kindness meditation. This meditation increases happiness in part by making you feel more connected to others—to loved ones, acquaintances, and even strangers. Research suggests that when people practice loving-kindness meditation regularly, they start automatically reacting more positively to others, and their social interactions and close relationships become more satisfying. Loving-kindness meditation can also reduce your focus on yourself—which can, in turn, help you to share in other people’s happiness.
Try the common humanity meditation. Recognizing our common humanity means acknowledging that we are all humans, facing some of the same problems. We all experience suffering and stress, loss, and pain. We all want to be loved and experience contentment. Listen to this guided meditation created by Sean Fargo, a former Buddhist monk, to not only improve your relationship with yourself but also help build compassion for others.
Try meeting someone’s gaze. A study published in 2021 by the journal NeuroImage found that deliberately locking eyes with another person can help you to feel genuinely happy for them when they share good news. This technique isn’t a slam dunk: Cultural differences and neurodivergence can affect the meaning and appropriateness of eye contact. That’s why it requires intention, effort, and good judgment. But while eye contact might feel sometimes risky, the reward could be a greater sense of connection and joy.
Let someone do something nice for you. This is another one from Kelly McGonigal. “This might not seem like a practice of empathic joy, but it becomes one when you begin to pay attention to how happy it makes the other person,” she writes. “Sometimes our own discomfort with receiving kindness, or fear of being a burden to others, gets in the way of seeing that joy.”