Joy is a big-sounding word; filled with our own personal connotations of what we think joy ought to be. But rarely are those connotations ever really accurate. Dharma often reminds me that we can find joy in having empathy and compassion for others. Sometimes, though, empathy and compassion can be emotionally-draining. Empathy can often feel more like a liability than an asset. We often see evidence of this in the helping professions - teachers, health care, and social work - where job burnout is high. If you're a highly empathic person, or frog, you risk having increased stress and depression. So what's the solution? Not care at all or wear a "psychological hazmat suit" to protect yourself from the stress and suffering you see everyday. Dharma believes that the answer to these questions is "No." Actually, he says that the best solution is the exact opposite. Instead of creating emotional barriers to prevent us feeling too much, we need to increase our capacity for even more empathy. Don't become immune to the stress and struggles of others, but increase your susceptibility to catching joy! Positive empathy is what he calls it.
Most psychological science has focused on the negative aspects of empathy; the ability to understand and feel what someone else is feeling like pain, sadness, loneliness, etc. But humans, and us frogs as well, can also catch other's joy and happiness. That is also a form of empathy and one we're learning more about every day. When we witness the good fortune of others, it can actually activate the reward system in our own brain. This "contagious" happiness can be a huge source of our own well-being. Positive empathy has been linked to having greater life satisfaction, peace of mind and, yes, even happiness! Looking for happiness in common things, as well as allowing ourselves to feel genuinely happy for others, can have a positive effect on our physical and emotional health. It turns out that positive empathy can also increase our trust, support, and satisfaction in all our relationships. When we feel more connected to others, which means we can experience both their heartaches and their joy, we have more and better (i.e. fulfilling) interactions. Experts on the subject are finding that positive empathy enhances that "warm glow" we get when we help others; this makes having compassion more sustainable (and with less chance of burnout).
Dharma explained to me that joy needn't be only those big moments life (marriage, the birth of our children, career advancement, etc) but that joy can (and should) be found daily in small things like a smile, a hug, and any expression of good cheer. There is joy in simple pleasures; listening to music, preparing a favorite meal, holding a baby, and watching children at play. These are the things, Dharma believes, that bring lasting happiness...being able to extract happiness from common and everyday things. There is joy in being connected to something bigger than yourself - like nature, family, or faith. Joy is also wonderment, curiosity and, especially, awe. We can find joy in the appreciation and acknowledgement we receive from others. And there is joy in laughter...especially when it's shared.
My wise teacher tells me that positive empathy, empathic joy, allows us to stay engaged with life. We can use it, too, as a resource to help us get through life's most difficult times. Positive empathy gives us hope in the face of uncertainty and when we are struggling with needs that are yet unmet.
What is the best way to catch joy? It's a bit like catching flies for us frogs. Becoming aware (increasing your power of observation) is something we can train ourselves to do. I'd probably starve to death, if I simply sat on my lily pad and waited for a bug to fly by. But by becoming more observant of the world around me and actively becoming engaged, I see where the bugs are and no longer have to wait until one just happens to fly by my head. Catching joy is the same way. You needn't wait for joy and happiness to happen to you. By becoming more aware of the world around you and actively engaging in your life (this means don't "sleep walk" through it) you'll ind many, many reasons to feel happy and joyous. Happiness is all around us when we open our eyes.
After Dharma left this morning, I decided to put today's lesson into actual practice; I would find joy in everything I did...starting with washing up the breakfast dishes. I put on my favorite tunes and began clearing the table. Much to my surprise, I found that I did feel happier and more grateful. Life offers us so many good and wonderful opportunities to find joy. And they can be as close, and as simple, as your kitchen sink.