When I was a younger man, I used to be something of a curmudgeon. I tended to envy people who were happy and successful. I remember times when, as a single man, I would glance at couples in San Francisco holding hands and feel bitter resentment. They seemed like such ordinary people, what right did they have to flaunt their happiness in my face by holding hands! Would love ever find it’s way to me? I’d wonder. Or I’d be walking down the street in a lovely San Francisco neighborhood, past gorgeously cozy Victorian mansions, and feel like a total failure in life because I didn’t own such a beautiful house. I’d feel the same way about people driving fancy cars, or going on long and expensive vacations to exotic climes. Or about so many other things.
Then something strange started to happen. I started catching myself smiling at beautiful houses as I walked past them, feeling genuinely happy for the people who lived in them. I also began noticing a swell of enjoyment whenever I saw couples holding hands, being openly affectionate. And when people told me they were going on long expensive vacations, I would be sincerely delighted for them.
One day it hit me: I had stopped being a curmudgeon! But what had changed? I asked myself. Then I realized: my meditation practice, which I’d been engaged in for many years, had started to show up for me as the heart quality known as appreciative joy. Appreciative joy, sometimes known as sympathetic joy, is that quality of an open and wise heart that rejoices in the happiness and success of others. When it is directed at one’s own good fortune, appreciative joy is embodied in the emotion of gratitude. What was amazing to me is that I hadn’t consciously tried being grateful for what I had or appreciative of others’ happiness. The emotions just arose naturally as a result of my practice. I realized as well that if I was spontaneously experiencing joy for others, my brain must have been changed as a result.
Through meditation, we practice letting go of distractions, comparisons, and private obsessions again and again, by simply coming back to our breath or whatever object we’re focusing on. That act of letting go and coming back, repeated countless times over hours, days, weeks, months, and years, has a structural impact on our brains, thanks to neuroplasticity – the fact that our brains can be changed through repeated experience. Those structural changes are then reflected in our behavior. The hard edges of our comparing and judging mind soften, and we gravitate towards a state of inner contentment. When we are feeling good about ourselves internally, we don’t have to compare ourselves to others externally. Feeling good about ourselves, we naturally wish others to be happy as well. If we feel inner joy, it frees our heart to feel joy for others.
And research has shown that joy and gratitude can have a protective influence on psychological and physical health. In one study by Emmons & McCullough, those who kept weekly gratitude journals were more likely to exercise regularly, have fewer physical symptoms, and felt better about their lives as a whole. And research by Richard Davidson has shown a 50% increase in antibodies to the flu in people who rate high in joyful emotions.
Because of the fact that our brains are plastic, our curmudgeonly tendencies don’t have to be our fate. We can intentionally cultivate positive states like joy and gratitude through practices such as mindfulness, concentration, and lovingkindness. We are not at the mercy of the brain’s default negativity bias or of our habitual ruminative thought patterns. In a very real sense, happiness, joy and gratitude are ways of being rather than static states. And because feeling appreciative joy also makes us a better colleague, leader, friend, or spouse, a joyful mind is also an intelligent one.