I once had a very brief career as a site clerk near Dublin. One of the young men who worked on the site had very prominent teeth. He could not afford to pay for orthodontic treatment in a million years. So he had all his teeth taken out and replaced with dentures.
When he returned to work he flashed big grins around the place to show off his new teeth. Everyone dutifully praised his new look. That ended when one of the workers looked at him and said, with casual cruelty, “You know you look effing awful with those false teeth. You should have stayed the way you were.” Then he laughed.
The young lad’s face fell with dismay. I recall, I hope correctly, that none of us joined in the laughter of the man who had said this cruel thing. But I don’t think any of us had the guts to contradict him out loud either.
I thought of this incident when reading about a Buddhist practice in which you deliberately take pleasure in the happiness of other people. It's the opposite of schadenfreude, which is taking pleasure in the misfortune of others and of which there is a great deal about.
In the Buddhist practice you share in the happiness of someone you like, someone you feel neutral towards and someone you dislike. That they had to make this into an actual practice suggests to me that feeling good for the happiness of other people doesn’t come naturally.
A benefit of sharing in the happiness of others is that it takes us out of what the psychiatrist Dr William Glasser called "the comparing place". You know, this guy has more money or fun or an easier time than I have and it's not right. Look at that guy driving a 161 car: how dare he. Look at that other guy going around with a big grin: I'd like to wipe the smile off his face.
Behind a lot of this begrudgery lies the unexamined and unspoken assumption that there is only so much happiness to go around. And guess what? The others have too much and I have too little.
Begrudgers cannot accept that the happiness of one person doesn’t have to diminish the happiness of everyone else. Maybe they have never thought about it. That’s aside from the fact that you can never make assumptions about other people’s level of happiness – a lot of us are very good at faking it.
They pay for their begrudgery though. In the comparing place we become dissatisfied not only with what the other person has but, almost by definition, with what we have got ourselves no matter how good that may be.
None of this has anything whatsoever to do with righting injustices. Begrudgers are not great at going into battle on behalf of other people, in my experience. Why not? Well, because they’re begrudgers.
The example at the start of this piece goes beyond begrudgery and into the realm of cruelty. There was a denial of the right of the other person to enjoy a spell of happiness which was probably unusual enough for him.
The Buddha is supposed to have said that gladness liberates the mind. I think that’s because gladness probably takes us right out of the comparing place and out of that small-minded, bitter resentment at other people’s good fortune.
The world does have people in it whose good fortune, at the expense of others, would sadden any reasonable person. But I’m talking really about gladness in everyday life and the way in which its very opposite, begrudgery, introduces a bitter element that hurts more than it helps.
Right now, at this very moment, lots of people in the world who are not all that different from you, who live ordinary lives, are very happy at some good news they’ve got. See, as an experiment, if you can actually feel happy for them even for a few seconds. See if it feels as if gladness liberates the mind.
Padraig O'Morain is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Mindfulness for Worriers. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email.