Not long ago, dear friends of ours texted my husband and me to tell us their son was born. This was a surprise, not only to us--but to the new parents themselves.
You see, our friends had been trying to adopt a child for years, since before the pandemic, and they were losing hope that they'd find a match. Until that day when this baby boy's birth mom chose our friends for his forever home.
When my husband and I got the news, our eyes welled with tears, and we entered this state of pure joy--for their joy.
It turns out, there's a word for these feelings: Freudenfreude. To fully grasp this happy word, we must examine freudenfreude's not-so-happy antonym--schadenfreude. The compound word breaks down into two words-"schaden" (harm) and "freude" (joy). Borrowed from German, schadenfreude is defined as deriving joy from someone else's misfortune, for example, being happy that someone got fired or divorced.
Jewish tradition--and basic human decency--teaches us not to delight in someone else's pain. Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, the great philosopher, suggested that the reason that Jews were once slaves in Egypt was to sensitize us to the pain of others.
We're instructed not to take pleasure even when it's our enemies who suffer. It is written in Proverbs (24:17-18): "If your enemy falls, do not exalt. If he trips, let your heart not rejoice…"
And we're commanded to comfort others in their darkest hours--for instance to visit the sick and to make a minyan so a mourner can say the Kaddish.
But what about in times of light? If we're there to grieve others' losses with them, shouldn't we be there to rejoice in their wins, too--like cheerleaders for happiness?
Enter freudenfreude. The word, an apt one to explore in this love and relationships issue, is defined as taking joy in someone else's successes. Core to freudenfreude is empathy-the capacity to feel and connect with what someone else is experiencing.
The term freudenfreude wasn't around in Biblical times, but the concept fits in harmony with Jewish values. We're commanded to be happy, and to make other people happy. For instance, it's a mitzvah to bring a couple joy on their wedding day. Taking this joy stuff one step further and rejoicing in other people's joy feels very Jewish.
I wanted to learn more about freudenfreude from a psychological perspective, so I reached out to Chicago-based Licensed Clinical Psychologist Dr. Aimee Daramus. She told me that the research is still in its early stages, emerging in U.S. psychology circles only a decade ago.
What we do know, she said, is there's a link between our reactions to someone else's happiness and our own level of happiness. In 2012, psychologist Catherine Chambliss and colleagues developed a freudenfreude and schadenfreude scale to gauge college students' reactions to others' successes and failures, as compared to their own levels of depression. Chambliss concluded that students with moderate depression were more prone to schadenfreude and less prone to freudenfreude than less-depressed students.
Okay, so most of us know it's nicer to be happy for other people. The thing is we can't necessarily control our feelings of envy. Humans are hardwired for both schadenfreude and freudenfreude, Daramus said. While freudenfreude comes more naturally for some, schadenfreude tends to win out more often because we instinctively prioritize safety over happiness.
But there's happy news: Humans are capable of resisting our inclination for schadenfreude by conditioning our freudenfreude muscle. "You can recognize when you're feeling petty about someone's success or failure, and you can decide to acknowledge that feeling--but not let it influence your behavior," Daramus said. "You can recognize that someone else's success is not your failure, and look at why their success makes you feel bad about yourself."
So, lean into other people's simchas: Share in the joy when your friend tells you they're having a baby or aced an exam or met their bashert. As Rabbi Nachman of Breslov famously said, "It is a great mitzvah to be happy always." After all, the world could use all the happiness it can get.