The thief of joy

By Ingrid Fetell Lee



It’s a fine line between inspiration and envy. I walk it daily on Instagram, Pinterest, and all the rest. One second I’m seeing a matcha-chia pudding recipe I can’t wait to try or a painting technique I want to experiment with, and the next I’m looking at someone’s gorgeous skylit studio and feeling a wash of self-pity over my little kitchen counter setup. At its best, social media appeals to my curiosity, my daring, my sensualist seeker. The part of me that leads the way to new joys and discoveries. At its worst, it whispers to my ambition, my competitive nature, feeding my fear that I’m not, nor will I ever be, good enough. It whispers me right into inertia.

Did I say “at its worst”? What I should’ve said is “at my worst”. Because what’s on those channels is just stuff. Whatever the agenda of the sharer, by the time it gets to me, it’s just words and images. And I find if I can stay in the joy of it, without comparing it to my life, then it’s a welcome respite from all the other black-and-white channels of communication in my life. “Comparison is the thief of joy,” said good old TR, and I’m always grateful for the reminder.

It strikes me that we have the word schadenfreude (inherited from the German language) to describe joy in someone’s misfortune, but we don’t have a word in common use for joy in someone’s success. Why does language so often emphasize the negative over the positive? The sanskrit word mudita might come close to what we need. I’ve seen it defined as “reveling in the joy of another”. It takes a certain bravery to embrace mudita, I think. Or at least an awareness that joy is not finite, and that one person’s good fortune does not drain the fortune pool, leaving less for the rest of us. I think our scarcity-wired brains have trouble with this. They’re secretly very good at math, specifically subtraction. They are very good at the zero-sum game.

Yet they are also vulnerable to the sheer beauty of things, and this is for me the best way of out the comparison trap. To wit: the friend who left her paint palette in the rain overnight and came outside to find a rainbow. The friend whose new dog looks exactly, adorably like the emoji of a dog. Even the friend who is always on the beach. Because pictures of ocean waves and palm trees can be a 1-second vacation, if you let them.

How’s your inspiration/envy balance when it comes to social media? Do you have any tricks for staying on the positive side of the line?

May 3rd, 2016


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    Discussion (2 Comments)

  1. Chelsea Howe on May 3, 2016

    I ran into this issue of language and actually found the word ‘compersion’ – it’s used in the polyamory community, apparently, but describes what I was looking for – taking joy in someone else’s joy, taking satisfaction from someone else’s satisfaction.

    Of course, though, having taken several semesters of Sanskrit I find mudita all the more joyful as well 🙂

    1. Ingrid on May 4, 2016

      Hmm, compersion. I’m glad there’s a word for it though it’s maybe not the prettiest. But fascinating to know the origins. I suppose if you’re polyamorous, being able to find joy in others’ joy is a pretty important part of the equation!! Thanks for sharing, Chelsea.


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