A common definition of compersion is sympathetic joy. It is the opposite of jealousy or possessiveness. Compersion arises even when the happiness of others is not directly connected or beneficial to us. An example of compersion is being happy for a friend that has been promoted at work – it is immaterial to your own situation, and your happiness comes from the fact that your friend is happy and successful. I often find myself feeling compersion towards/for others but did not identify it as its own type of joy until I came across the word in a song and started reading about it, the different types and how to increase your capacity for compersion. As with all feelings, some people may naturally feel compersion more or less easily but I believe it is something you can strengthen and increase your capacity for.
‘Compersion is fundamentally an expression of deep friendship and support can be cultivated as a way to strengthen any connection’ – Marie I. Thouin-Savard
Compersion in polyamory
Compersion is widely practised by those who are polyamorous to reduce feelings of jealousy and possessiveness; this can increase relationship satisfaction. Jealousy can be replaced by joy and celebration in your partner’s joy and happiness. Within polyamory – or ethical non-monogamy – compersion can be defined as ‘the feeling of taking joy in the joy that others you love share among themselves, especially taking joy in the knowledge that your beloveds are expressing their love for one another (Ritchie and Barker, 2006).
Of course, not everyone can relate to feelings of compersion within a non-monogamous relationship, and you don’t have to. Compersion is still an important feeling that can be cultivated within monogamous and platonic relationships – with great success. For example, when my partner goes on a night out with his friends, I am very happy to know that he is having a good time (and very happy that I don’t have to go to a Drum and Bass night). I think that within a romantic relationship, compersion requires trust and fulfilment. If I were unhappy and felt that my own needs were not being met, I am sure I would be less happy about my partner going on a night out. Within our loving and fulfilling relationship, however, there is space for compersion and empathic joy. We are joyful in each other’s successes, relationships with others and general wellbeing. It means that we can focus on building each other up rather than tearing each other down. Thus, it is a mutually beneficial feeling to cultivate in opposition to the destructive nature of jealousy.
Compersion is relevant to anyone who seeks more love and joy in their life.
Compersion in Buddhism
The concept of compersion existed within Buddhism long before it was given an English name. Sympathetic joy, known as mudita in Sanskrit and Pali, is one of the four qualities of an enlightened person. Mudita is an unselfish joy; it is joy in the good fortune of others. According to Buddhist tradition, mudita ‘remedies the illusory separateness between self and others’, which is a powerful way of recognising the interconnectedness of all beings – human and non-human. Working towards the flourishing of all is much more effective than simply working towards your individual flourishing.
The closest opposite of mudita in English is epicaricacy, which means rejoicing at or getting pleasure from the misfortune of others. In German, it is the word schadenfreude, which means ‘pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune.’ Cultivating mudita – or compersion – is a way to combat these harmful emotions. Gaining joy from others’ joy is a much better feeling than gaining joy from others’ suffering! Further, mudita is described as ‘an inner wellspring of joy that is always available, in all circumstances. It is extended to all beings, not just to those close to you.’ so allows an unbound joy. Having access to more ways of experiencing joy can only be a good thing!
Compersion in Sufism
In Sufism, a similar concept of seeing with the eyes of the heart allows one to see all beings as one. The veils of illusory separation are removed through the meditation of the heart, and everything is seen as equal. This removes ego and hierarchy and allows for more love and joy for other beings. Opening the eyes of the heart allows one to rejoice at anyone’s happiness.
They see the One in every creature and every creature in the One… they see everything with an equal eye. – Bhagavad Gita 6:29
Why is compersion important?
I believe that compersion is important for a number of reasons. It can improve our relationships with others, as well as ourselves and can bring more joy into our lives. It can also help to reduce feelings of jealousy and discontent. Some research suggests that anticipated compersion may also be linked to greater relationship satisfaction.
Compersion can deepen your relationships and friendships by shifting focus to the wellbeing of those around you and increasing your capacity for loving relationships. It is important to note that you cannot sustainably put the wellbeing of others before yourself in every situation. Selfishness comes from the human drive to survive, and a certain level of selfishness is protective. But, beyond that, it is destructive to relationships and can stand in the way of a truly happy life. To take care of others is to take care of yourself. By that, I mean that being a part of a strong and supportive community is a necessity if you want to have a full and joyous existence. Humans were not meant to live as individuals, and compersion is one of the ways that we can strengthen our bonds with those around us to build a healthy community. According to Marie Thouin, ‘compersion is part of an alternative conception of love that is built on abundance and collaboration, rather than possession and territoriality’, so it creates space for more positive emotions than traditional conceptions of jealous love.
More joy is brought by compersion for fairly self-explanatory reasons – it opens up more avenues for feeling joy. It is not bound by only your own experience but is tangled in the wellbeing of both yourself and those around you. This provides countless opportunities for happiness, whether your life as an individual is going particularly well or not. Similar to the Buddhist concept of mudita, compersion can be a wellspring of joy that is always available to you. Compersion is also a great way to frame your life. By identifying the feeling of compersion, as well as moments that can open us up to it, the more we can notice the joy in ourselves and joy in the happiness of others. This leaves less space to focus on negative thoughts and feelings.
How can we cultivate compersion?
Joli Hamilton suggests trying to notice situations when you feel happy or excited for others and then building on them. Whether in a monogamous or non-monogamous relationship, you can cultivate the joy felt at your partner’s and friends’ professional successes, friendships and positive experiences. Even just having the word compersion as a part of your emotional vocabulary gives space and attention to the feeling – an important first step.
It is possible to feel both compersion and jealousy simultaneously – they are not mutually exclusive despite being opposing feelings. This is significant because it can be easy to discount compersion if jealousy is also there. Instead, it may be helpful to focus on the compersion you are feeling and work on tapping into and strengthening that emotion. This is not to say that you should ignore any jealousy that does arise, but that it does not need to be your main focus. Allow yourself to feel jealousy and for it to tell you what you need – this could be anything from reassurance to more quality time with your friends or partner. If you are feeling jealous or envious frequently, it could be a sign of something that is not working for you in your life. Sometimes, this may be from within and will be internal mechanisms that you will need to work on and challenge. Sometimes it will be external forces that you can shape. Cultivating compersion may even be a part of the solution to regularly feeling jealous of others.
Practising gratitude can reduce the amount of discontent you may be feeling. This can be done in a myriad of ways. You can list what you are grateful for or speak it out loud. You can pay close attention to the moments of joy and pleasure that are already in your life. Everyone will have something that works best for them. For me, it is quite simple – spending time in nature. I count all of the plants I can name, usually those that are edible, as that is where my interests lie. In doing this, I am grateful to nature for providing such an abundance and variety of foods. I am also grateful for the knowledge that I am able to attain and use. I am grateful for the time that I can spend in nature and for the animals around me. The more I spend time ruminating on what I am grateful for, the more grateful I feel and the more things I can think of that I am grateful for. This contributes to me feeling a little more content with my life as it is now, which allows me the space for true compersion.
What are you grateful for?
Do you feel compersion frequently? How could you cultivate compersion in your daily life?
How could practising compersion improve your outlook on life? How could it improve your relationships?
If you would like to learn more about compersion, I would recommend reading this article: “When You Feel Jealous, Think About Cultivating “Compersion”