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Empathetic Joy, Gratitude and Genuine Happiness


Eve Ekman brings you a brief talk on empathetic joy, gratitude, and genuine happiness.

Sometimes we may need something inspirational and a few words of motivation to get us through challenging times. When we recall times we are thankful, we may feel a sense of uplifting joy.


Gratitude Practice

Gratitude is a simple and powerful practice. Research has shown that if we reflect nightly on the things we’re grateful for (something small like a beautiful day, or something greater like our family or relationships that matter to us), that this kind of reflection and even writing of our gratitude can improve our overall sense of happiness and well-being. 

Just the simple practice of gratitude requires a level of awareness- a mindful attention towards the things that are working, as opposed to looking at what is stressful, what is difficult and what is hard. This is in fact working against our biology; we are primed to look at what is difficult and to experience and predict what might be negative, so that we can learn and avoid having those events in our life. This is part of why it can be challenging even though it is simple in nature. However, when we practice gratitude, we start to have a greater understanding of what’s around us that’s of benefit. It may take some effort at first to start paying attention to what feels good, and then it may over time become something more reflexive. We tend to see the beauty as opposed to looking for the danger or lack of safety.


Empathetic Joy

In addition to a practice of gratitude, there is also what’s called empathetic joy. This is a practice from Buddhism in which we allow ourselves to rejoice in the goodness and accomplishments of others. This often goes counter to our nature, in which we are always comparing or judging or feeling jealous of the accomplishments of others. With empathetic joy, we’re allowed to experience just the goodness we experience in others. Some examples could be the bond we witness between a mother and child we see on the street, or friends and colleagues whose success and wellbeing we see in the world. We can join them in feeling happy about that. 

The practice of empathetic joy, like gratitude, is something we’ll have to intentionally try at first. We can start with something really simple, like noticing a beautiful dress or noticing a house with a nice paint job. It can be quite simple. The practice is about really paying attention and being happy with that person wearing the dress or happy for the people living in that house. This practice of empathetic joy can have profound ramifications over time. It can really help us, especially if we’re feeling low and uninspired, to consider people who we truly admire (maybe a figure from history or someone who we’ve encountered in our education) who’s made a difference. For those who have been powerfully important to us, we can also feel empathetic joy for them and for their presence in the world.


Genuine Happiness

Both of these are examples of an enjoyment or happiness that we feel, which truly allows us to have a sustainable way to feel excitement and to feel gratitude. When our happiness is predicated exclusively on objects, or on status, or even on people in our life, we can find ourselves feeling a bit let down. The happiness that comes from the outside is just by nature unreliable, because the nature of the world is such that things change- things are ever changing and interdependent. So to cultivate a genuine happiness (an experience of an enjoyment that comes from our own mind) is a powerful tool to manage and respond to an ever-changing world. 

By feeling gratitude for anything that we experience in our life, and being joyful with the accomplishments of others, we’re helping expand our genuine happiness; our capacity to feel good about the world around us. Other forms of genuine happiness include considering just the basic nature of feeling “OK”; of not being stressed. Just in a moment, maybe listening to this talk- where it’s not as though something phenomenal is happening, but we’re just OK. And once again, to train our minds to notice when things are OK– not stimulated from the outside world per se, but just relaxing and feeling some kind of peace. 


About Eve Ekman, PhD, MSW

Eve Ekman, PhD, MSW, is a contemplative social scientist designing, delivering, and evaluating tools to support emotional awareness in the fields of health care, wellbeing, and technology. Eve draws from interdisciplinary skills and first-person experiential knowledge from clinical social work, integrative medicine and contemplative science, and meditation. Eve is lead teacher for Cultivating Emotional Balance, is wellbeing lead on the health team at Apple, is a Senior Fellow at Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and a fellow at the Mind and Life Institute.

Paul Ekman is a well-known psychologist and co-discoverer of micro expressions. He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in 2009. He has worked with many government agencies, domestic and abroad. Dr. Ekman has compiled over 50 years of his research to create comprehensive training tools to read the hidden emotions of those around you.

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