Linguistics and yoga: changing our lexicon to increase happiness

mudita - to experience joy in the good fortune of others

I caught up with a dear friend a little while ago, someone I'd known for many years, who had often been single, and constantly seemed to have poor luck with relationships. Finally, it seemed, he'd found someone who really clicked: and I met her for the first time for at dinner. They were adorably lovely-dovey together, and it made me so, so happy to see this friend finally find someone that seemed to be a good fit for them, after so many years of drama and trauma.

As I was walking home, I was suffused with a feeling of such pure joy for my friend's happiness, and I suddenly realised, that there was no English word for this concept, that I was aware of. How do you succinctly describe being happy for someone else's happiness? I mean there literally is no way to describe it in one word. Best one might be able to do would be maybe "vicarious happiness", but essentially, our language doesn't cater for this idea in a succinct way. And vicarious has its own somewhat negative connotations, too. The only word that even comes close is voyeurism, but that's absolutely perjorative and implies being hidden and watching something clandestinely. Not even close at all, really.

English does however, have a myriad of succinct words for negative feelings about others. Envy, jealousy, to covet, begrudge. These words all mean very specifically to be unhappy because someone else has something that you don't.

But words that mean being happy that someone else has something (that you may or may not have, and that the fact you having or not, is actually irrelevant)? There aren't any.

And it's not like we can't understand the idea of being happy about things that's aren't happening to us. We are quite capable of understanding schadenfreude, the German term for feeling pleasure at someone else's misfortune. This concept has words in many other European languages: and even English, a quite obscure word, epicaricacy. In the Internet age, "Lulz" is the purpose of an act undertaken solely for the pleasure of experiencing the displeasure of others. There are probably many more.

And yet we have trouble succinctly expressing the concept of feeling happiness for others. I believe our language is partly at the root of this cultural focus, and to change it, we need to change or add to our language to help us in cementing these ideas back into our culture. As it turns out - English isn't the only language with this problem. In an interesting study from 2004, researchers found that there are significantly more words for negative emotions across cultures, and studies of 37 different languages turned up seven words that have very similar meanings. These are joy, fear, anger, sadness, disgust, shame and guilt. Seven universal emotions, and only one positive - seems a little unbalanced, doesn't it?

In modern "western" yoga, and also many parts of traditional yoga, there is a strong focus on self. That alone makes it particularly appealing to any culture which strongly emphasises individual worth - the body beautiful and picture perfect poses in modern yoga can really make the ego a raging monster, and obscure the core of traditional yoga which is to recognise that the individual is really not separate from the whole - this is that meaning of the word "yoga" - union. When yoga is taught in a gym or more commercial environment that demands profit-making, pandering to this cultural focus on the individual seems inescapable. And while the practise of physical yoga postures has amazing physical and mental benefits, perhaps what we need is actually more focus on that which is outside us, or what connects us to others, not just what makes us feel good as individuals focused solely on self. And it doesn't matter which culture we come from - we could all use a little more positive emphasis in our language, and especially in widening our concepts and understanding of different types of positive emotions.

How about we start to break this pattern by bringing some unfamiliar words into our lexicon to start expressing some emotions that are rooted in happiness stemming from others, not ourselves.

There are two words that have been presented to me as candidates for wider introduction in English. The first is "compersion" - meaning taking pleasure in the pleasure of others. This word was created quite recently, by a polyamorous community in the USA, and while I like that it's a word created from within Western culture and that might seem less "exotic", I think it's at risk of being defined ultimately in a more sexual context the may have initially been intended. Or perhaps that was initially the intention, but knowing how the polyamory community is so often misunderstood, unlikely, yet the word will always retain some connection with that possibility, and I'd rather not try and promote something that may have too much potential to confuse.

The other word I have found to be a much better fit for potentially wider adoption, and it is a loanword - a loanword being a word adopted from another language and incorporated into a recipient language without translation - like kindergarten, bangle, trek and perhaps the very obvious - schadenfreude. This word is mudita: from the Sanskrit and meaning to take pleasure in the happiness of others, but it's more likely to be defined as the kind of pleasure a parent might take in the achievements of their child. It is noted as being a distinctly different emotional experience to pride, which has very much an attachment to the ego and the individual. The word mudita I would like to see more widely known, so this is my first attempt to promote it specifically. It is a reasonably well known word in the yoga community, there's even a few studios with this name - but many Sanskrit terms are relatively succinctly translatable into English, and thus don't have the same potential to become a loanword in English. Mudita is a perfect candidate, so I'm officially proposing it for adoption - but to get that status, we have to use it. I'm not the first, and certainly not the last, to have proposed this - in fact here's a few blogs which have said pretty much the same thing over the years - and yet we still don't have this word in common parlance. Let's make mudita as well understood a loanword as schadenfreude!

If you've read one blog today which hopefully stays with you for a long time, I'm hoping this, the idea of mudita, is a word and a concept you will spread further to your own communities, especially outside the yoga community, and help us all to experience more happiness through outward-focused emotion. We could all use a little more mudita in our lives. Encourage yourself, if you are in need of more happiness, to try and experience this emotion, and especially to displace any jealousy you may find yourself experiencing when you witness the happiness of others around you.

Cheers
Cass

March 8, 2016