Why happiness for others’ happiness matters

Psychologists love prodding and probing the concept of happiness. We differentiate ourselves from our medical peers, the psychiatrists, by worrying much less about Dopamine, Endorphins, GABA, and neurotransmitters (though we do and acknowledge their role) and more about happiness as an outward factor, a means to create the same in others. Social psychologists (we come in two forms, the Sociology ones and the Psychology ones) go even further and ask about happiness epidemics, happiness cascades, external detriments and determinants, and — finally — how all this matters to the individual and her ability to feel simply overwhelmingly happy.

I never worked in my field of study. The day I graduated, quite literally, saw me back on the stove that night, much to the chagrin of my family who had hoped that “going to the restaurant” meant I’d buy dinner, not cook it.

Feet, feet, feet, feet, feet, feet, feet, how many different feet you meet? (Dr. Seuss who, himself, was very opposed to polyamory).

Truth be told, that very day, the day I graduated, I needed this. Not the happiness over my achievement and that shiny Ph.D. diploma on my wall, but to feel the happiness of others, to take it in, to see others being happy.

Speak to any decent cook or chef and one of the first mentions goes to happiness and how it, in turn, makes chefs happy to see diners enjoy themselves. This feeling, a feeling of happiness and joy over happiness and joy of others has a name, coined in the mid-80s by a polyamorous commune in San Francisco: Compersion.

Often associated with lovers feeling happiness over their lovers’ happiness with others, the same concept also applies to parents and their children and, yes, chefs and their diners. Like parents we merge pride in a job well done into the mix but, yet, there is something ethereal to just watch or know of someone else enjoying themselves very much. The San Franciscans, though often cited as the inventors of the word, weren’t the first either: Yiddish knows the concept of “Naches”, pleasure derived from one’s children and grandchildren being successful (“naches best translates as ‘descendants’”) and Buddhism refers to mudita, “peer joy” or “sympathetic happiness” in similar circumstances.

Albert Roux, one half of the Roux Brothers and one of the world’s greatest chefs, once told me that “bad chefs count the days they worked, decent chefs count the plates they sold, but great chefs count the smiles they put on faces.”

In my debates with other psychologists I often claim (to some resistance) that, as far as happiness measurements go, compersion is one of the greatest tools we have. Happiness is an inside source, a font, a well coming from within. No external source, from possessions to connections, can replicate this. A new phone, a new lover, or a new dish only go so far in creating an illusion of happiness. “If only I had…” start those demands for happiness that rarely, if ever, lead to it.

Truly loving folk know this: one can not sincerely love and respect a partner unless one surely loves and respects oneself. Polyamorous ones know that, in addition to the above, truly loving more than one person is impossible if the preceding conditions — self love and love for one partner — are not at hand. Compersion, the feeling of taking joy in the joy that others we love share among themselves, especially taking joy in the knowledge that our beloveds are expressing their love for one another, is as demanding on our ability to love ourselves as it is on our ability to love those who love.

A lack of compersion does not denote a lack of self- and second-party love. Its true existence, though, shows that those factors must be present — otherwise compersion simply can not work, can not feed off our inner well of happiness.

Early on in my career, I often wondered why so many cooks and chefs were, like me, polyamorous. Long work hours, a certain hedonism, and an immersion into a culture which values dedication more than possession might all be complicit in it, but more than anything else, I believe it to be compersion, the fact that we’re really happy only if you are happy.

Compersion is what makes us cook Michelin-starred meals, work long hours, weekends, holidays, birthdays, and come back every day for it. Compersion is what elevates, exacerbates, and potentiates our happiness — an invaluable tool available to anyone who is ready and willing to find happiness in themselves and strive for dedication, not possession. Try compersion, you might really, really like it.

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