If you spend much time on Facebook, you may have noticed the response that so often follows an announcement of personal achievement. “Congratulations!” exclaims a respondent, sometimes within minutes of the announcement. “That’s wonderful,” writes another. “We’re very happy for you,” declares a third. If the achiever’s circle of Facebook friends numbers in the hundreds or even thousands, the roster of congratulants may extend to thirty or more, creating a visible avalanche of affirmation, a collective expression of unselfish joy.
Such expressions are common at weddings, graduations, and other real-life occasions, but their virtual presence on Facebook is something new. At the same time, it is something very old, insofar as it resembles a state of mind known to Buddhist practitioners as mudita, or “sympathetic joy.” One of the four “immeasurable minds” (brahminviharas) of Buddhist teachings, mudita may be defined as the capacity to feel and express joy in someone else’s happiness or success. Like the other “immeasurable minds”—loving-kindness, compassion, and equanimity—mudita is both a mind-state and a practice. It is to be contemplated and cultivated on a daily basis. And, as the Buddhist scholar C.F. Knight has noted, mudita “multiplies in ratio to the extension of its application, quite apart from its purifying effect on our own lives.” Yet, unlike the other “immeasurable minds,” mudita is seldom discussed in the meditative community. And should one venture to bring it up outside that community, one must be prepared to encounter raised eyebrows, looks of puzzlement, or even tacit derision. Cultivate sympathetic joy? Feel joy at others’ success? You must be joking.
If mudita goes largely unexamined in meditative circles, and if its mention is greeted with skepticism in the culture at large, it may be because sympathetic joy is a difficult emotion to identify or validate, much less put into practice. Ours is a competitive society. Do we honestly feel unalloyed joy when someone succeeds, especially if his or her enterprise is similar to our own? Do we not feel a trace of envy as well—or secretly begrudge a colleague’s success? “It is relatively easier,” writes Nyanaponika Thera, “for man to feel compassion or friendliness in situations which demand them, than to cherish a spontaneous feeling of shared joy, outside a narrow circle of one’s family and friends.” And, as Natasha Jackson notes, it is “a depressing fact that people are much more ready to sympathize with the misfortunes of others than to rejoice with them.” To do so requires genuine affection, first for the object of unselfish joy, and second, for humankind itself. If you are a bitter misanthrope, you are unlikely to feel mudita, even if your favorite uncle has just won the lottery. That’s nice, all right, but why couldn’t you have won it yourself?
To gain a deeper appreciation of mudita, it is helpful to contrast it with its “far enemies,” as they are called in Buddhist texts, and with its polar opposite. The far enemies of mudita are jealousy and envy, the noxious weeds that sympathetic joy is supposed to expunge. But its polar opposite is schadenfreude, a state of mind memorably described by the French courtier La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680): Dans l’adversité de nos meilleurs amis nous trouvons quelque chose qui ne nous déplaît pas. (“In the misfortunes of our best friends we always find something not altogether displeasing”). In his “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift”(1731), the author of Gulliver’s Travels takes La Rochefoucauld’s maxim as his theme, as he reflects on the ubiquity of envy:
We all behold with envious eyes,
Our equal raised above our size;
Who would not at a crowded show,
Stand high himself, keep others low?
I love my friend as well as you
But would not have him stop my view;
Having thus established his context, Swift turns from the subject of envy to the prospect of his own death:
Then he who prophesied the best,
Approves his foresight to the rest:
You know, I always feared the worst
And often told you so at first:
He’d rather choose that I should die,
Than his prediction prove a lie. 
What animates his so-called friends, Swift concludes, is not sympathy for a dying man’s pain but the egoistic pleasure of predicting the time of his death.
For those who share Jonathan Swift’s vision, mudita may seem an ineffectual antidote. Like beauty in Shakespeare’s 65th sonnet, its action is no stronger than a flower. Yet, as its virtual presence on Facebook vividly confirms, mudita is not an idealist’s fanciful notion. It too has a place in human affairs, and it too can be cultivated, once the reality of interconnectedness has been embraced, and the fiction of a separate self has been set aside. To be sure, the version of mudita posted on Facebook is a digital facsimile, a static simulacrum of the living thing. But it is probably no accident that it should appear on a social network, where evidence of interconnectedness is everywhere to be found. As my son, Alexander Howard, recently remarked in a public forum, social media provide a venue for “looking at things together,”  whether the object of scrutiny be an atrocity in Syria, a photo of a newborn child, or a cache of government data. And it would be a salutary development if a medium sometimes viewed as a vehicle for self-concern should become a seedbed for mudita and a locus of a long-neglected virtue.
 C.F. Knight, “Mudita,” in Mudita: The Buddha’s Teaching on Unselfish Joy.
 Nyanaponika Thera, “Is Unselfish Joy Practicable?,” ibid.
 Natasha Jackson, “Unselfish Joy: A Neglected Virtue,” ibid.
 Jonathan Swift, “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift,” The Writings of Jonathan Swift, ed. Robert A. Greenberg and William B. Piper (Norton, 1973), 553. Spelling modernized.
 Alexander made this remark while moderating a panel on the future of social media at the National Archives, Washington, D.C., November 21, 2011.
It bears mentioning that mudita is not an exclusively Buddhist virtue or concern. In his tribute to Queen Elizabeth II on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee, Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, praised the Queen’s capacity for unselfish joy: “I don’t think it’s at all fanciful to say that, in all her public engagements, our Queen has shown a quality of joy in the happiness of others.” (Archbishop’s remark).