About sympathetic joy

This post belongs to a series on depression. In this series, we’ll talk about how we think of depression, what’s scientifically researched, and possible solutions to the widely spread, modern phenomenon. In this part, we’ll focus on sympathetic joy and meditation.

Paraphrasing the Quran, scientists worldwide and depressed people themselves;

             “Depression is a natural reaction to an unnatural situation.”

Depression is the sensation that you’re stuck. In yourself, in time, in this suffering you constantly feel. When depressed, you can’t seem to get out of your head; everything revolves around your pain; you can’t imagine a future or a meaning; everything seems hopeless and worthless.

The word “depression” is, in many ways, wrong. It could be called “disconnection”, because that’s what depression is about: disconnection from ourselves, from the people around us, and from nature. An anti-depressant isn’t just a small pill you swallow to make everything better. It’s anything and anyone that helps you feel connected to the moment. Most of the time we’re unfortunately not. Constant Wi-fi connection does not count as a valuable connection.

I can’t give you a one-hit-wonder, one-size-fits-all kind of solution. But I can give you this:

Once depression kind of lifts, you start to be able to plan again. Once you can sense a future, you know the cloud is lifting. Once we connect to something in ourselves, in others or in nature again, we immediately feel better.

We don’t need miracles. We just need connections.

Me, myself and… Us?

Minimalism is a wonderful lifestyle, philosophy, or aesthetic – call it what suits you. For me, it’s a way of grounding myself in my own values. Minimalism tears away the things I don’t find particularly interesting or rewarding; it leaves room for what I want, for what I believe I can do to help people.

But this individualistic way of thinking can spark much envy. Especially if the objects of your envy are broadcasted online and on social media, constantly reminding you of everything you’re not, or everything you don’t have.

In our consumerist culture we’re basically being programmed to envy. We envy materialistic things – cars, houses, clothes – but rarely someone’s good character, how well someone treats others. But I think we can all agree that material things don’t give you happiness. Not deep, profound happiness.

True happiness, though, can be trained, in a way. You can do it through meditation.


Sympathetic joy – or muditā in Buddhist practice – is a method for being happy for other people. It’s very much scientifically grounded in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which trains people out of their negative thought patterns into new, positive ones.

The brain is a funny organ, and it works kind of like a muscle; once the neurons are familiar with mapping out a path, they will trace it again (this has to do with neuroplasticity as well). Basically, if you think positively, you’ll be more positive. Eventually. Like moisturiser and motivation, it has to be applied daily.

Much like antidepressants, positivity can be found wherever you need them to be. Mediation can be listening to a podcast with soothing music, or it can be going for a run. The goal of meditation is the same; you want to renew your connection with yourself and the world. The shape of the journey doesn’t really matter.

People who regularly practice meditation – especially guided meditation, for haven’t we learned that we can’t solve everything by ourselves? – finds that they constantly feel a sense of belonging, and that they’re made aware of their own insignificance in the most wonderful ways. Their own, human problems, are but distractions when all around us there’s love and beauty just waiting to be appreciated.

Meditation can break the addiction to the self. Frederick Barrett, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins, puts it this way:

             “you don’t have to be controlled by your concept of yourself.”


The people of Kotti found another aspect of this. One of the protesters said they “made themselves public.” By diving into something bigger than themselves, they found release from their pain.

When you’re depressed, you feel tiny and ashamed. Studies have found that people who have experienced traumatic events in their childhoods are more likely than others to suffer from depression or other mood disorders as adults. This is scarcely news anymore in 2019. The shame, though, is tough to break.

When something traumatic happens, especially in childhood, there are two possible options. Either you can spiral, or you can take control and therefore take the blame. Almost everybody chooses to take control.

This also means that shame takes hold, because if you’re in control, it means you were to blame for what happened. And in that case, you should be extremely ashamed, because it was bad.

This is how the mind works, unfortunately. To talk about this shameful thing is terrifying and difficult. It’s also absolutely necessary if you want to be rid of your depression.

Patients who were given an opportunity to talk about their childhood experiences with a psychotherapist were 50 percent less likely to return because of the symptoms that brought them to the clinic in the first place, noticed Vincent Felitti, head of Kaiser Permanente’s Department of Preventive Medicine in San Diego.

“You need to tell somebody what happened to you, and you need to know they don’t regard you as being worth less than them”,

writes Johann Hari on the subject. Depression in itself is not caused by childhood trauma, but it’s effectively hiding it away, and although hidden, it’s actively festering and influencing your everyday life.


Sympathetic joy is the other side of acceptance of the self, and the release of shame. Once you feel better about yourself, it’s much easier to feel happy for others. You can do it the other way around, though, by finding acceptance of others seeping into your own life.

It’s CBT either way. Let the thoughts do their thing, but guide them there.

And when it comes to shame: it’s not your fault, and truly letting go of depression can be frightening – who am I without my trauma?

I don’t know. It’s going to be a long journey, and a lot of it will feel like an uphill battle. Sisyphus would know how it feels better than anyone. Still, much like our brains, we’ll evolve and change throughout our lives. Nothing is ever really final.

But this I know: you’re better without it.




If you’ve ever suffered from depression, still do, know someone who does, or just want to feel more connected to yourself and the world, please read “Lost Connections” by Johann Hari. Everything I write in this series stems from my personal experiences combined with his immaculate research in that wonderful book. We’re lucky to have such dedicated people as him in our midst. The book is definitely worth your time. Please read it.

You can find his book on his website or check your local bookstore (online shopping emits a lot of carbon, and it’s great to support other businessmen than Jeff Bezos).

If you feel like taking the crash course on reconnection, watch the fascinating interview with Hari by Matt D’Avella. Matt does immaculate work free from ads.

Comments and questions are welcomed and encouraged.

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