Stealing Smiles from Strangers

Last Monday I confessed at Social Club that twice during the past week I had secretly stolen smiles from strangers. Then I engaged in conspiracy by encouraging them to do it too!


Make a Wish    

A genie materialized before a Russian farmer working in his field and granted him one wish.

The elated farmer started contemplating what to wish for until the genie sweetened the deal.

“And, not only will I grant your wish. Whatever you wish for, I will give your neighbor twice as much!”

The genie noticed the expression on the farmer’s face had changed from joy to bitterness. Then the farmer’s smile returned and he said, “Pluck out my eye!”

Building Our Emotional Vocabulary

We have numerous words to describe our response to other people’s good fortune: jealousy, envy, covetousness, and bitterness. But all of these emotions make us miserable. To help us feel better, the German language gives us schadenfreude, taking pleasure in others’ misfortune.

We have no English word for the opposite of schadenfreude. But, the authors of the original mindfulness manual did: mudita. One translation: taking pleasure in others’ good fortune.

Evolutionary Origins of Envy

The argument for taking pleasure at the misfortune of others goes something like this.

In the old days, when we all hung out together on the savanna, a male’s mating opportunities increased with his status. Fast forward a couple hundred generations and the only good fortune of others we take pleasure in is our child beating the neighbor’s kid at the spelling bee.

If our sole goal in life is the advancement of our gene pool (not that there’s anything wrong with that), our pleasure at the good fortune of others becomes a scarce and finite resource.

If we’re willing to buck the evolutionary imperative, we can tap into a new source that very few people are aware of.

The Virtuous Circle

Krista Tippett asked acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma about the source of his joy on her On Being podcast. Below is a shortened version of their exchange. 

KRISTA TIPPETT: Somebody said to me, who’d seen you perform up really close —  that you radiated joy. Is that something you’re conscious of?

YO-YO MA: When I’m on stage, all of you that are in the hall are my guests. So I’m the host of a wonderful party. Imagine being a host of a party and walking out and saying (glumly), “Oh, so you’re here.”

So I think that it’s part of that host thing. You can’t be a pessimist on stage.

MS. TIPPETT: Yes, but you don’t have to be joyful, right? You can be gracious without being joyful.

MR. MA: True.

MS. TIPPETT: There’s some quality to your presence when you’re playing your music. Maybe all the time.

MR. MA: Well, maybe the joyfulness could be the hope of joy.

MS. TIPPETT: Hmm. The intention.

MR. MA: Yeah. I often say optimism is a philosophy.

MS. TIPPETT: I think I hear you saying you choose joy.

MR. MA: I think so. Well, certainly, in performing, I think that is a choice. Because it really doesn’t matter where I am in life, but I truly am happy and grateful that people have taken the time to show up. So if I’m a host, I’m entertaining guests. And I’m not saying that that elevates or cheapens it. You’re looking for an elevated sense of being in existence — at least, that the music should somehow make us better. Now, of course, we live in the 21st century, and I’m not sure whether something like that works. I would like to think that that’s certainly part of what we try to do.

The Scene of My Crime

Portland’s Summer Free for All includes free concerts, outdoor movies, and daily lunches for children in parks throughout the city.    

On Wednesday, Matíces Latin Band performed before a screening of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Friday, Sonny Hess and Lady Kat performed at another park within walking distance.

Whether the musicians felt pleasure or not in performing, it was in their interest to give the audience a good time. That increases the likelihood folks will come up and buy CDs, go hear them at future bookings, perhaps book them for weddings or other social gatherings, or post selfies from the concert on social media.

Though the audience isn’t heavily invested in having a good time, it takes some effort to haul the lawn chairs, blankets and snacks to the park. So, on average, the people who attend also set an intention to have fun.

Conspicuous Consumption

Though I derive pleasure from the smiles on other people’s faces in secret, I don’t have to skulk around to do it.

Many people express their joy by dancing in the area in front of the stage, which makes the band happier, which makes the people happier, which makes me happier.

I long ago accepted that my perfecting my dance moves weren’t my best shot at getting my genes into the next generation. So, their happiness doesn’t come at my expense.

The Risk of Getting Caught

I confess that my plan isn’t fool proof. On a couple of occasions, people look in my direction and catch me stealing their smiles.

They’re having too much fun to do much about it. They usually just smile back.

Ten Minute Exercise
Krista Tippett of On Being kicked off her first Living with the Questions episode by answering the question. I’m offering it as this week’s exercise because it’s exactly ten minutes long.

How can we be present to what’s happening in the world without giving in to despair and hopelessness?

Cheater edition:

  • We cannot call forth in the world something that we don’t embody.
  • Journalism, the way it came down to us from the 20th century, is absolutely focused, utterly and completely, on what is catastrophic, corrupt, and failing. It’s not the whole story of us.
  • There are good people. There are healing initiatives. There is a narrative of healing and of hope and of goodness, and we also just, as a discipline, have to take that in, as well — not instead of, but the both/and of humanity and of our world.
  • I’ve been in rooms full of very well-meaning, good people, who are doing good work in the world for whom, I think, the idea that you should have joy, any joy, in a moment like this, would be a betrayal of what is right and just and good.
  • There’s a sensibility behind that stance that says that joy is a privilege. And I don’t think joy is a privilege. I think freedom can be a privilege; I think luxury and comfort can be a privilege. But joy is a piece of basic human resilience. It’s a human birthright.
  • If we want to call the world not just to justice but to joy and to flourishing, of which joy is a part, we have to find those ways and those places where that is also what we are finding and stirring and keeping alive in others.

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.