Is 'freudenfreude' really the secret to making you feel happier?

colleagues hugging
What is 'freudenfreude'? An expert weighs inGetty Images

Congratulating your colleague on a promotion; celebrating your friend's engagement, or even, enjoying your sister's IG holiday pics when you're sat on the sofa... You've probably heard that empathy – rather than the prickle of jealousy when yet another sunset scape takes hold of your screen – is a good trait to possess.

But science is now suggesting that finding joy in someone else's fortune doesn't just make you a better person; it has a tangible impact on your own mental health too. The term being used to describe it? 'Freudenfreude'.

So what exactly is 'Freudenfreude'?

Derived from the German word for 'joy', the term 'freudenfreude' – the antithesis of 'schadenfreude'; taking pleasure from someone's misfortune – describes being happy for someone else's joy or success.

'Researchers have described it as a specific empathy focussed on the vicarious appreciation of positive experiences in everyday life,' explains psychologist and researcher, Dr Sula Windgassen. 'This concept is less of a psychological theory and more a working hypothesis that the qualities of vicariously enjoying others' pleasure will improve a personal sense of wellbeing,' she adds.

Think of it like living vicariously through someone else's joy. And the best part is that it doesn't have to be exclusive to the big wins or successes of others. 'In fact, research would suggest that the more ready and willing an individual is to embrace and enjoy the small day-to-day positive experiences' of others, the better the effects on overall wellbeing and mental health,' adds Dr Windgassen.

These small acts could be anything from a colleague meeting a tough deadline or as simple as acknowledging their restful weekend.

What are some of the general health benefits associated with it?

As for what someone's happiness could do for your own? First off, it's important to note that the term is still in its infancy; it's not a scientific construct nor has it been verified. That said, it does make sense psychobiologically as the concept behind it has been widely studied in psychology, particularly in relation to positive mental and physical health.

'At the heart of the concept are two things: the cultivation of joy and pleasure and social connectedness,' says Dr Windgassen. 'Both of these things are well-studied in terms of their impact on health and there are similarly well-established findings that such experiences have positive impacts on health.'

'Positive affect', for example, is a construct described as 'the experience of positive emotions such as pleasure, joy, happiness and calm.' she adds. 'Studies have long shown that positive affect is associated with lower mortality risk in older adults, reduced disease severity across a range of chronic illnesses and enhanced immune system functioning.'

There's a growing body of research pointing to the fact that 'positive affect' can trigger changes in the nervous system and the functioning of the immune system. Research published in ScienceDirect, titled 'Positive affect and psychobiological processes', found that those high in 'positive affect' have lower waking levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, and enhanced cardiovascular functioning.

'Similarly, research looking at the effects of social connection and support on physical health outcomes have found improved immune functioning, reduced pain and lower BMI indexes,' adds Dr Windgassen.

The problem is, we're living in a digital-obsessed era where for most of us, our biggest relationship is with our phones. 'People living in Western societies are socialised to a very individualistic culture, which can be a breeding ground for unfavourable comparisons, competition and generally feeling lonely,' says Dr Windgassen.

Unfortunately, loneliness has become an epidemic. Turbocharged by the lockdown hangover, it continues to impact the physical and mental health of many. According to Campaign To End Loneliness, 45% of adults feel occasionally, sometimes or often lonely in England, which is the equivalent of 25 million people.

Seeking to connect and share joy with people is the key to cultivating rewarding relationships, says Dr Windgassen, not to mention the proven health benefits of social connection, which has been linked to everything from reduced anxiety to greater self-esteem.

So, can anyone practice 'freudenfreude'?

The good news is that anyone who is willing to can try it out. It's all about intention setting. Don't beat yourself up if you feel a spectrum of emotions either. 'Just because you may feel a bit envious of an achievement, does not mean we can't simultaneously experience joy,' adds Dr Windgassen.

Tips to practice it yourself

Don't overcomplicate it

Like all pursuits of wellness, it's all too easy to fall into the trap of overcomplicating a simple activity. 'This practice is fundamentally an "affective practice", meaning that it is a change in emotional approach rather than an intellectual or "thinking" exercise,' says Dr Windgassen.

Take action

Intentionally setting the goal is the best place to start. Simply put it into action and the feeling will follow, says Dr Windgassen. 'Actions can be as simple as congratulating someone and asking them how they feel upon their success or good fortune,' she adds. 'Or it can be more resource intensive if you choose to carve out time to celebrate in a dedicated event like a meal, or party. Somewhere in between might be writing a heartfelt letter.'

Check-in with yourself

'Check-in with how you feel upon hearing how the other person feels and eliciting their own positive emotional feelings. Remember that sutble pleasant feelings have a cumulative effect,' adds Dr Windgassen. 'So even if you're not feeling the most overjoyed you've ever felt, you're still enhancing your overall wellbeing with these little moments.'

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