Compersion is when you feel happy for someone else's happiness. It comes from the polyamory community—feeling happy when your partner has great sex with someone else.
Compersion is the self-domestication of competition itself.
Here's how it relates to schadenfreude, jealousy, and empathy:
I believe that nurturing compersion is a crucial mindset shift that society needs to (and will) embody in the next century. Whenever you experience envy or jealousy, try to replace it with compersion! Let's explore it.
I. Mindset of Compersion
It's interesting (though not surprising) that compersion is a recent and seldom used word in English. In other languages, we have:
- Mudita मुदिता: This is one of the four Buddhist virtues (along with loving-kindness, compassion, equanimity). It is feeling joy at another's joy. Buddhists often go a step further and think of a "spring of joy" emanating from oneself, not directed at an individual.
- Naches נחת: This comes from Yiddish and expresses joy, usually for a younger mentee. It's similar to feeling proud.
- Mitfreude: This is a German word for compersion.
I think compersion was birthed from sexual context because those are when our most extreme emotions arise. If my partner has deeply loving sex with someone else, my instinctual reaction will be painful jealousy and envy. This is because I'm in direct competition with that person.
What does compersion look like in a non-sexual setting? First, let's look at forms of "weak compersion"—those that don't involve direct competition.
- Close Kin Succeeding (Pride): Pride is reserved for yourself or those close to you, usually after lots of effort. You can feel proud of yourself or your daughter for winning a basketball game. But we wouldn't say we feel "proud" of the opposing team if they won. Pride is easy to feel because there's no competition. I am not competing with my daughter on many things. I can feel proud of a friend for getting a job, but it's more difficult if we were competing for the same job.
- Strangers Succeeding: If I give money to a Ugandan woman through GiveDirectly, I can feel happy when she succeeds. Or really when anyone escapes extreme poverty. That doesn't "hurt" my life at all. We're not in competition.
Now let's look at "Strong Compersion". This is when you're in direct competition with someone, e.g. for a mate, a job, in a sport, etc., but lose to them. I'll give some examples below that showcase: a) The events that occurred b) The jealous response c) The compersion response.
- Negative things happen to me all of the time in my professional world. David Perell interviews Joseph Henrich, who I wanted to interview. Erik Torenberg, Anna Gat, and Peter Limberg create amazing communities (OnDeck, WhatIsII, and TheStoa) of curious internet folks. I definitely experience the envious/jealous response. Like, damn, I wanted to interview Henrich. And I want to help connect interesting Twitter people. But I can also have a compersion response: I love that David is helping spread Henrich's ideas! And I'm happy that misfit internet folks find places to explore their intellectual curiosities. Amazing!
- My freshman year of college, my frisbee team almost made it to nationals. But we lost in two consecutive games-to-go to Wisconsin and Iowa. The jealous response is sadness/anger of losing and having those other teams go to nationals. And there's a simple truth of them simply playing better in those games. And yet, I can have a compersion response as well. That I'm happy for all of those folks on Wisconsin and Iowa. They worked hard, played well, and now get the fruits of their labor. It doesn't mean I didn't want to win. Or that I didn't work hard. It just means being "graceful in defeat". But more than grace, it's active excitement for them.
- It can happen at the organizational level as well. For example, I used to work in crypto at MIT. Other elite schools would do something good in crypto (e.g. Stanford's Blockchain Center raised $30M). The jealousy response makes a ton of sense—they are taking money away from MIT and signaling their dominance. But I can reframe this into compersion response. I can be happy that Stanford will have $30M to go towards crypto research—which is a Shared Goal between us. And I can accept them "winning" the money with an acknowledgment that: a) We're different than them, b) There's a lot more time for other competitions/games, and c) I can still meet all my needs for food, meaning, and connection. My biology gives me a negative physical reaction of "losing" in a competition. But that's just my biology. I can choose to respond and reframe it differently.
I want to note that these feelings of envy can be quite tough to work through (for me at least). It's an intense, automatic, physical response. Mindfulness is the first crucial step here—to be aware of your feelings as they arise. Awareness is step one.
Strong Compersion and Mimetic Desire
Strong compersion is related to the idea of mimetic desire, which was developed by René Girard and spread by folks like Peter Thiel. Mimetic desire is simply wanting what someone else wants. You're imitating their desire.
Mimetic desire informs Thiel's investment thesis—be anti-mimetic. For example, a company should be as different from other companies as possible. Go against mimetic desire. Find your niche and monopolize it because "competition is for losers".
This shows the two responses to mimetic desire. On one side is Thiel's response—to be anti-mimetic and find your niche. On the other side is to accept the mimetic desire but when you "lose" in achieving it, that's ok. Find compersion in yourself and be happy for the other person.
In fact, I'd combine the two to say that some amount of anti-mimetic-ness is necessary for compersion. You need to develop a personal moat/monopoly and see yourself as different from them in order to be happy for them. The closer it is to direct competition, the harder compersion is.
Compersion and Meeting Your Needs
In addition to "being different", you need to have your own needs meet in order to have compersion. As a counterexample, imagine if you're starving and find a piece of bread but I eat it before you. You'd feel envious of my full tummy. It wouldn't make sense for your to feel compersion of me eating and you staying hungry. It's possible to authentically feel that, but much it's much harder.
But once your needs (Now Me basic needs, Future Me meaning, Now Us connection, and Future Us self-actualization) are met, it's easier to feel compersion.
When you get something I want, I don't feel as much jealousy because all of my needs are met. This holds true even in extreme examples. If my partner leaves me and marries you, I will feel envious. But in reality, my needs for connection can be met elsewhere. There are other fish in the sea. Or if I try to get lots of students for Roote but they all join other fellowships and I shut Roote down. Sure, I'm sad. But I can find another job elsewhere and still make meaning in other ways.
Compersion and Positive-Sum Games
We know that compersion gets easier when you're anti-mimetic or are meeting your own needs. In those situations, the envy is less strong. Another way to easily feel compersion is to play positive-sum games. If you're increasing the size of the pie, there's less pressure on "getting yours" (because everyone is getting something).
However, by only feeling compersion in positive-sum games, you're enacting a form of better is worse. The compersion is easier, but you're not pushing your abilities to feel compersion when you're in competition. It's like choosing monogamy because you have a difficult time with jealousy.
Compersion in zero-sum games is Strong Compersion. You're in direct competition for a resource and still feel happy for them when they beat you.
There are some specific ways to manifest compersion in institutions:
- You can create an alliance, partnership, or coalition with them. See https://c19coalition.org/
- You can giving them time, attention, resources. (Like a Pledge 1% but for competitors.)
One thing that makes compersion difficult is when zero-sum constraints continue to rule everything around me. It implies the claim below: