You have probably heard the phrase before — “live vicariously.” Turns out it’s more than just a phrase. People really do feel the emotions of others.
There is a realm of psychology referred to as “vicarious emotions.” This means that we experience the emotions of those around us. For example, maybe you have a friend who lost a sibling and you never met the sibling but you still feel heartbroken. Or maybe you had a spouse involved in some kind of personal trauma, and while you weren’t there in person you still feel pain.
A Psychology Today article by Dr. Robert Muller sites “vicarious trauma can be best understood as the absorbing of another person’s trauma, the transformation of the helper’s inner sense of identity and experience. It is what happens to your physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual health in response to someone else’s traumatic history.” This is vicarious trauma, but there is also vicarious joy.
You can experience the joy of others by being around them. Maybe its a friend who just got a promotion and you are beyond excited for him/her/them, or maybe a friend who has been trying to have a baby just got pregnant and you are suddenly overwhelmed with joy. Vicarious joy is also another reason to do good for others through charities or philanthropic work. When you are in a situation where you are helping others and they feel appreciated, that joy rubs off on you. You start to feel happier because those around you are also happy.
Vicarious joy can also be learned by children. The more our children are exposed to happy environments, the happier more joyful children we will raise. By engaging our children in volunteering or other ways of helping others they will learn to be more joyful.
I had a friend who recently died of breast cancer. Before she passed, her words to us were: “take the scenic route.” It was a reminder that sometimes we squeeze too much in—rushing around, hurrying, trying to get everything done that we can in a short period of time while ignoring the quality of our lives.
When we spend so much time running from one activity to another, trying not to be late, we become stressed. In turn, our relationships with others can become unpleasant. We are shorter with those we love because we feel anxious, overbooked, and overwhelmed. The truth is we are trying to have a fulfilled life, and yes we should aim for that but we also need to enjoy it.
Every time someone is near death and reflecting on their life they say the same things (i.e. the book When Breath Becomes Air) —why didn’t I spend more time with my kids? Why didn’t I take more vacations from work? Why didn’t I take things slower, embrace the time I had when I had so much of it? There has to be something to these words of advice — you are not going to regret missing that meeting at work, but you are going to miss watching your kids play in the backyard. You are going to miss those afternoons when nothing was planned and you decided to have a picnic in the park. You will miss the impromptu movie night, the long conversations with your parents, the teaching/learning moments with your children. You will miss hearing about their day. You will not miss that you didn’t take the afternoon to clean your home or rearrange your closet.
I try to remember this when I feel stressed and overwhelmed, when I hear my kids laughing in the backyard and look at the pile of dishes in my sink. I remind myself to choose that time with my kids. In the long run, it will make the biggest impact on mine and their lives. It will be a memory, a moment to cherish…those dishes can wait.
My friend said to me: “Here I lie dying, looking back I should have shortened the to-do list and started a to-enjoy list.”
What is on your to-enjoy list?