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Why I Get Misty-Eyed Watching Other People Ski

The Buddhist virtue ​​of mudita focuses on finding joy in the happiness and success of others—where better to do so than on skis?

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This essay first appeared as the editor’s intro in our January issue of SKI Magazine.

When my favorite ski crew recently skated into an afternoon groomer under a bluebird sky, it had been two years since we last skied together. Travel restrictions, new jobs, old jobs, new babies, and old knees made it difficult to be in the same place at the same time for a while, but the stars finally aligned. Two years of cosmic doom receded as we arced wide, fast turns across the lane. I held back, reveling in the joy I knew they felt. Watching their turns felt even better than making my own.

A scientist at Brigham Young University, Nathaniel M. Lambert, studies the perks of moments like these. His research shows that sharing a positive experience with someone else heightens its impact not just for the person having the experience, but also for the person witnessing it—even if they’re simply told about it later on.

Similarly, the Buddhist virtue ​​of mudita focuses on finding joy in the happiness and success of others. It is a Sanskrit and Pali word meaning unselfish joy or vicarious joy—joy for someone else’s joy. It’s why skiers love the Hollywood line. The run directly beneath the chairlift tends to attract the self-assured, even arrogant, skier, but science—and Buddhism—suggest this performative act may not be so self-serving; your flashy turns offer shared elation with onlookers above.

It’s the same feeling I get watching a never-ever link their first turns. Yes, you’re doing it! Doesn’t it feel great? Or seeing my friend Tyler, a bump-skiing phenom out of South Lake Tahoe who barely survived a paragliding accident four years ago, make his return to the slopes. When bearing witness to a miracle, skiing doesn’t feel so selfish or superficial anymore.

Be it clinical research or noble truths, this phenomenon is also why I get misty-eyed every four years when the world’s best athletes come together to compete for their nation at the Olympic Games.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve watched in awe as the athletes arrive firmly in their moment in the sun and fight for their chance to make history as the world’s best in their chosen sport. I stayed up past bedtime cheering for figure skater Tara Lipinski as she became the youngest female in her sport to win an Olympic gold medal at the Nagano Games in 1998. I held my handmade flag, the five interlocking rings drawn with crayons, up to the TV as she stepped onto the podium.

When the Winter Games came to Salt Lake City four years later, I was in Rice-Eccles Stadium to watch the winning U.S. men’s ice hockey team from the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid light the Olympic cauldron. Days later, I was in the grandstand when Kelly Clark became the first American to win Olympic gold in snowboarding. I was there as history was made. It felt good.

In high school, when I was chair of the homecoming committee, I selected the ancient Olympic Games as the theme. It was the year Ted Ligety and Julia Mancuso brought home gold from Torino, Italy. I played John Williams’ “Olympic Fanfare and Theme” over the PA system before the morning announcements. How’s that for team spirit?

This month, as we’re watching the indelible Mikaela Shiffrin break records; Eileen Gu, the American-trained freestyle phenom competing for her mother’s native China; Paralympian mono skier Ravi Drugan; 17-year-old mogul star Kai Owens; and Paula Moltzan—a woman unable to give up her Olympic dream—we get the privilege of sharing their excitement and feeling their joy. Even if we’re elbow-deep in a box of Cheez-Its on the couch, unable to do more than three push-ups, having contributed absolutely zilch to the Olympic prowess of our country.

Whether we witness gold, silver, or bronze, or just watch the best skier on the mountain (that’s the one having the most fun) find their line down the perfect run, enjoy being a spectator. It feels almost as good.

Sierra Shafer