I have spent the past year working on feeling better. I muddled my way through the last year of university and was rewarded for my hard work with a first class. I managed to surpass the CBT waitlist, and get a (near) immediate start on therapy. Finally, I was leaving limbo, where I had been trapped in for months. Why then, did the realisation that I might actually be getting better and feeling happier, fill me with the utmost dread. I felt on edge through the whole day, preparing my body for something to ruin my day, to come crashing in to remind me that I was not really happy.
Thankfully, I am not as insane as I feel, because the scientific community has found a number of people, especially those suffering from mental health difficulties, experiencing a fear of happiness.
A fear of happiness is the idea that happiness will eventually lead to adverse events and emotions.
When someone goes as far as to actively avoid happy activities for fear of possible consequences, it is deemed Cherophobia.
Cultural & Individual Differences
In western culture, the idea of being afraid of happiness appears counter-intuitive. Morris (2012) reported that in the United States, “failure to achieve happiness…as one of the greatest failures a person can experience.” We throw money into therapy and psychoanalysis to improve our well-being and therefore, overall happiness. It is the most important thing. As someone who grew up in this culture, I could not understand why I felt uncomfortable at the thought of normalcy.
However, there are entire cultures that hold negative views towards the idea of happiness. Typically, cultures following the influence of Taoism possess this view. As Taoism states, ‘everything will eventually revert to its opposite’. Therefore, happiness will ultimately revert to unhappiness and vice versa. To feel happiness is to know that something is going to come soon and end it. This feeling isn’t just dependent on culture. It can also be governed by individual differences. Each individual will regulate their emotional experiences differently. For example, Feldman et al., (2008) suggested that those who experience depressive symptoms pay less attention to positive moods compared to negative. Erber & Erber (2000) argue individuals will go as far as to avoid experience happiness and engage in activities that make them feel less happy.
It has become such a phenomenon there is a Fear of Happiness Scale. It is no surprise that those with depression, introverts, and perfectionists appear higher on that scale than others.
Why am I so scared?
Personally, I am fully aware of how this aversion to happiness developed. When I was younger, I moved to a different country and settled into a new school. After a few weeks, I proudly told my parents “I’m feeling really happy.” In the following few days, I was told my cherished dog was not going to be coming with us, and I started to get bullied, for one very long year. Another time, I acknowledged I felt truly happy after getting out of the depression caused by the aforementioned bullying, my hamster died. That time, I didn’t even say it. (When I say “happy” by the way, I mean content, not a short-term burst of happiness). Therefore, an association formed. The feeling of happiness with the idea sadness soon follows. Each experience set me up for looking for the next one. These are all faulty associations as a result of this all-or-nothing thinking, often seen in generalised anxiety disorders.
What am I going to do about it?
As I get older, I am getting better at acknowledging that feeling happy does not cause sadness. I am not religious, I don’t believe in any higher power. Therefore the idea that the universe can hear my thoughts, and cause something bad to happen, is simply illogical to me. Of course, admitting that is one thing, not panicking when I get happy is another. I’m still not a fan of saying it out loud. When people ask, are you happy now? I reply with I am not unhappy as if I’m tricking the system. But as CBT suggests, there is a strong importance in challenging your thoughts. So every now and then, when I am feeling brave, I think about how happy I am at the moment and think of the things that are going well. (I know, what a bad girl.) I think Gluck (1996) states it well; the world will provide you sorrow enough, so why make myself unhappy?
Allow yourself to be happy, even for just a moment.
One step closer to getting less,
Anxious and Hungry
Nall, R & Legg, T., (2017, June 28) Cherophobia: Is Being Too Happy A Thing? Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/cherophobia-causes-and-treatment
Morris, S., (2012). The Science of Happiness: A cross-cultural perspective. In H. Selin & G Davey (Eds)., Happiness across Cultures Vol. (6), 435-450. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer
Joshanloo et al., (2013). Cross-Cultural Validation of Fear of Happiness Scale Across 14 National Groups. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology. DOI: 10.1177/0022022113505357
Feldman, G., Joormann, J., & Johnson, S.,(2008) Responses to Positive Affect: A Self-Report Measure of Rumination and Dampening. Cognitive Ther Research. 32(4), 507-525.
Erber, R., & Erber, M., (2000) The self-regulation of moods: Second thoughts on the importance of happiness in everyday life. Psychological Inquiry, 11(3), 142-148.
Joshanloo, M. (2013). The influence of fear of happiness beliefs on responses to the satisfaction with life scale. Personality and Individual Differences, 54(5), 647-651. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2012.11.011
Gluck, L. (1996). Fear of happiness. Ann Arbor,: University of Michigan.