The Fear of Being Happy

Leo Tolstoy once said, ‘If you want to be happy, be.’

On being asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, John Lennon simply replied, ‘Happy’.

It is often taken for granted that happiness is one of the most vital guiding values in people’s lives. After all, who does not want to be happy? It is perceived as a universal need. The United Nations celebrates this with the International Day of Happiness on 20th March, stating that ‘the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal.’

It may then be unsettling, shocking even, to think that people can be afraid of happiness. The feeling of happiness can stir feelings of fear in some, something not conventionally anticipated. What does it mean then, to be afraid of happiness? How can this fear be explained?

In a pioneering study to understand this phenomenon, Joshanloo and Weijers found three primary reasons why people experience this. First, individuals come to associate their feelings of joy with a sense of a something bad about to follow. Second, there exists a belief that happiness can make one a worse person. And finally, expressing as well as pursuing happiness is perceived as hurtful and harmful to both themselves and others.  

Where do these ideas and beliefs come from? Surely experience plays a major role but a primary factor is the cultural context. Every culture across the world holds different cardinal values, ones that colour every experience of individuals.

The study found that given the importance placed by Western society on happiness, fewer individuals within these societies displayed such a fear. Conversely, non-Western societies, which do not place equal value on personal happiness, showed a greater prevalence. These societies, particularly East Asian ones, emphasis more on communal harmony and togetherness, which can be at conflict with personal happiness.

Another important factor within this reasoning is the varying definition of happiness across societies. Uchida, Norasakkunkit, and Kitayama found that American culture defines happiness in terms of personal achievement while East Asian cultures define it in terms of interpersonal connectedness. Here, personal happiness is not given primary importance, to the extent that the Japanese often believe that expressing happiness is harmful because it might make others envious. Given such a cultural climate, being wary of being happy may not seem so surprising, after all.

Yet, in spite of Western societies’ acceptance and emphasis on personal happiness, individuals living in those parts of the world experience this fear as well, which points towards the important role played by individual experiences and differences. Irrespective of cultural background, Joshanloo’s study found that one major cause for this fear is the notion that happiness will be followed by something bad. Imagine an event in your life when you were perfectly happy but it was followed by something bad. Certain individuals perceive this pattern to be persistent in their lives and consequently develop this fear. Sometimes, traumatic experiences follow the same pattern. Individual accounts throw light on how traumatic experiences have made them sceptical about feeling happy.

Individual differences in self-esteem have also been found to play an important role. Wood et al. (2003) found that individuals with high self-esteem were more likely to savour a positive, happy moment whereas those low in self-esteem were more likely to dampen their mood following a happy moment.

Given how important happiness can be, how does this fear affect the lives of the individuals? Gilbert et al. (2013) found that the fear of happiness correlates highly with depression. Individuals with depression will often avoid activities that could make them happy, fearing that it would be taken away from them and would lead to further disappointment.

On a more general level, a study found this fear to significantly impact overall life satisfaction. This fear significantly biased individual responses on the Life Satisfaction Scale, implying that even if two individuals were leading a similar lifestyle, the person with the fear of happiness would indicate lower life satisfaction.

This brings an important issue to the fore. Countries are increasingly adopting the Gross National Happiness Index as a measure of national progress, with the U.N. even releasing a World Happiness Report. Within India, Goa has pioneered in adopting this model. But can it be perceived as a true measure, if a part of the population is simply afraid of it? The fear of happiness can be an overwhelming experience for the individual, one that deprives them of perhaps the best of human emotions. It is important to recognise this fear and help those in need. After all, happiness is a fundamental human goal. 

Chinmayee Kantak