Book shelves groan under the weight of guides devoted to the question of obtaining happiness. But what if the thought of being happy unsettles you? What if feeling good leaves you feeling bad? Last week's Southern Star explored a very real problem - fear of happiness. The column is reproduced below.
Fear of happiness is a real thing found all over the world, according to a 2013 study investigating attitudes towards happiness. The researchers devised a Fear of Happiness scale which asked people if they agreed with various statements, including: 'I prefer not to be too joyful, because usually joy is followed by sadness'; 'I believe the more cheerful and happy I am, the more I should expect bad things to occur in my life'; and 'Excessive joy has some bad consequences'.
Sometimes, this fear is related to superstitious thinking. However, people can be wary of happiness for many reasons that have nothing to do with superstition. Low self-esteem can be a factor. Research shows people with high self-esteem tend to savour positive experiences, whereas people with a poor self-image often dampen positive feelings and distract themselves from them. Perfectionism can be another reason. Psychologist Dr Paul Gilbert, who has conducted research regarding fear of positive emotions, notes perfectionists may experience happiness 'as being relaxed or even lazy, as if happiness is frivolous and one must always be striving' (continued below)...
Unsurprisingly, Gilbert's research shows depressed and anxious people are much more likely to fear positive emotions. When depressed, your thinking can become fatalistic; you may feel if you are happy about something, it will be taken away. You don't want to be let down, so you avoid investing in things that may bring you joy or pleasure so as to avoid the anxiety that comes with such moments. Feelings of guilt – very common with depression – can also be associated with happiness, with people thinking it is wrong to be happy when others are having a tough time. Among depressed people, there can be, as one study put it, ‘a taboo on pleasure’, a need to dampen positive feelings.
As for very anxious people, positive emotions can make people feel unsafe. In fact, we know very anxious people tend to feel more anxious when they are not worrying. Acute worriers feel it is their responsibility to worry and be hypervigilant; they feel if they worry, they can prevent bad things from happening or catch them early and prepare for them. As a result, anxious people can feel a distinct sense of unease when experiencing positive experiences and emotions.
Often, this tendency to dampen positive emotions is learned at an early age. 'Positive emotions can be associated with negative outcomes particularly in children who have been punished at times when they have been enjoying themselves', writes Paul Gilbert. He relates how one patient whose mother was agoraphobic recalled how as a child, she would get excited about going to the beach or to watch a film, only for her panic-stricken mother to break down at the last moment. This would trigger arguments with her father and create a 'horrible atmosphere'. As a result, Gilbert writes, 'she felt it was better not to look forward to things'. Similar sentiments are found in online discussions regarding the topic. 'I learned to never be caught off guard', one commenter writes. 'If you're too happy, you're vulnerable to the misery that life has to offer because you're not being vigilant. I still want to be happy, but it's hard when you don't trust happiness'.
What can be done? Firstly, just become more aware. Often, people don't realise they are nervous of positive emotions, so ingrained has the dampening habit become. Secondly, try to expose yourself to positive feelings. For example, if you're going on holidays, don't put off thinking about the break – focus on it, plan activities, and dwell on what you think will be the the "best" moments.
Thirdly, remember there's nothing wrong or selfish about being happy. Quite the opposite, in fact. Prof Krystine Batcho points out in a Psychology Today article that leaving go of fear and guilt will enrich not only your life but the the lives of those around you. Far from being selfish, 'spreading joy is justification enough to free us from anxiety or guilt'.