Trigger warning: brief mention of adverse childhood experiences.
Joyophobia it’s called.
Just kidding – cherophobia is the actual term for a fear of happiness.
Does it sound like the most bizarre thing you’ve heard today?
Well -it’s not that strange really. We may think we’re constantly trying to move away from being unhappy and that we desire happiness above all else. But often our conscious mind is saying one thing, while our actions, feelings and underlying thoughts have a very different idea.
It might be good, before exploring this further, to start by exploring when feeling happy all the time became the ultimate goal.
It certainly wasn’t for the Victorian English, who celebrated hard work and more rigid values over aspiring toward an emotion (ptui!), especially such a messy and self-centred one. And many other cultures and groups have their own desired goals, of which happiness is not the main aim.
So why did we choose happiness?
An article in The Harvard Business Review by Peter Stearns says the whole thing started in the age of Enlightenment, maybe they decided to enlighten things up a little bit? And he mentions that among many of factors, improved dentistry made smiling more desirable and generally less scary.
And, OK, yes that was before the Victorians. They just seem a little uptight to me, but it turns out that was my mistake as one study found they were happier than we were! Isn’t that kind of insulting, like when you realise someone is much better at you at something you love, but they don’t even care?
We are definitely locked-in on it now as a goal though, ranking the happiness of different countries (oh to be Finnish!) and using happy colours and filters in our depiction of our lives (I do it all the time). I think it’s a great goal to have, as long as we can ride through all the other emotions we experience naturally, because happiness feels good and it can help us to live longer (I popped a link to an article below).
So why be scared of it?
OK, here’s my short take on this complex topic. It won’t be exhaustive and if you’re dealing with this, you may want to explore it with a therapist.
Here we go.
1. Being happy a lot of the time would be a change. Change is hard.
Let’s say your body, thoughts, emotions and general way of being, are all pretty calm and content. When you’re feeling somewhere between content and slightly grumpy, that is, because that’s what they’re used to.
But you actually want to be a more positive and happier person. So you try to make choices that will get you closer to that goal.
However, when you finally get there, instead of enjoying it you feel off-balance or unsettled. Maybe you’re not used to the feeling in your body, or you have to change the way you speak, or just be OK experiencing yourself in a different way. Perhaps it’s all of the above.
If you don’t really enjoy the change in you that happiness creates, you may find yourself using partsof yourself to pull back from it. You could slouch with your body or cross your arms, use more negative or critical language, have your mind figure out things that are wrong or that could go wrong. All to avoid having to feel different.
2. Happiness Can Be a Much More Vulnerable Emotion Than People Realise
How can happiness feel vulnerable?
It is an emotion that opens us up – to other people, new experiences, and even to new parts of ourselves. When we’re trundling along in normal life, dealing with the ups and downs and generally doing our best, we usually have a fixed sense of who we are, what we like and what we’re capable of.
Sometimes happiness can blow that wide open.
And that’s scary!
When you get a lot of comfort from feeling like the boundaries of your Self and your life are pretty solid, to have them expand and change unexpectedly may cause fear and uncertainty.
- We Might Feel Guilty Being Happy When Others Aren’t, Or Are Gone
I don’t know a lot about survivor’s guilt, but I do know it can make it very hard to feel like you have permission to feel happy. Or even just to get on with your life. At its core, happiness is life. It’s an abundance of life force. Just the thing your departed loved one doesn’t have. So why should you get to feel it if they can’t?
Or if your friend or partner is suffering, sick or even dying, it can feel almost impossible to let yourself have even short experiences of joy, as if it’s disloyal.
I would say this empathy makes you human and that sometimes not feeling happy is appropriate. But you can also ask yourself what they would want. Because leaving behind the legacy of people who are more able to be happy because they knew you is a great thing for a person. And if you have a friend who is suffering or even about to die, opening yourself up to all the genuine emotions allows them a fuller experience of life and of you. It allows for more honesty and intimacy. If you’re going through this, I hope you’re getting the support you need.
- Fear of the Jealousy of Others
Ooh, this is a tricky one! Have you ever had a moment of success and wanted to celebrate with those closest to you, but they aren’t all happy for you? Seeing someone else do well, especially in an area you hope to do well also, can be triggering for people.
But some people are just triggered by happiness in general. Grumpy-pants! (That is not a technical coaching term). I just mean the people who feel hurt and confronted by seeing happiness in others. Not your ideal support system.
If you find yourself unable to celebrate your successes with others for fear of hurting them, they may not be able to stay with you for your whole journey, because the better you do, the worse they will feel. And we also have to master our own envy and learn to celebrate the success of our peers too. The world is hard enough without having to minimise ourselves to makes others comfortable, or minimise others to keep liking ourselves and our lives.
- Worrying that It Will End
Waiting for the other shoe to drop is a common issue, especially in those who have experienced trauma. And this is not only when experiencing happiness, but it definitely plays a part in worrying that our current state of happiness is going to end.
The good news is that happiness always ends – at least for a bit. Bad drivers, bad news, arguments – the stuff of day-to-day life, as well as the occasional catastrophe. They always eventually pop up and our mood shifts (as it should).
Why is that good news?
Well, you don’t need to worry happiness will end – it definitely will. But it doesn’t have to end because of something terrible. It, like all emotions, flows in and out. So you don’t need to anxiously grasp at happiness when you finally feel it, you get to just try and enjoy it while it lasts.
But, I completely understand that for many of us that takes practice, especially if we have not been accustomed to stable situations and relationships.
5 is a good number and place to stop for now. There are many reasons we might feel fearful of or resistant to happiness.
I find that as individuals we all need practice feeling and holding certain emotions that are challenging for us. It could be happiness, or anger or any feeling. It can even be the ability to feel and receive love (that’s a topic for another article!).
All of this work can bring up strong emotions, sometimes from the very moment we had to make a split-second decision that a certain feeling wasn’t safe. So you may need to work with a therapist on that. And be careful with yourself, take your time, journal, practice self-care. You only have one of you after all!
And as always,
Articles and studies I mentioned:
The History of Happiness (hbr.org)
Victorians were “happier” than we are now, finds CAGE research (warwick.ac.uk)
If you are happy and you know it… you may live longer – Harvard Health
Bonus for all the people who read to the bottom!