Some years ago, while working with a client named Sarah on anxiety related to her work, and exploring what brought her happiness, she remarked, “I’m afraid to really feel happy.”
I was surprised at her comment. I asked, “What are you afraid will happen if you feel happy?”
This competent and intelligent middle-aged woman said that throughout her life, whenever she became jubilant or joyful, "the other shoe fell," and something unpleasant, disappointing, or painful seemed to follow in short order. I explored with her how she might be having selective perception and was noticing negative events out of negative expectation, rather than from a direct cause and effect in which feeling happy caused the subsequent bad events to occur.
In explaining her fear, Sarah recalled returning from camp when she was in sixth grade excited and joyful, only to learn that her grandmother, to whom she was close, had fallen ill and passed away that evening. For Sarah, that was the first experience where a day began with happiness and ended in deep sorrow. While she admitted that not all good days ended with something bad happening, she was convinced it had happened that way enough times to teach her that if she has a happy and jubilant time, it will be followed by something bad that unravels it. In therapy, Sarah was able to disconnect the association she’d made with those two events, her joy at homecoming and her grandmother’s passing.
I soon wondered how many people may have developed a fear of happiness but might not recognize it, and instead considered themselves introverts because they declined going to parties or social gatherings where "fun" is the operant description and goal.
A 2013 paper published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology explored that question. Researchers in New Zealand and others in England used a Fear of Happiness Scale to measure to what level people associated feeling happy to having something bad happen (as a presumed effect from having felt happy).
The study identified different correlations or connections of fear and happiness. For example, it seems that people with depression often steer away from activities that could bring about feeling s of happiness. A sort of spiral develops in which the social withdrawal that’s a common symptom of depression can reinforce the worry that if they experience some joy, fun, or happy feelings from a holiday party or summer barbecue, it will inevitably lead to a disappointment, a recognition of loneliness, or other letdown.
And people with a tendency toward perfectionism may fear feeling happy because they’ve associated happiness with laziness or unproductive activities. Even absent any mental disorder, people may have had life experiences in which positive and joyful events were all too often followed by a bad event. Many times such people have filtered their perceptions to exclude the times when nothing remarkable followed a happy time.
Such all-or-nothing thinking patterns skew the memory and perceptions of life events. For example, shortly after a fun 8-year-old birthday party, Josh fell off his new birthday bike and hurt his wrist badly enough to need a cast. That was such a powerful experience for Josh that it set him up to notice how he lost his wallet the same day his high-school basketball team won the regional championship. That further strengthened his association of happiness leading to misfortune.
Traumatic events, physical or emotional, can create such a powerful memory that it overshadows other important but evocative events. When strong emotional memories develop around the experience of happiness and a subsequent disappointment or pain—again, physical or emotional—then perceptual filters develop that contribute to avoiding opportunities for joy out of the fear that something bad lurks around the corner.
How do you know if you may be afraid to be happy? The questions on the Fear of Happiness Scale are mostly direct, and include:
Any one of these questions answered in the affirmative would suggest that one is putting 10 feet of pole between oneself and happiness.
In helping people overcome fear of happiness it's important to start small and help them practice merely allowing themselves to recognize and develop comfort in moderately positive feelings, such as satisfaction in completing a difficult task, or enjoying a sunny day. After a few opportunities to experience mild pleasure, they can see that most often no calamity follows. Sometimes, when the source of fear is a residual trauma from childhood, as it was with Sarah and Josh, it’s important to address such traumatic experiences and revise the distorted interpretations that were made in the person’s mind at the time. (Our book, Code to Joy, describes such approaches in more detail.)
Distorted or faulty associations such as Sarah’s can become a mental habit. It may only take a few powerful events to develop a fear of being happy. Yet, it’s important to also recognize that it’s possible to undo that association: Sarah recently celebrated her 45th birthday with a big party and wrote to let me know that she felt healthy and happy—and that nothing unpleasant happened after the celebration.