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Why Some People Refuse to Let Themselves Be Happy

New research on reward devaluation theory.

Key points

  • People who are unable to experience simple pleasures may unintentionally be dampening their joy.
  • New research looks at why some people’s positivity becomes outweighed by negative thoughts and expectations.
  • Knowing that you devalue happiness can be the first step toward allowing a bit more sunshine into your life.
Aleshyn Andrei/Shutterstock
Source: Aleshyn Andrei/Shutterstock

Life has many joyous moments, from the rush provided by a child’s smile to the satisfaction you can feel from a job well done. Even seemingly minuscule events such as looking at flowers or your favorite artwork can give you an important mood boost. However, some people can’t allow themselves even these small forms of indulgence.

Perhaps you’ve had one of those days in which so much is going wrong that nothing will cheer you up. You peek over at that newly budded plant on your window sill, but it isn’t enough to get you out of your negative state of mind. Now imagine that this dour attitude has become chronic and that “those days” are now the norm and not the exception.

Reward Devaluation Theory and the Experience of Depression

According to Mississippi State University’s Michael Gallagher and colleagues (2023), people who are prone to depression have a reduced ability to experience “positivity.” In what’s called “reward devaluation theory (RDT),” any feelings of positivity become associated with negative outcomes. It’s not just that people who are depressed are immune to joy; it’s that they’ve learned either to fear happiness or to push it out of their awareness once it arises.

A key difference between RDT and other approaches to understanding depression is that RDT focuses on the negative associations that people form with the emotion of happiness. You may be able to relate to this idea if you think about times when you’re enjoying the company of friends or family only to find, inexplicably, that your mind drifts off to worries about work, money, or just plain whether the people you’re with like you or not.

Testing the Interconnections Among Reduced Positivity

As Gallagher and his coauthors note, there can be distinct components to this overall tendency, reflecting different pieces of the devaluation puzzle. In some cases, people can develop simply a fear of happiness as they learn in their past that bad things happened when they did allow themselves to take joy out of a situation. They may also feel they don’t “deserve” to be happy, for reasons that aren’t particularly clear.

Another contributor to depression in RDT can occur when people develop a certain superstitiousness about being too happy. They may operate according to some type of misguided averaging rule in which they’ve learned that the good in life will inevitably be balanced by the bad. “Don’t jinx it” might be their attitude toward feelings of happiness.

As you can see, it’s hard to extract joy from the best of situations if you’ve either come to fear the outcome or operate under the principle that there’s something wrong with being happy.

Using a statistical method known as network analysis, the Mississippi State U. researchers collected data from 898 members of an undergraduate participant pool on the three key measures intended to capture these depression-inducing processes. Put yourself in the place of a participant by answering these sample questions for yourself, taken from each of the separate measures (rating from low to high):

  1. I worry that if I feel good something bad could happen.
  2. I feel I don’t deserve to be happy.
  3. I don’t let myself get too excited about positive things or achievements.
  4. I am frightened to let myself become happy.
  5. Disasters often follow good fortune.
  6. Excessive joy has some bad consequences.
  7. I believe the more cheerful and happy I am, the more I should expect bad things to occur in my life.

In a network analysis, researchers use statistical methods to construct what is essentially a geometric sphere in which items from different measurement instruments are analyzed to determine where they fall in the sphere’s “nodes.” If an item falls within a node, this means that it is more central than items that do not. There are also “edges” between items, showing where they form close correspondences. Think of a soccer ball with its colored patches, and you’ll get an idea of how this analysis works.

Because the three measures of positivity devaluation and dampening contained overlapping items, this analysis was an important step in deriving the essence of the mindset that depressed people use when they approach potentially happy situations. The analysis allowed the authors to conclude that “Whether anticipatory or responsive, RDT outlines that depressed individuals tend to fear or avoid happiness to the extent that positive stimuli are devalued." What happens next is almost worse, because, with this mindset, these individuals will actually go on to avoid future situations that could bring happiness: “Prospective positivity is automatically processed as negative and devalued."

Being unable to derive pleasure from a potentially pleasure-producing situation due to fear that it won’t last or will lead to bad outcomes, then, depressed individuals make it even more likely that their future possibilities for happiness become thwarted. How can you have fun when the idea that something will go wrong constantly lurks in the back of your mind? And won’t this lead you to stay away from anything that could be fun the next time you have the opportunity?

The other piece of the reduced positivity puzzle comes from the questions tapping into “deserving” to be happy. If you don’t think you’re worthy of experiencing joy, this is not quite the same as fearing the consequences of being happy. You are devaluing yourself, not worrying about the possibility that a happy situation could end in tragedy.

Ramping, Not Dampening

The upshot of this comprehensive analysis of happiness, fear, and devaluation is that, unlike other cognitive theories of depression, which focus on dysfunctional thoughts in general, RDT focuses on specific ideas that people have about being happy. As the authors point out, traditional approaches to treating depression from a cognitive standpoint are intended to reduce negative affect. Here, with RDT, therapy would focus on bringing more joy into an individual’s life by addressing devaluation and dampening.

In positive affect treatments (PAT), a method already in use, the focus is on teaching people to “savor” their positive emotions while also allowing themselves to engage in activities that are fun. The present study showed that this might not be all that easy to accomplish if those “fun” activities are ones that cause fear and trepidation. In that case, education is in order to explain how the RDT model works. Just as you wouldn’t start a new program of physical exercise without knowing something about which muscles need training, if you were receiving PAT, you would start by gaining insight into the dampening and devaluation tendencies that brought you into treatment in the first place.

For other individuals with milder cases of positivity avoidance, the remedy might be quite a bit simpler and more straightforward. Catch yourself engaging in those devaluations and superstitions about what could go wrong if you relax and have fun. If you can immerse yourself in the activity itself (admiring those budding blossoms), those thoughts might more easily fade away.

To sum up, happiness may be a state that everyone yearns for but is not easily achieved. By turning up, not down, your positive reactions, your fulfillment from the good in life can come to outweigh predictions of the bad.

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Gallagher, M. R., Collins, A. C., & Winer, E. S. (2023). A network analytic investigation of avoidance, dampening, and devaluation of positivity. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 81. doi: 10.1016/j.jbtep.2023.101870

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