4 Reasons Why Some People Are Afraid of Happiness (Why Happiness Isn’t an Universal Ideal)

happiness

What does happiness mean to you?

Most people want to be happy, and personal happiness is considered to be one of the most important values in life in contemporary Western cultures. However, some people are afraid of happiness. Why isn’t happiness an universal ideal?

Joshanloo & Weijers (2014) sum up cross-cultural findings on happiness and they find that some people are afraid of happiness in both Western and non-Western cultures. According to their paper, people who are afraid of happiness tend to hold the following four beliefs about happiness:

1. Being happy makes it more likely that bad things will happen to you

This belief implies that happiness causes negative consequences. For this reason, people prefer a neutral state over happiness. This is true for people in many cultures.

For example, in Taoist cultures, it is believed that things tend to revert to their opposite; in Korea, there exists a cultural belief that if a person is happy now, he is likely to be less happy in the future. One study found that:

“Japanese participants believed that happiness could lead to negative consequences because happiness made them inattentive to their surroundings.”

In ancient Greece, the philosopher Epicurus argued that intense pleasures should be avoided as they result in unfortunate desires for more. In Iran, there is a saying that “Laughing loudly wakes up sadness’’.

Two similar sayings exist in Western cultures: “after happiness, there comes a fall’’, and ‘‘what goes up must come down’’. The Chinese have a saying that ‘‘extreme happiness begets tragedy’’.

2. Being happy makes you a worse person

In Islam, happy people, best understood as people who experience regular positive emotions, are viewed as being distracted from God. This is because, in Islam, true happiness is considered to be inner peace which originates from a devotion to God.

Some people judge happy people to be less intelligent. This is because happiness is thought to preoccupy people’s minds, leaving little time for intellectual reflection. People might also feel unworthy or guilty for being happy when they know that some people have nothing at all.

3. Expressing happiness is bad for you and others

A study found that:

“Japanese participants frequently mentioned negative social consequences of expressing happiness, such as arousing other’s envy, while American participants did so rarely.”

Also in Russia, there is a cultural belief that anyone who is happy or successful might have used immoral means for achieving it. For this reason, the expressions of happiness is perceived as inviting envy, resentment, and suspicion.

In Ifaluk culture, pursuit of happiness is believed to decrease the good of the tribe as it is associated with failure at doing one’s duties. In Western cultures, people frequently try to avoid expressing happiness: it may annoy others and invite a possible attack from them.

4. Pursuing happiness is bad for you and others

From a Buddhist perspective, happiness is not worthy of pursuit:

‘‘And with the very desire for happiness, out of delusion they destroy their own well-being as if it were their enemy’’

The desire for happiness is often self-centred. This may have negative effects on the well-being of others. In traditional Chinese cultures, personal pursuit of happiness was seen as shameful because it was believed that contributing to society was better for oneself and everyone else.

The American dream is based on the importance of personal achievement. For this reason, some argue that the American dream is a ‘‘wild goose chase’’ as it distracts people from true, meaningful happiness (whatever that is).

In closing, people are afraid of happiness for different reasons as they hold different beliefs about happiness. What these beliefs about happiness have in common is that happiness, especially extreme happiness, is associated with negative consequences.

While some people are afraid of all degrees of happiness, others are only afraid of extreme happiness. The literature suggests that these beliefs are more prevalent in non-Western cultures; people in Western cultures are more focused on maximizing happiness.

Photo: Nhoj Leunamme
  • Very well written! I do think being happy is a state of mind – you can be happy inside, feel the world be one with you and you one with the world. But the moment you express this happiness, the moment you vocalize it, it will attract envy and resentment from others who are not happy because they do not know how to be.
    This envy will materialize itself as harsh words, sly looks and bad kharma all around which in time, will get to you making you feel that
    1.) you don’t deserve to be happy because not everybody else is happy
    2.) you should hide the happiness away if it brings misery to others.

    I’ve learned a valuable lesson in my life (me being a VERY happy person and being surrounded by LESS happy people).
    While I might have found HOW to be happy – the best thing I can do with my life is TEACH others as well. 🙂 Spread it around me. 🙂
    It does seem to work so far

    • Hi,
      Thank you very much. It’s great to hear that Americans (I suppose you are an American) understand my non-native language. In my view, happiness is about living a rich and meaningful life that is congruent with one’s values and ideas of a good life: It involves living a life with a high degree of consciousness. Instead of living a life without personal meaning, we should live life in a way that is satisfactory to ourselves. For example, you have experienced that teaching is a great way of achieving a sense of purpose, which is lovely – I have experienced that writing to a dedicated audience gives me a sense of purpose. Happiness is to be found there.
      Best regards,
      Simon

  • so interesting! how sad that we are afraid to be happy. i am going to try to be happy on purpose and make everyone around me jealous that i allow myself to be!

    • Hi there,
      Luckily, most people are not afraid of, or aversive to, being happy. We spend much time thinking about what others think of us, however, this kind of worry is not in any way contributing to our psychological well-being. I haven’t experienced this kind of jealousy myself – have you?
      Regards,
      Simon

  • hi Simon. 🙂 well, sometimes i do wish i could be more carefree and not as you say care so much about what others think… but i have learned to let go a little and believe that the right people will see me for who i really am. and those who don’t care, oh well, it shouldn’t matter to me, right? 🙂 anyway, you are right, most people look at happiness and create out of it a purpose for themselves. we each know what makes us happy. sometimes i think tho i keep these little awesome happiness moments a secret, because i have discovered that my almost-addiction-need to share them, especially with people who don’t understand, make them become less than they are. i have learned that i can enjoy these moments, things, experiences that make me happy on my own too. like a spark inside me. a little explosion of light. 🙂

    • No, it shouldn’t (I know it’s easier said than done). Yes, I don’t think we should expect others to understand why our happy moments are so special to us. I don’t necessarily say that we should keep them to ourselves, we should just not expect others to understand them. I have experienced that the moments I share with others are often more meaningful to me. Consider vacations or similar experiences where you have been in company with your best friends or family. Such moments are particularly special to me. When we don’t have someone to share our happy moments with, we can still enjoy them like a little explosion of light. 🙂

      • yes i agree, definitely share the moments, but some experiences are our own. 🙂

  • Great post! Wasn’t aware of many of those cultural beliefs. The Hindu notion is that the only purpose of existence is to do your work without the expectation of any reward. Everything else is an illusion, including your family and friends, your own self, your possessions etc and you should, while fulfilling your duty to them, be detached enough to let go when they have fulfilled their purpose.

    I myself am one of those people who is not comfortable with the idea of happiness. Not because I am afraid of it, but I am not sure of my own behaviour when I am experiencing it. True, overwhelming happiness is a rare occurence in most people’s lives. Pleasure is more accessible and thus more common. I think happiness, as something meaningful or sustained, happens when you are closer to who you want to be. Most of the time, we and our surroundings, create ideas of ourselves. The rest of the time we spend living up to that idea. Happiness occurs when we allow our natural tendencies to flourish. Woody Allen says(while refering to Nietzche) that happiness is a delusion that people create for themselves in order to survive. But, if I am aware that I have created delusions, how can I believe in them? Ultimately, I think, happiness is when you add meaning to what you do, rather than live by meanings that have been given to you. Our circumstances are not under our control, but our attitudes can be. I am afraid of happiness not because I don’t think it is good for me but, because I do not have the courage to summon the attitude for it.
    Gosh, I hope that made some sense!

    • Hi there,
      The Hindu notion, as you describe it, seems a bit extreme: How can we act as if nobody existed, as if the world was an illusion? It seems like a crazy ideal, considering human nature and the human brain. It’s an interesting notion, nonetheless. Ironically, in our pursuit of happiness, we forget to live happily. We, as human beings, are very occupied with goals and fulfilling goals. We are magnificent problem-solvers: “I need to this and that to achieve my goal”. The problem is: when we think like this, we tend to forget the process, which is life. John Lennon put it this way: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” I agree with you that happiness is when we live congruently with our own ideas of a happy life (who you want to be). What is it that contributes to meaning, purpose, or happiness? We need to ask ourselves this question. When we try to live up to ideas that others have created for us, we become distanced to life.
      I am not so sure that “happiness is a delusion that people create for themselves in order to survive.” Happiness is not a delusion (illusional thought) – it is a very real experience. There are basically two ideas of happiness: (1) are you happy in your life (refers to the experience) or happy about your life (refers to memory, thinking etc.). I highly recommend this TED talk, in which Daniel Kahneman talks about happiness, how we measure it, and our ideas of happiness: http://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_kahneman_the_riddle_of_experience_vs_memory
      Also, we don’t need happiness to survive, it just makes our lives more meaningful, purposeful, satisfactory and substantial.
      Best regards,
      Simon.