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.