Are You Afraid of Happiness? Scientists Find that People Fear Positive Emotions

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A curious thing sometimes occurs when good things happen to us: No matter how amazingly our lives might be going — you just landed your dream job, or you and your significant other decided to tie the knot, or whatever — there’s a little voice in the back of our minds telling us that something isn’t right, a voice asking "Why am I not happy?" Apparently, though, there’s a scientific reason for that — two new psychological studies have found that feeling happiness doesn't necessarily make for happy people. In fact, people often fear positive emotions.

Psychology graduate student Mohsen Joshanloo, published a study this past October in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology based around a Fear of Happiness Scale he developed himself. By having participants mark how much they agreed with statements like “Having lots of joy and fun causes bad things to happen,” Joshanloo attempted to measure fear of happiness across a variety of different countries. The really interesting bit? The study found the scale to be reliable in 14 cultures.

Another study conducted in 2012 by Paul Gilbert, a psychiatrist at Kingsway Hospital in England, used a similar scale; it found that depression and fear of happiness are closely linked, although dread might manifest in a variety of ways. According to Gilbert, “It’s not uncommon for people to fear that if they are happy about something it will be taken away.” He also noted, “Some people experience happiness as being relaxed or even lazy, as if happiness is frivolous and one must always be striving; others feel uncomfortable if they are not always worrying.”

None of this is exactly news; past research shows that mental disorders and aversion to positive emotions often go hand-in-hand. But these studies put the focus on an important aspect of treatment that is all too often overlooked. Says Gilbert, “It is very important that the fear of happiness become a focus for therapy in its own right, and that means treating it as you would any other fear.” Identifying fear of happiness and zeroing in on it right from the start might be a critical first step in treating mental illnesses.

Scientific American has a quiz up right now that gives you a quick way to gauge whether you’re afraid of happiness; I scored a 17, which apparently means that my fear of happiness “lies somewhere in the normal range for most people.” Although I “might be wary of feeling happy at times,” the fear doesn’t hold me back — or at least, it doesn’t usually hold me back. Curious? Take the quiz yourself, although a disclaimer does take care to note, “Scores are only indicative of how you are feeling in the moment, and do not necessarily indicate a problem.”