“If you spend your whole life waiting for the storm, you’ll never enjoy the sunshine.”
Happiness. That seemingly elusive, intangible emotion. Throughout your life, you search for this happiness- in your work, your relationships, in yourself. But how often do you actually let yourself feel happy? Take a moment to think about it. Do you find it easier to worry, as compared to feeling joy and happiness?
In our last team meeting, we started discussing that we can grow up feeling more comfortable with sadness or anxiety as compared to happiness. As psychologists, we come across people in therapy who have been through a lot of trouble and strife. Often, even when they have worked through their difficulties, they find it difficult to embrace happiness.
Happiness is glorified, the carrot at the end of the stick. Happiness is also seen as fleeting, transient. Does this uncertain nature of happiness confuse us? Is it possible that at some level, we are afraid of happiness?
We decided to explore this further to understand what this fear is, why does it happen and how can you become more aware of it.
WHAT DOES FEAR OF HAPPINESS MEAN?
CHECK IN WITH YOURSELF: DO YOU FEAR HAPPINESS?
- Do you find yourself worrying about something while doing an activity that you like: watching a movie, going to a party, spending time with a loved one?
- Do you feel uneasy when you have nothing to do? Do negative worrisome thoughts rush in when you are free?
- Do you avoid happy situations for the fear that they will get over and you will have to return to feeling unhappy?
- Do you avoid getting into potential relationships for fear of getting hurt?
- Are you often making choices that take away present joy for the fear of future pain?
- Do you allow yourself to stay happy for a long time?
- When happy do you think about “What next?”
- Are you conscious about being happy? Do you feel guilt about it?
- Do you feel you don’t deserve to be so happy?
- Do you find yourself unable to trust your positive feelings?
If you find that you responded “yes” to most of these questions, you are likely to be harbouring a fear of happiness. The more “yes’s you answered, the higher would be your fear.
WHY DO YOU FEAR HAPPINESS?
There are several reasons why one might fear happiness:
The Evolutional Need to Look Out for Danger:
Fear of happiness comes from a deep evolutional aspect. From an evolutional standpoint, in order to survive, man needed to attract pleasant experiences- need fulfilling experiences- like food, shelter, sex. He also needed to avoid dangers such as wild animals and calamities. Slowly, because danger is a greater threat to survival, the focus on avoiding danger increased (as compared to generating pleasant experiences). Your mind is therefore naturally conditioned to look out for danger.
“This tendency to look out for danger may surpass the optimum anxiety necessary for survival and put people on guard. When this happens, you find it difficult to let down your guard even in seemingly comfortable situations. You become preoccupied with things going wrong- and fear being happy. When you allow yourself happiness, you feel unarmed as though you’re expecting danger and you’ve left your weapon behind.”- Sadia
Over a period of time, worrying becomes the natural state of the mind. If the mind is exposed to this fear, it gets conditioned and creates more fear. Slowly, the mind-set changes and you only start operating out of fear.
The Belief that Bad Things Will Follow:
Another reason is that one may develop a belief that when one becomes happy, a negative event will soon occur. You almost feel like you are tempting fate by being “so happy”. You then tend to fear happiness- believing it is too short-lived and something painful is just around the corner. Your past experiences can strengthen this belief.
“With repeated shocks in life, comes fear of happiness. In essence, it is not happiness that is feared but the experience of the extreme emotional shift that a person goes through after a happy, seemingly safe experience. It’s this shift, this downfall from the high note of happiness that can be difficult to deal with or go through.” – Kunjal
Feeling Unworthy of Happiness:
“I must be perfect before I am happy”. “I have messed up my career. How can I be happy?” “I’ve done a third of what people do by the time they are 30. Surely, I can’t be happy.”
“Sometimes, you see happiness as reserved for those who are successful and accomplished. Well, happiness isn’t equal to “happy ever after”. You can continue working on your goals, and still allow yourself to feel joy, as and when you naturally do”.-Malini
If you notice- that even on very bad days, there are moments when you feel spontaneously happy- maybe a surprisingly free road during traffic or your favourite food for lunch. “The problem arises when you pick this moment and pit it against that big goal you want to reach, or that state of mind you want to be in”, says Malini. You begin to evaluate your experiences. You feel let down, feel like you will never get there. Then you think “happiness” isn’t for me.
Worrying Keeps you Busy:
“Worrying is an occupation, happiness is not.”- Sadia
While you are pursuing happiness, there is a lot to do, a lot to worry about and a lot to achieve- the mind remains occupied. Once you are there, you may feel at a loss since it suddenly seems as if there is much less to do- almost nothing- and that can be an unknown uncomfortable space for most people.
“You feel quite vulnerable when you are happy and it feels more comfortable to strive for this happiness than to actually achieve it. Permanent happiness is probably what we are looking at. That too expecting it to come from outside of us and knowing that it is not permanent, that it may go away, might evoke fear.” – Megha
There is fear of losing it when you have it- so people settle for being constantly sad or worried than a cycle of happiness and sadness.
Setting Happiness as an Ultimate Goal:
You put happiness on a pedestal as something to be achieved. Sometimes- as an ultimate goal as well- you pretend you are stowing it away for later- for when it “feels right”
“Even as a child, it is in some way programmed in us that whatever achievements are accomplished the next step is “keep it up” or “do better”.”- Nandita
You learn that happiness must follow only great, socially recognized achievements. It becomes difficult then to relish the smaller joys and accolades.
Being Afraid of Changes that Happiness Brings:
Sometimes, you realize that there are certain obstacles in your way that are preventing long-term happiness. These might be everyday obstacles that work against you. If you decide to resolve or cope with these difficulties, you might have to make changes or work with parts of yourself that you are not comfortable with. This can be scary and disconcerting.
“Real happiness requires you to make real changes to some extent. You might come face-to-face with questions that you have avoided answering for a while. Sometimes a fear of happiness is fear of the changes it brings with it. So, you tend to cling to the known and familiar, even if it isn’t helping you, because it helps you feel secure.”- Anusha
Cultures sometimes can Reinforce Fear of Happiness:
In their cultural study of Happiness (October 2013), psychologists Dr Mohsen Joshanloo and Dr Dan Weijers said: ‘Many individuals and cultures do tend to be averse to some forms of happiness, especially when taken to the extreme, for many different reasons.”
“In a collectivistic culture like ours, personal happiness feels too individualistic. It feels selfish-we are taught right from childhood to belong to a unit, to work as a unit, to strive for collective goals. While everyone else is striving, being happy can feel shallow”, explains Anusha.
This is seen almost to the point where sharing our troubles and sadness is accepted and validated.
“You might recognize in your own social settings that people are more comfortable sharing their woes because sadness brings sympathy/empathy from others.”-Nandita .
There are also various superstitions or sayings that one has heard time and again which reinforce this cultural belief. People would say “don’t laugh so much, you’ll cry twice of that”. Or you might have heard that if you are too happy, “nazar lag jayegi”. We grow up not allowing ourselves the little joys that life brings us. We get accustomed to shying away from happiness.
WORKING WITH THIS FEAR: A JOURNALING ACTIVITY
“Journaling is the practice of self-discovery by writing to yourself”
-Chade Meng Tan
One of the best ways that you can work with this fear is to become mindful of it- how it makes you feel, how do you react to it, what seems to underlie this fear. A great way to do this is through a Mindful Journaling activity. Writing down helps you get a more definite sense of what you are feeling. It also makes it easier to review and gain insight from them. Let’s do a small journaling exercise:
- Take a blank page or book that you can use to record your sensations, observations, thoughts, feelings, emotions, images, and any other messagesfrom your mind and body as you become mindful of them.
- When you write, pick a quiet, restful place.
- Pick an amount of time you want to write for- 5/10/15 mins.
- As yourself- how do I feel after reading this article? If you find yourself, unable to start, some other prompts that you can use are:
– Right now, I am feeling…
– I am aware of…
– This makes me feel like…
– I wish I could…
Pay attention to what you are experiencing at this present moment. While you are writing, let sensations and feelings come up. Give yourself permission to allow pain that may or may not come. Try not to judge these feelings or flow with them, but simply sit with them. Allow your thoughts to flow out on to paper and see what arises. Try not to censor and write the “correct/good” thing. You might be surprised at what arises. Reliving, recognizing and writing an experience on paper can be a very powerful, insightful experience.
Revisit this writing after a few days again. How do you feel about what you have written now? Do you see any obvious correlations between how you felt then and how you are feeling now? You can continue to write brief paragraphs throughout the week if you feel it helps you. Mindful journaling will help you stay connected to the present moment, creating a safe space for you to express yourself.
You know that ups and downs are inevitable but trying to protect yourself too much may close you for joy and fulfilment. Take that one step to being open to the possibility of happiness- however small or big, however long-lasting or transient. If you find that this fear of happiness is overwhelming and you find it difficult to work through it yourself, seek help from a therapist or counselor. They could help you gain more awareness about this and support you through the process.
Do share with us your opinions and feedback, we would be glad to hear about what you think and whether journaling helped you.
Damian Gadal (Image 1)
Hamed Saber (Image 2)
Montse PB (Image 3)
(This article has been compiled and edited by our psychologist, Anusha Manjani.)