Broadly speaking, happiness and wellbeing are thought to be essential components for a successful and fulfilling life.
In fact, in 2012, the United Nations proclaimed March 20th to be the International Day of Happiness to recognize the importance of wellbeing as a universal goal for all people. Indeed, recommendations to public policy outlined a more balanced approach to economic growth, intending to promote societal outcomes of happiness, sustainable development, and poverty eradication.
It follows that the pursuit of happiness has been a central focus of both psychological research and the self-help industry for many decades, as a means to improve quality of life.
With this in mind, it may surprise you that individuals can experience cherophobia, a fear of happiness leading to the active avoidance of joyful situations. While academic and clinical literature in this area is sparse, the following article will introduce you to the emerging ideas surrounding this phenomenon.
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What Is Cherophobia in Psychology?
The term cherophobia, originating from the Greek term ‘chairo,’ which means ‘to rejoice,’ is the aversion to or fear of happiness. While cherophobia is not currently recognized as a clinical disorder under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), several studies have begun to validate its existence scientifically (Joshanloo, 2014).
But before we dive into how individuals experience cherophobia, let’s reflect on what happiness actually means and how phobias are defined.
What is happiness?
To effectively understand its underpinnings, happiness first needs to be defined. In psychological research, ‘happiness’ is often used interchangeably with the term ‘subjective wellbeing’ and measured by asking individuals to report on their life satisfaction and the presence or absence of positive and negative affect (Diener, Suh, Lucas, & Smith, 1999).
While there’s still no conclusive consensus, a widely accepted definition of happiness was proposed by the positive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky in her book The How of Happiness (2007). She described happiness as:
“The experience of joy, contentment, or positive wellbeing, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”
This definition incorporates the transient feelings that individuals experience, such as elation, pride, gratitude, and contentment, brought about by a deeper fulfillment with a good life.
However, for the discussion of cherophobia, this definition may be too broad. Indeed, the current psychological research examining aversion to happiness assumes that there are multiple types of happiness. As such, an individual can have varying feelings and degrees of aversion toward different types of happiness (Joshanloo & Weijers, 2014).
What is a phobia?
Under the DSM-5, phobias are classed under the umbrella of ‘anxiety disorders.’ A phobia is an overwhelming and debilitating fear or anxiety about an object, place, situation, feeling, or animal. More pronounced than fear, a phobia develops when the anxiety is out of proportion to the perceived threat’s actual danger.
The American Psychiatric Association (2013) identifies three categories of phobias:
1. Specific phobia
A specific phobia is an excessive and persistent fear of a particular object, situation, or activity. Common examples of specific phobias are situational phobias, such as fear of flying; animal phobias, such as fear of spiders; and bodily phobias, such as fear of injections.
Agoraphobia is the fear of being in a space or situations where escape may be difficult in the event of a panic attack. The anxiety will develop in conditions such as:
- Being in open spaces
- Being in enclosed spaces
- Being on public transportation
- Being in crowded places
- Being alone, outside the home
If severe and left untreated, an individual with agoraphobia may be unable to leave the house.
3. Social phobia
Social phobia is also referred to as social anxiety disorder, where an individual with social anxiety has significant fear about being embarrassed, humiliated, looked down upon, or rejected in social interactions. Examples of social anxiety include anxiety about meeting new people, avoiding social activities, and eating or drinking in public.
So, now that we’ve described both happiness and phobias, how can we define cherophobia?
Because it is not yet recognized as a clinical disorder, we can draw upon an interpretation from the psychological literature. In their review examining where and why people are averse to happiness, Joshanloo and Weijers (2014) suggest that:
Aversion to happiness might also be useful to consider as a general attitude underpinned by an overarching belief about the extent to which it is rational to pursue or avoid happiness for oneself or one’s society.
Let’s turn our attention back to why, for some, happiness is something to be avoided.
The value of happiness across cultures
To understand why some people feel opposed to happiness, we can begin by examining the value placed on happiness across cultures.
In Western society, happiness is often viewed as the ultimate life goal, one ‘to which all humans strive’ (Braun, 2001). It is considered one of the most important objectives guiding individuals’ lives. This notion is backed up by empirical data, which indicates that North Americans value happiness highly (Triandis, Bontempo, Leung, & Hui, 1990).
Accordingly, there has been a noteworthy increase in psychological research investigating the concept of happiness over the last few decades.
However, how do other cultures value happiness?
It has been argued that for many non-Western cultures, the salience of happiness is reduced or at least takes an inferior position compared to other social goals. This may be, in part, due to the fact that personal happiness is promoted in individualistic rather than collectivistic cultures.
For instance, in individualistic societies such as the U.S. and Western/Northern Europe, each individual’s rights, freedom, and personal preferences are emphasized over an in-group’s needs and expectations such as family, peer groups, or community (Suh & Oishi, 2002).
In contrast, in collectivistic societies such as East Asia and Central/South America, the needs and aspirations of an important in-group take priority over the individual’s principles. As such, while personal happiness may be the main goal for Westerners, other cultures place more value on belonging and social harmony.
It follows that if the foremost goal of a particular culture is social relationships, personal happiness may not have as much significance. What’s more, personal happiness may even be perceived to be harmful to social harmony (Uchida, Norasakkunkit, & Kitayama, 2004).
The idea that happiness may not always emphasize social good lays the foundation for the concept of cherophobia. However, finding social and inner peace is not the only explanation for why individuals may have an aversion toward happiness, and as we’ll discuss, this can be observed in both Western and non-Western cultures.
Reasons for aversion to happiness
In their review examining where and why people are averse to happiness, Joshanloo and Weijers (2014) outline four main reasons for this concept.
1. Being happy makes it more likely that bad things will happen to you.
Have you ever had the feeling, when things are going exceedingly well, that something bad must be about to happen? Perhaps you’ve heard the popular sayings, ‘what goes up, must come down,’ or ‘after happiness, there comes a fall?’
The belief that happiness may cause, or is likely to be followed by, sadness or adverse events appears to be a pervasive belief. For instance, in a qualitative study by Uchida and Kitayama (2009), Japanese participants indicated that happiness could lead to negative consequences because it made them inattentive to their surroundings.
Similarly, a separate line of research focuses on ‘the fear of emotion,’ in which individuals have anxiety about intense affective states because they fear they will lose control over their emotions or the behavioral reactions to those emotions (Melka, Lancaster, Bryant, Rodriguez, & Weston, 2011),
Another idea is that individuals may be averse to happiness because they fear the potentially devastating loss of newly attained happiness more than they value the initial attainment (Ben-Shahar, 2002). This is echoed by a qualitative study by Pflug (2009) in which German students expressed that intense happiness leads to unhappiness in response to open-ended questions.
2. Being happy makes you a worse person.
Some individuals, across both Western and Non-Western cultures, believe that being happy can make someone worse (both morally and otherwise). One example proposed by Ben-Shahar (2002), among others, is that people may fear happiness because they would feel guilty if they were to attain it; that is, individuals may feel like morally bad people because they know others are suffering.
3. Expressing happiness is bad for you and others.
In addition to actually feeling happy, there is the belief among some individuals and cultures that expressing happiness should also be avoided because of its potentially negative consequences for both the individual and those around them.
For instance, Ucida and Kitayam (2009) suggest that for East Asian cultures, outwardly displaying success and happiness may cause envy, such that the positive affect associated with happiness may be offset by the negative feelings of guilt and discord.
Similarly in Russia, individuals are often hesitant about pursuing or demonstrating happiness or success because of the belief in the “evil eye” – the idea that visible success can lead to envy or suspicion from others, leading to the ultimate misfortune and unhappiness of the individual (Haber, 2013; Sheldon et al., 2017).
4. Pursuing happiness is bad for you and for others.
The idea that actively pursuing happiness may have negative consequences also exists in individuals across many cultures. For example, it has been argued that the narrow pursuit of happiness is predominantly centered on the self, which may lead to people acting more selfishly, leading to detrimental effects on others (Ricard, 2011). This may operate via, for example, the passive harm of others through neglect.
The role of personality in cherophobia
While an aversion to happiness has largely been attributed to culture, emerging research also indicates that personality factors can moderate the relationship between fear of happiness and the experience of happiness.
In a study by Agbo and Ngwu (2017), participants completed self-report measures of affect, fear of happiness, and the Big Five personality inventory (assessing openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism), which has been extensively used in personality research (DeNeve & Cooper, 1998).
They found differential moderating effects of personality across positive and negative affect.
Whereas higher levels of agreeableness and neuroticism strengthened the influence of fear of happiness on positive affect, higher levels of openness, conscientiousness, and extraversion were associated with a weakened effect.
In contrast, aside from higher levels of extraversion, which also undermined the effect of fear of happiness on negative affect, fear of happiness and negative affect were positively related for all of the personality dimensions.
5 Symptoms of Cherophobia
There are currently no diagnostic criteria for cherophobia; however, fear-based conditions are typically classified as anxiety disorders in the DSM-5.
With this in mind, and considering the items outlined on the ‘Fear of Happiness Scale’ developed by Joshanloo (2013) and the ‘Fear of Happiness Scale’ developed by Gilbert et al., (2012), we may expect to observe the following symptoms in an individual experiencing cherophobia:
- Believing that feeling happy makes you a bad person
- Believing that being happy will lead to something bad happening
- Believing that you should not express happiness in case it upsets others
- Avoidance of joyful social gatherings
- Rejecting relationships or life opportunities that may bring happiness and success
Assessing Cherophobia: 2 Tests and Scales
So how do we measure an aversion to happiness? Like the measurement of happiness and wellbeing, aversion to happiness has so far been measured by self-report.
Fear of Happiness Scale – Joshanloo
The Fear of Happiness Scale was developed by Joshanloo (2013) to investigate the general belief that experiencing happiness, particularly to excess, may be perceived to result in adverse consequences. The scale consists of five items, measured on a seven-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (‘Strongly Disagree’) to 7 (‘Strongly Agree’), with a total score ranging from 5 to 35. Higher scores indicate a greater fear of happiness.
Participants are asked to rate the extent to which they agree with the following statements:
- I prefer not to be too joyful because usually joy is followed by sadness.
- I believe the more cheerful and happy I am, the more I should expect bad things to occur in my life.
- Disasters often follow good fortune.
- Having lots of joy and fun causes bad things to happen.
- Excessive joy has some bad consequences.
Fear of Happiness Scale – Gilbert
The second Fear of Happiness Scale was developed by Gilbert and colleagues (2012) to explore people’s perceptions and anxieties around feeling happy and positive feelings in general. The scale consists of nine items, measured on a five-point Likert scale ranging from 0 (‘Not at all like me’) to 4 (‘Extremely like me’), with a total score ranging from 0 to 36. Higher scores indicate a greater fear of happiness.
Participants are asked to rate the extent to which they agree with the following statements:
- I am frightened to let myself become too happy.
- I find it difficult to trust positive feelings.
- Good feelings never last.
- I feel I don’t deserve to be happy.
- Feeling good makes me uncomfortable.
- I don’t let myself get too excited about positive things or achievements.
- When you are happy, you can never be sure that something will not hit you out of the blue.
- I worry that if I feel good, something bad could happen.
- If you feel good, you let your guard down.
How to Overcome Cherophobia? 2 Treatment Options
Cherophobia is not recognized as a clinical disorder by the DSM-5, and as such, there is a lack of standard treatment options that are recommended for the condition.
However, as phobias in general are classified as anxiety disorders, if an individual’s experience of cherophobia is debilitating, there are a number of treatments that may be appropriate.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Talking therapies, such as counseling and psychotherapy, are often very effective ways to manage phobias. In particular, research indicates that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a highly effective treatment for anxiety disorders (van Dis et al., 2020).
CBT helps individuals to identify unhelpful thinking patterns that may be influencing their behavior and mood.
A particularly effective CBT approach in the treatment of phobias is the use of exposure techniques. Exposure Therapy helps an individual to deliberately confront their fears, rather than avoid them, by direct and repeated exposure. The mechanism operates through the desensitization or habituation to the object or situation that causes fear.
As an individual repeatedly confronts their fear, their anxiety toward that fear is likely to reduce. For example, in the case of cherophobia, gradual exposure to joy-evoking situations may help to lessen the anxiety toward happiness.
Mindfulness-based interventions have also shown positive effects on anxiety outcomes (Blanck et al., 2018). Rooted in Buddhist philosophy, mindfulness is developed through meditation techniques that aim to build a continued awareness of the present moment throughout daily life (Kabat-Zinn, 2006).
Other useful techniques
Those who experience cherophobia may not always find their symptoms clinically debilitating. As such, some simple self-care techniques may help to ease the anxieties associated with the uncomfortable feelings associated with their experience:
PositivePsychology.com’s Useful Resources
This Graded Exposure Worksheet will introduce individuals to an exposure technique for overcoming fears. The exposure to feared objects, activities, or situations in a safe environment can help gradually reduce avoidance and anxiety.
The Progressive Muscle Relaxation Exercise is a tool that can help reduce muscle tension and associated stress and anxiety. The technique involves progressively tensing and relaxing muscles in different parts of the body, leading to a reduction in physiological tension.
The Facing the Effect of Fear-Based Beliefs on Goal Achievement exercise aims to help clients understand the consequences of fear-based beliefs for goal achievement and personal growth. The individual is asked to identify a personal goal and to consider the potential outcomes related to certain beliefs about this goal.
The Leaving The Comfort Zone exercise was designed as a visual aid for people to understand the costs of staying in the comfort zone and the necessity to leave this zone to experience growth. This may be particularly useful for those experiencing cherophobia, as it will help clients realize how their fears are inhibiting them from fulfilling life experiences.
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A Take-Home Message
Although cherophobia is not yet clinically recognized, there are numerous evidence-based techniques such as CBT and mindfulness that may help to alleviate symptoms if your client is experiencing such fears.
Many of us have perhaps felt, at some point, an apprehension about being too happy in the fear that this feeling may not last and that we may eventually be faced with disappointment.
However you look at it and no matter your cultural background, we all deserve to live a happy and joyful life. This is not a Westernized opinion, but a basic condition that all occupants of the earth should wish to attain. We should all be satisfied and filled with experiences that bring us meaning, purpose, and success. Let’s not allow fears to seize and obstruct life’s wonderful opportunities.
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