Do people fear happiness?

Jovana Balanovic 24 May 2013


One of the basic beliefs of contemporary Western culture is that pursuing personal happiness is among the highest values guiding individuals’ lives.

Happiness is also one of the most important topics in psychology today. Both clinical psychologists and social psychologists have made it their business to understand what makes people happy.

Two Victoria University of Wellington researchers, Mohsen Joshanloo from the Centre for Applied Cross-cultural Research and Dan Weijers from the School of Philosophy have recently published their findings on whether all cultures want to be happy in the same way.

They challenged the assumption that happiness is considered a top priority in all cultures. Happiness may be highly valued in the West, but other cultures may not hold the same perspective.

The research was inspired by Mohsen Joshanloo’s experiences with some cultures where there is a belief that too much happiness can lead to negative consequences. He noted some common sayings in some cultures such as “Crying comes after laughing” and “Let’s hope nothing bad happens on a good day.”

Inspired by this, the researchers conducted a pilot study and found that some other cultures also hold a less idolised view of happiness. Islamic countries, for instance, have two kinds of happiness—the happiness in this life and the happiness in the afterlife. So being overly happy in this life may signify unhappiness for the afterlife.

Another example is the beliefs held by Taoist cultures that hold a ‘ying and yang’ perspective. Their beliefs of happiness may be that – if you are too happy now, unhappiness may be waiting around the corner as life ‘balances itself out.’

Although there is a lot of variation between cultural specific views of happiness and its consequences, the research notes a common thread: that there is a general fear of, or adversion to, happiness or a desire to avoid too much happiness.

Based on this pilot study, Joshanloo devised a measure that specifically looked at this ‘Fear of Happiness’ concept that has not been directly looked at in psychology. This measure was administered over 14 countries and found to be particularly reliable and effective at capturing this new phenomenon.

The ‘Fear of Happiness’ measure fits well with other already established concepts in psychology. For instance, those individuals who score high in ‘Fear of Happiness’ are also more likely to dampen their positive emotions and moods.

On the cultural level, those countries that are more cynical, conformist and hierarchical have higher rates of fear of happiness. Importantly, on both the cultural and individual scale, high levels of ‘Fear of Happiness’ are associated with a somewhat lower life satisfaction.

So what do these findings show? Firstly they challenge the current psychological explanations for why countries vary in their levels of happiness. Maybe it’s not only national wealth or autonomy but a completely different perspective of happiness.

Secondly, it can possibly inform us why certain cultures have different perspective on certain practical activities such as drinking or partying. Perhaps these are associated with excessive happiness, and so are frowned upon by some individuals in some cultures.

On the whole, we need to open ourselves to the possibility of culturally specific meanings of happiness and the beliefs around it.

For more information, you can read Mohsen Joshanloo and Dan Weijers’ research here: ‘Aversion to happiness across cultures: A review of where and why people are adverse to happiness’.

You can also read 13 of Psychology’s Newest and Coolest Ideas in Psychology Today where ‘Fear of happiness’ features as number 11.

Image credit:Bruce Rosenstein