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Hating Happiness

People all over the world are afraid of happiness, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's yet another challenge to the notion that positive thinking can heal all wounds.
Chicago Cubs fans celebrate after clinching a playoff berth in 2008. They were swept in the first round. (Photo: dherholz/Flickr)

Chicago Cubs fans celebrate after clinching a playoff berth in 2008. They were swept in the first round. (Photo: dherholz/Flickr)

I’m 14, sitting on the carpeted living room floor of my parents’ house in suburban Illinois. It’s past my bedtime. The Cubs are five outs away from their first World Series appearance in nearly 60 years. Never before have I felt so much excitement for a baseball game. My friends and I followed the season religiously, worshipping the players in ways only bored high school kids can.

In that moment of anticipated celebration, I saw my happiness dramatically ripped away from me. Pop fly into foul territory. Steve Bartman. Booted double-play ball.

That formative experience has robbed me of every happy moment in sports fandom since.

I cannot watch a game in which my team is winning without an impending sense of dread. As USA was poised to win against Portugal in the 2014 World Cup, with everyone around me in the bar celebrating, I stood still, breath held, waiting for the last seconds to tick off the clock.

We know how that went.

Give me a game where my team is winning in the final seconds, and I’ll enumerate the ways to lose the lead before it’s over. It’s come to the point where I get more anxious when my team is winning than when it is losing. I would rather root for them to pull off a stunning comeback than deal with the psychological torture of a premature celebration or a last-minute defeat.

This is what Mohsen Joshanloo would call fear of happiness.

CONTEMPORARY WESTERN CULTURE TENDS to hold happiness above all other life indicators. “Western psychologists (and some economists) often write as though happiness is universally considered to be one of the highest human goods, if not the highest,” writes Joshanloo, a post-doc fellow at Chungbuk University in South Korea* in a 2013 paper.

With the rise of pop-psychology "happiness" researchers, self-help books, and the positive psychology movement, happiness rules with an iron grin over most of Western society.

If you are reading this from a contemporary Western society, you may find it difficult to even conceive of a different human good that might supersede happiness. Starting around the Enlightenment years, “increasing numbers of westerners started to believe that happiness is not only attainable but also a legitimate and worthwhile goal of human life,” Joshanloo writes in an article published in the July issue of Journal of Happiness Studies. Now, with the rise of pop-psychology “happiness” researchers, self-help books, and the positive psychology movement, happiness rules with an iron grin over most of Western society.

Joshanloo’s research is a direct challenge to that idea. “As a person who has lived in Korea and Iran, I was familiar with some lay beliefs in these two cultures indicating a kind of hesitation toward happiness,” he tells Pacific Standard. “But when I started reading on this topic, I realized that such beliefs can be found in almost all cultures.”

Fear of happiness comes in many forms, according to Joshanloo's research: People may frown upon the pursuit of happiness, hate displays of happiness, or experience anxiety when happiness strikes. Many examples come from East Asian cultures and likely stem from deep-rooted Taoist beliefs. In a 2001 study, Chinese and American participants were presented with various trend graphs that were either straight (indicating steady levels) or non-linear (indicating changing levels) and asked to choose which lines best indicated their life happiness over time. Chinese participants were more likely to choose non-linear graphs than Americans, meaning that they were more likely to predict or see a reversal in fortune in their lives.

This idea that happiness is not stable or predictable may be the reason that East Asian cultures devalue happiness in favor of more controllable life indicators—acting morally or fulfilling social duties, for instance. In 2004, when Taiwanese and American students were asked to define happiness, many Americans said that it was “the highest value and the supreme goal in their lives, while the Taiwanese participants made no such statements,” according to Joshanloo.

But the examples were far from limited to one part of the world. In a paper published this summer, Joshanloo notes that aversion to happiness is also present in African and Middle Eastern nations, as well as (to a lesser extent) Western culture and history:

Noting Western adages and proverbs, such as the following ones: “happiness and a glass vessel are most easily shattered,” “after joy, sorrow,” “sorrow never comes too late and happiness too swiftly flies,” Tatarkiewicz concludes that some people naturally expect happiness to be followed by unhappiness. Taking this idea further, Holden claims that fearing happiness because it is likely to lead to unhappiness is also the meaning behind the popular Western sayings: “after happiness, there comes a fall” and “what goes up most come down.”

Considering the prevalence of beliefs that devalue happiness, it may seem bizarre how exalted the concept has become. Joshanloo’s studies sought to quantify and explain how and why attitudes toward happiness differ between cultures—thereby touching on one of the largest questions in happiness research today.

TODAY, PSYCHOLOGICAL STUDIES AIMING to quantify an individual’s happiness typically use the “subjective well-being” measure: feeling good, not feeling bad, and lack of regret (sometimes defined as feeling satisfied with life). Even with this semi-standardized definition, researchers struggle to compare happiness across cultures. “There is a very important question of measurement error or artifact: Are we really [comparing] apples to apples when measuring happiness across cultures?,” asks Chu Kim-Prieto, associate professor of psychology at The College of New Jersey.

Kim-Prieto’s research suggests that we are not. “More isn’t necessarily better when it comes to happiness,” she says. One person’s “optimal” level and intensity of happiness may differ from another’s—and that’s true between cultures, too. “Research I did with Ashley Fulmer shows that it’s a person-culture match—that if your personality matches the prevalent personalities of other people in the culture, it’s better,” Kim-Prieto says. “So you can be extremely happy but if that’s not what’s in your culture, your experience of well-being isn’t going to be as high.”


In a 1998 study, Eunkook Suh and colleagues measured the attitudes toward happiness in students across 42 different countries. (Source: American Psychologist)

Joshanloo hypothesized that if fear of happiness is a concept that differs significantly between cultures, and if fear of happiness is correlated with subjective well-being, then subjective well-being may in fact measure cultural differences in the perception of happiness rather than the actual welfare of a country’s citizens.

In his research, Joshanloo and his colleagues surveyed people from 14 or 15 different countries to establish the concepts of “fear of happiness” and “fragility of happiness,” respectively. The surveys included statements such as “I prefer not to be too joyful, because usually joy is followed by sadness,” and “Something might happen at any time and we could easily lose our happiness.” For years, researchers have noted that “happiness” is defined differently in different countries, but Joshanloo is one of the first to empirically test a hypothesis as to why—and he did so with a diverse sample of countries, including New Zealand, Iran, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, India, Russia, Brazil, Kenya, Pakistan, and Kuwait.

Joshanloo’s results show that fear and fragility of happiness levels can be collectively measured for each country. (Only one country, India, did not fit this model, so it was excluded from the rest of the analysis.) China, Hong Kong, and Pakistan reported the highest levels of apprehension and dislike toward happiness; Brazilians reported the lowest. Even in countries with low fear of happiness levels, some individuals scored high on the scale.

Notably, Joshanloo found that aversion to happiness could be linked to the idea that happiness is fragile or fleeting. If people expect happiness to be followed by bad events, (i.e. the 2003 Cubs winning the pennant and their first playoff series, only to choke spectacularly in the second round) then those people (i.e. Cubs fans) may begin to feel averse to the happiness that precedes—and is a predictor of—sorrow.

Rooting for a team that hasn’t won a championship in more than a century might seem like a special kind of mental illness, but my fear of winning games probably isn’t pathological.

“Both sets of beliefs are more strongly endorsed largely in less developed countries, where the conditions of life are more uncertain and changing. They are also more strongly valued in more collectivist cultures where conformity and traditional values are more strongly valued,” Joshanloo says. “We also know that such nations score lower on happiness than wealthier individualistic nations.”

WE’RE LEFT WITHTWO counter-intuitive ideas. Fear of happiness has been prevalent throughout history and has origins in cultures around the world. But Joshanloo’s studies also show that it is linked to lower levels of well-being. Why would a culture perpetuate a belief that dampens the happiness of its people?

A 2011 study by mental health researcher Paul Gilbert adds another confounding layer. He found that “fear of happiness” (as measured by a similar scale, developed separately from Joshanloo’s) had a strong positive correlation, on an individual level, to depression and depression-related beliefs. He says his study was based on observations from his clinical work, where he encouraged patients to think positively and was met with significant opposition. “People are concerned and worried about positive emotions,” he says. “One patient, whose mother was agoraphobic, always looked forward to going out, going to the seaside. Then mom would have a panic attack and they couldn’t go. Children have experiences of being happy and getting into trouble or humiliated or disappointed repeatedly.”

Gilbert emphasizes that his study was a “broad brush” and that the clinical implications for fear of happiness are still unclear. If patients could find a way to overcome this fear, it might help cure their depression—or it might not. Gilbert concedes that not all people who fear happiness are at risk for mental illness, just as those who are very happy can sometimes have mental illness. He gives manic-depressive disorder as an example: “People who have a certain type of happiness, hypermania, can be quite reckless,” he says. “Sometimes with too much happiness you can do silly things.”

The positive psychology movement has had such success that some proprietors aren’t willing to entertain the idea that negative thinking could have benefits.

That’s good news for me and other Cubs fans. Rooting for a team that hasn’t won a championship in more than a century might seem like a special kind of mental illness, but my fear of winning games probably isn’t pathological. I mentioned my concerns to Joshanloo in an email, and he wrote back reassuringly: “Sometimes we just have inexplicit unpleasant feelings about expressing our happiness in certain situations. Sometimes we may feel that by failing to hide our happiness we may be somehow punished (e.g., by losing the next match.)”

Both Joshanloo and Gilbert indicate further research is needed to prove that fear of happiness can be useful or adaptive. “Although we know that these beliefs are associated with lower subjective well-being, it should not be forgotten that in rather uncertain and harsh environments, holding such beliefs could help people to adapt more effectively with the social and physical problems they face in their daily lives,” Joshanloo says. “It may be the case that these beliefs themselves are formed in response to certain environmental and social circumstances.”

IN POINTING OUT THAT a lack of happiness—or lack of desire for happiness—is not necessarily pathological, Joshanloo joins a small group of dissenting voices who have spent decades pushing back against the happiness hegemony that dominates contemporary Western discourse. Barbara Held, professor of psychology at Bowdoin College, has spoken and written extensively on the topic, and is a proud member of the “Negateers.” That’s a loose social group populated by researchers, scholars, and writers who, frankly, think happiness is overrated.

They were first brought together when journalist Barbara Ehrenreich began researching her 2009 book Bright-sided, which excoriates our national obsession with positive thinking. Their ranks include behavioral researcher Richard Sloan, author Susan Jacobi, and the late writer David Rakoff. “It’s very informal,” Held says. “We email each other whenever some lunatic stuff about being positive comes out.”

Held and the Negateers aren’t trying to be killjoys. They just want to point out that sometimes optimism is not the right choice,. “Let’s get rid of the terminology [of positive versus negative],” she says. “What is constructive or adaptive for one person is not for another in the same context."

One prominent example, Held says, is psychologist Julie Norem’s work on defensive pessimism. Norem’s research shows that anxious people cope much better by thinking about everything that could go wrong, then imagining the ways they could react to each scenario. It’s not what you might call a happy way to pass the time, but “their anxiety goes down, and they focus on the task better and function much better,” Held says. Similarly, we’ve previously written about how “negative validation” of feelings is better than attempting to cheer up people with low self esteem.

But these ideas aren’t welcome among some psychologists, who tend to stress optimism and gratitude as the best ways to deal with hard times. The positive psychology movement has had such success that some proprietors aren’t willing to entertain the idea that negative thinking could have benefits. “It’s either ignored,” Held says, “or in the few places where it’s discussed, it’s put down because pessimism in any form is bad.”

The dominance of happiness as the end-all be-all can be innocuous, like that annoyingly catchy song, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” It can be a problematic pop-culture phenomenon, like the success of self-help book peddlers. At its most worrisome, it can be institutionalized—like the United Nations-backed “World Happiness Report,” which rates nations based on a variety of economic factors in addition to subjective well-being. A press releases says the report “calls on policy makers to make happiness a key measure and target of development.” There’s also the controversial case of Comprehensive Soldier Fitness training, a program aimed at reducing post-traumatic stress disorder for U.S. soldiers by using—you guessed it—positive thinking and optimism.

Joshanloo certainly isn’t the first to find evidence that the blanket declarations exhorting happiness as the highest good are obscuring a more complex truth. “My research shows that some of the assumptions of positive psychology do not apply to non-Western cultural systems, and, interestingly, they even do not apply to some individuals living in Western cultures,” he says. “So, positive psychology should not just focus on exporting its ideas to non-Western cultures and be excited about expansion of the field.”

Will Joshanloo's research help dismantle the monolithic status of happiness in this world? “Let’s just say I’m not optimistic,” Held says, laughing. “There would have to be a major zeitgeist shift in the culture.”

Held relates to me a telling episode that occurred at the recent American Psychological Association conference in August. “I was walking down the hallway of the convention center, because it was hard to find the room. One of the APA staff came up to me and said, ‘You’re not smiling. You need to smile.’ And I thought, this feels oppressive! I said, ‘Do you know who you’re talking to?’”

*UPDATE — September 26, 2014: We originally wrote that Mohsen Joshanloo was at Victoria University at Wellington, New Zealand. He received his PhD at VUW, but now he is a postdoc fellow at Chungbuk University.