By David Jones
Have you ever been suspicious of feeling happy?
Do you have anxiety because things are going good for you at the moment? When something good happens do you slide into the dread of waiting for the inevitable bad thing that’s going to come along and erase it? Is your life spent waiting for the other shoe to drop?
The name that sometimes gets tacked onto that is cherophobia: the irrational and hindering fear of happiness.
I remember feeling that a time or two in my life, but it took hearing a friend say they felt that way a lot for me to realize how odd it sounded. Who could really be afraid of feeling happy? Isn’t that what we tend to want?
Well it turns out they’re not actually afraid of feeling happy. People who say they’re “afraid of the dark” usually aren’t; they’re afraid of what they believe might be in the dark. For some of us, happiness can be seen as a precursor of dashed hopes, pain, tears, disappointment and unfulfilled expectations or desires.
When we only associate happiness with impending pain and disappointment, we’ll never really be free of that negative prison. We will be suspicious of joy and happiness because it can’t last.
It’s how people view happiness. They become obsessed, greedy over it like a chest full of gold that they just know someone is going to steal one day. It’s like they think happiness is supposed to be an eternal constant, as if happiness is “normal” and unhappiness is “abnormal.”
But really emotions come and go like the tide. Happiness doesn’t last forever; unhappiness doesn’t either. Developing attachment to things which are ruled by impermanence leads to suffering, like being afraid of feeling happy.
If I get too attached to happy moments, the pain of losing them is too great to risk.
After a while I might start obsessing over happy moments, trying to cling to them or otherwise prevent them from leaving. The harder I cling, the more it hurts when happiness ebbs. Feeling happy becomes a hostage situation. It can start looking like I’m constantly being robbed of my happiness. In fact, I can sabotage my own life by never enjoying happy moments because I’m so focused on how awful it will be to inevitably lose them.
Here’s where mindfulness can help.
Mindfulness helps us live in the moment no matter how the moment feels. It helps us be okay whether we feel happy or sad or angry or meh. Emotions aren’t permanent, so even the ones we don’t enjoy won’t last. The inner, stable peace often comes from being okay with ourselves at any given moment.
Freedom from the fear of being “too happy” (or, properly, fear of becoming unhappy because our happiness won’t last forever) doesn’t come from finding a way to trap happiness in a bottle or something. Freedom comes from knowing happiness will come and go, and being okay with that truth.
In Star Wars III—Revenge of the Sith, Yoda lays out the truth to Anakin Skywalker about clinging to things out of fear of losing them: “Train yourself to let go…of everything you fear to lose.”
If happiness worries me because I’m just going to lose it, then my attention is hyper-focused on past examples or future eventualities instead of where I am right now. Learning to meditate, to be present, to abide with life as it actually is at the moment rather than how it’s “supposed to be,” can do wonders toward overcoming this fear. Another path may be professional help such as psychotherapy if it’s not improving through self-effort.
Escaping that trap won’t be easy or fast; attitudes developed over time take time to undo. It takes reworking what we focus on, and how we develop attachments.
Also, this fear of happiness probably didn’t come alone. There might be issues with unrealistic expectations in others, weak boundaries which result in being easily taken advantage of, and other matters which (understandably) feed into our distrust. The great news is that these are all things which can be mindfully overcome. It takes work, time, and determination.
And each time you beat the old responses, you have every right to feel happy about it.
Editor: Dana Gornall
David Jones has a 30-year career with the United States government. He encountered mindfulness in therapy for his endangered marriage (which had led to anxiety-based depression and dissociative disorder symptoms), and writes about the experience in his blog as well as articles in various publications. He started writing articles about mindfulness for Yahoo Voices under the brand: A Mindful Guy.
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