Fear of happiness is a reluctance to experience and express happy feelings. Such an aversion means a person actively avoids happy situations, suppresses happy feelings, or feels guilty or anxious about being happy. People are more hesitant about immoderate or excessive feelings of happiness than they are about mild happiness.

You might ask, are there really people who are averse to happiness? Yes, there are. Aversion to happiness is not at all uncommon. Using the fear of happiness scale, my colleagues and I sampled people from 14 developed and developing countries (including diverse places such as New Zealand and Iran) and found that there are people in all of the countries who show an aversion to happiness. The study also showed that these beliefs are more prevalent in some Islamic and East Asian countries, for example, Pakistan and Hong Kong, than in Western countries such as the United States and the Netherlands.

Why Are Some People Averse to Happy Feelings?

Some people with an unfavorable attitude toward happy feelings do not know why. Probably the person has been socialized that way by his or her family, or perhaps their traditional, religious, or cultural beliefs prescribe such an attitude.

However, many people can give reasons for their aversion to happiness. I think it is useful to divide these reasons into two main groups:

  • Some people believe that happiness is wrong, sinful, or at least unnecessary. For example, they believe that happiness makes a person rude, irresponsible, careless, shallow, or selfish.
  • Some people report that happiness can have bad consequences for themselves, such as rejection by others, inviting envy or evil eyes, physical harm, or loss of possessions.

What Predicts Fear of Happiness?

We still do not know everything about happiness aversion, and research continues. In my new study that had 871 individuals from several countries, I examined 9 potential predictors of happiness aversion: age, gender, religiosity, perception of an unhappy childhood, feelings of loneliness, perfectionism, belief in karma, belief in black magic, and belief in collective happiness (that is, how much the person believes that one cannot be happy if one's family or friends are not happy).

Some of these predictors were selected based on previous studies of aversion to happiness. For example, a previous study showed that attachment insecurity in one's personal relationships (which is associated with an unhappy childhood and feelings of loneliness) predicted aversion to happiness. Thus, I suspected that perceiving one's childhood as unhappy and feeling lonely may predict aversion to happiness. Other hunches were that perfectionists (who are too strict with themselves) might perceive feelings of happiness as a distraction from further effort or achievement. Aversion to happy feelings is not in itself a superstition, but I was curious to see if people who have aversion to happiness are also more likely to endorse paranormal/supernatural beliefs such as belief in black magic.

Many of my expectations were supported. I found that younger, lonely individuals with perfectionist tendencies, who believe in collective happiness and paranormal beliefs, or who perceived their childhoods as unhappy were more likely to have an aversion to happiness. Gender and level of religiosity did not contribute much to happiness aversion. The strongest predictors were perception of one's childhood as unhappy, perfectionism, belief in black magic and karma, and loneliness.

India and the Philippines scored higher than the United Kingdom and the United States on aversion to happiness. This suggests that people in more traditional, religious, and collectivist cultures are more likely to have an aversion to happiness. It seems that in these cultures, it makes more sense to sacrifice personal happiness for higher collective values such as community, tradition, and religion.

For Further Reading

Joshanloo, M. (2022). Predictors of aversion to happiness: New insights from a multi-national study. Motivation and Emotion. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-022-09954-1

‌Joshanloo, M., & Weijers, D. (2013). Aversion to happiness across cultures: A review of where and why people are averse to happiness. Journal of Happiness Studies15(3), 717–735. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-013-9489-9

Mohsen Joshanloo is an associate professor of psychology at Keimyung University in South Korea. He studies well-being around the world.