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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 25, Issue 1

Fear of Happiness Underlies Some Mental Illnesses

Learning to embrace good feelings can lay the groundwork for future therapy
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Unhappiness is often viewed as something to be prevented, avoided or eliminated. Yet recent studies reveal that for some people, feeling good is what scares them. Recognizing this fear and targeting it with therapy may be a critical first step before other mental illnesses can be treated.

People fear positive emotions for many reasons, such as feeling unworthy or believing good fortune inevitably leads to a fall, according to two new studies. Mohsen Joshanloo, a psychology graduate student at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, developed a Fear of Happiness Scale, on which participants indicate their level of agreement with statements such as “Having lots of joy and fun causes bad things to happen.” Such beliefs can plague people in many countries, according to a study by Joshanloo published online in October 2013 in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology. The study found the scale to be reliable in 14 different cultures.

Using a similar scale, psychiatrist Paul Gilbert of Kingsway Hospital in England and his colleagues found in 2012 that a fear of happiness correlates highly with depression—but that the dread manifests in numerous ways. “Some people experience happiness as being relaxed or even lazy, as if happiness is frivolous and one must always be striving; others feel uncomfortable if they are not always worrying,” Gilbert says. “It is not uncommon for people to fear that if they are happy about something, it will be taken away.”

Past research supports the idea that an aversion to positive emotions often coexists with mental disorders. Patients with major depressive disorder, for example, have been found to fear and suppress both negative and positive emotions more than healthy people do. These findings highlight a critical but often overlooked aspect of treatment, according to Gilbert. “It is very important that the fear of happiness become a focus for therapy in its own right, and that means treating it as you would any other fear,” he says, such as with exposure therapy or mindfulness techniques whereby practitioners allow themselves to feel happy without judgment. Traditional therapeutic approaches often encourage depressed patients to participate in enjoyable situations, yet the new findings suggest that some people may first need to practice allowing themselves to feel any pleasant emotions at all.

» Are You Afraid of Happiness? Take the Quiz

This article was originally published with the title "Afraid of Happiness."

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