I’m happier now than I’ve been in a long time. My life has been an off-and-on struggle with anxiety and depression. In the past year, I’ve taken better care of myself. I’ve exercised more. I’ve meditated. Taken more naps.
But happiness has come with a new kind of anxiety. “Hmm. I feel pretty good,” I say to myself. “That must mean I’m doing something wrong.” I think I’m afraid of being happy. At first, the idea of fearing happiness seems silly. But according to modern psychology research, it's fairly common. In a 2012 study, psychiatrist Paul Gilbert of Kingsway Hospital in England found that “fear of happiness correlates highly with depression—but that the dread manifests in numerous ways.” That “dread” falls into three general categories:
“Some people experience happiness as being relaxed or even lazy,” Gilbert writes, “as if happiness is frivolous and one must always be striving.” This rings true for me. As an ambitious, type-A guy, I’ve trained myself to strive. When I notice I’m experiencing a moment of relaxation or joy (essentially, when I’m practicing mindfulness) I don’t always know how to handle it—I retreat to what I know, which is worry and work. [Editor’s Note: if worry and work are clouding your mind too, try a mini meditation.]
Others believe that if they experience a moment of happiness, something bad will inevitably follow. In 2013, researchers in New Zealand used a “Fear of Happiness Scale” to test these associations. The scale includes questions like:
These thought patterns may have ties to karma and superstition, but they don’t have to be linked to a system of belief. It’s a very basic fear: if something good happens, misfortune must be right around the corner.
When treating phobias, psychologists often use exposure therapy, allowing patients to confront fears in a safe environment. So try to “experiment” with feeling content. Using mindfulness techniques (I recommend the ones in the Headspace Pro pack), notice moments when you feel happy. Maybe write them down in a notebook. As Gilbert suggests, allow yourself to feel “happy without judgment.” Treat moments of happiness like little victories, rather than signs you’re slacking or doing something wrong.
When I spend too much time alone, I can get lost in my own thoughts and overanalyze everything. But hanging out with others—particularly people who seem at ease with their own levels of happiness—can help. Say I’m having coffee with a friend and find myself anxious to get on to my next task. I’ll stop and think, “Huh. He seems OK lingering over his cold brew for another few minutes, shooting the breeze. Maybe I can be OK with it too.”
Maybe you don’t feel like you deserve to feel happy. But what about other people in your life? Could you lighten up a little for their sakes? “Shedding the fear and guilt enriches not only our own life, but also the lives of others,” Batcho writes. “Spreading joy is justification enough to free us from anxiety or guilt.” Translation: being a moody jerk might feel totally natural to me. But sharing happiness could benefit my wife, friends, and coworkers. I owe it to them to at least try.
According to Gilbert, there are others who “feel uncomfortable if they are not always worrying.” Again, it sounds strange at first. But worrying is like any other habit: do it often enough, for long enough, and it becomes second nature. Even though worrying itself isn’t much fun, at least you know where you stand. So how can you break the “unhappy habit”? Here are a few suggestions:
If you’re worried that happiness will be followed by something terrible, try creating a new link. Psychology Today writer Krystine Batcho suggests that “scheduling times of simple pleasures such as gardening on a sunny day to be followed by short periods of quiet reflection or a friendly conversation can begin replacing the joy-fear connection with joy-calm.” In other words, create a new cycle for yourself. Do something small that you enjoy, then follow it with something calming or neutral. Over time, your mind will adjust to the idea that good isn’t always followed by bad.
I love my daily to-do list. I get a little surge of pleasure from checking off items. In fact, I can fill my entire day with tasks and crash in bed exhausted, not really having enjoyed any of it. So I’ve started incorporating “happy time” into my list. Sounds lame, I know. But I’m building a new skill of being happy. And that takes practice. My frequent happy time activity involves taking my dog to the dog park. I leave my phone at home and spend 20 minutes watching dogs tussle on the grass and take dips in the pool. It’s tough to feel unhappy there, and I try my best to be present. If I’m feeling content, I just… let myself feel content. I’m training my mind like a puppy, allowing it to enjoy this newer feeling and understand that it’s OK. And sometimes it works. Good dog. [Editor’s Note: Not all unhappiness can be addressed with tips and tricks. If you are experiencing ongoing sadness or depression, consult your physician. You are not alone.]