“Are you afraid of being happy?”
Upon hearing the question for the first time, we might feel that it doesn’t quite make sense.
Why would anyone be afraid of being happy? Is this not a big contradiction? After all, isn’t that what we all aim for in life?
If we do so many things in order to be happy, shouldn’t the prospect of embracing happiness be simple and easy?
Surprisingly, there are many who fear being happy. It is a real condition called ‘Cherophobia’. While it is common to have a phobias of snakes or cockroaches, it may seem strange to be afraid of happiness.
We think that being afraid keeps us safe and we build barriers to protect our emotions.
We might not hesitate to tell others that we have a fear of heights because it seems normal, but if we tell someone that we are afraid to be happy, people will immediately raise their eyebrows and start giving us strange looks!
Cherophobia is essentially an irrational fear of being happy. It originates from the Greek word ‘chairo’ which means ‘I rejoice’. In an article by Krystine I. Batcho in Psychology Today, she writes, “Some people are afraid to be happy. It isn’t that they don’t want to be happy or that they enjoy being unhappy. They have come to feel that being happy will come at a price or will be followed by calamity or at least ill-fortune.”
It instantly reminded me of a B-grade telenovela where everything seems to be going well for the main characters when suddenly, from out of the blue, disaster strikes!
Always looking for the catch
Similarly for some of us, there is a feeling we get when everything seems to be going swimmingly. We suddenly ask ourselves, “Is this too good to be true?” If good things continue to happen in our lives in quick succession, we get extremely suspicious. We silently scream in our heads, “It is not possible for life to be going this well!”
After all, most of the time we are more used to complaining or lamenting different areas of our life. Therefore, when every single area in our life seems to be fine, we can’t help but feel worried!
We worry that an axe is about to fall and something bad will happen. We have been trained our whole lives to worry about everything to the point that we never allow ourselves to fully enjoy happiness in its present form.
Experiences in childhood can also create a link between pleasure and pain. People who have Cherophobia believe that something painful must always follow something pleasurable. An example could include being happy to talk to the person we had a crush on in class, only to find out that the person was uninterested in us. “Good things never happen to me,” we may say. “If it does, there must be a catch!”
We think that being afraid keeps us safe and we build barriers to protect our emotions. Some say that they would rather live in a constant state of fear than to have a euphoric sense of joy and then have it snatched away from them.
For example, in personal or working relationships, a person can be afraid of being hurt due to past experiences which causes the person to ensure nobody is allowed to get close. We have a subconscious need to protect ourselves from loss and pain.
In another scenario, we could be informed by our boss that we have just received a promotion. Our initial reaction is of course to be happy and proud of ourselves. However, we start to have a slight pang of fear and might begin to have a conversation that sounds like this.
“What if I can’t meet the expectations of this new role? If I am getting a higher salary, that means more responsibilities! I am already so busy with my current role, how am I going to cope with this expanded job scope!” So, as we smile widely to our boss, we are shaking like a leaf inside!
What if we were a business owner? If we have just won a new customer account, we might also only allow ourselves to have a brief moment of happiness. In fact, we do not allow ourselves to be overly happy because we are afraid we might jinx it! We worry if the customer will be dissatisfied with our services. Therefore, we switch to cautious mode and chide ourselves for celebrating too much because there is ‘much work to be done’.
Why, hello anxiety, my old friend
According to an article by Lindsay Dodgson in the Independent, Cherophobia is actually a form of anxiety and some symptoms include:
- Anxiety when we are invited to a social gathering.
- Passing on opportunities that could lead to positive life changes due to the fear something bad will happen.
- Refusing to participate in "fun" activities.
- Thinking that being happy will mean something bad will happen later.
- Thinking that happiness makes us a bad or worse person.
- Believing that showing happiness is bad for us or our friends or family.
- Thinking that trying to be happy is a waste of time and effort.
In essence, we feel that it is ‘safer’ to be in a default state of worry and anxiety to prevent a bigger calamity from happening.
However, we must realise that having Cherophobia can rob us of joy. Worse, it can rob others of their joy too!
Have you ever experienced this similar scenario? For example, I would tell my parents that I am going for a holiday, but instead of sharing their excitement for me, they pepper the conversation with questions. “Are you sure it’s safe over there? I heard a lot of tourists were robbed in that location recently!” “Why are you going during this month? Isn’t it one of the worst months in terms of weather?”
On the other hand, some people enjoy being unhappy because of the attention that they can receive.
As you can guess, my initial excitement would wear off after hearing all these questions! Parents are probably the biggest culprits of Cherophobia although it is unintended and unknown to them.
We also torture ourselves because we are uncomfortable with feeling happy. When we are on a holiday, we only allow ourselves a brief moment of enjoyment. To return to the normal state of worry that we are in, we start going through the list of work items that are still pending in the office. “I wonder if Mandy knows how to handle my project?” “What if my client gets upset that they can’t contact me?” So instead of chilling by the beach with a pina colada in your hand, you sheepishly
take out your laptop and start checking your emails so that you will return to the ‘working state’ that you are familiar with.
By being afraid to be happy, we are limiting ourselves from maximising our full potential and living a full life. We are constantly wondering if we are being too simple-minded by being happy with simple things. Other thoughts may pop up in our minds, “Doesn’’t ‘so and so’ earn more money? If yes, why should I be rejoicing when I still have much to catch up in terms of salary!” or “I still haven’t achieved my year end target, how dare I allow myself to be happy! The competitors are killing us!”
While being afraid to be happy may sound silly, it is a lot more common than we think. We self-sabotage our own happiness because we feel we don’t deserve to be happy because we are not worthy or ‘good enough’ to be happy.
Outside influences matter too
There may also be instances where we are surrounded by negative people. To ‘fit in’ and ‘to belong’ with them, we shun any possibility of being happy. In fact, we feel guilty about being happy when our family and friends are unhappy.
We feel that by being happy, this would mean being disloyal and we could be seen as showing off. We fear that this would cause friction with the rest. We downplay good things that have happened, or we reject opportunities because we do not wish to disrupt the status quo. To avoid the issue of them being jealous of our happiness, we proactively ensure we do not achieve a state of bliss.
On the other hand, some people enjoy being unhappy because of the attention that they can receive. Strangely enough, some people revel in sharing their latest misery or ‘drama’. By playing the victim, they solicit sympathy from others which is what they crave. This is the friend who never fails to have the latest ‘meltdown’ episode whenever we meet them!
To this end, how can we ensure Cherophobia does not have its deathly grip on us? There are a few useful ideas as shared by the Exploring Your Mind website.
1. Identify if we have self-destructive habits.
Do we immediately downplay any happy moments without giving ourselves permission to enjoy it? If we do, reflect on why it is difficult for us to be happy. Start examining the thoughts that are in our heads. Are we afraid that something unwanted will happen? Did something happen in the past that has caused us to have this irrational fear? Also, understand that it is okay to experience feelings of disappointment if something does not work out. Therefore, to overcome the fear of being happy, we must learn how to overcome the fear of disappointment as well.
2. Don’t make worrying our default state of thinking.
We may think that the act of worrying is necessary and prevents us from being exposed to danger, but it is counterproductive. While we know that “prevention is the best medicine,” let’s not take it to the extreme!
Some people also feel that in order to be ‘successful’, they must be in a constantly stressed out mode and filled with anxiety. To have any form of enjoyment would seem frivolous and a distraction to the main goal. This misguided thinking might be caused by articles from certain entrepreneurs that proudly claim that they have never allowed themselves to take a break. This means not taking any holidays and proudly proclaiming that sleeping is only for the dead. Some even go on to say that they don’t believe in having any fun because pain and struggle is the only path to glory. But truly, that is not the way to live a life!
All work and no play will leave us feeling bitter, burnt out and resentful. To make things worse, we could potentially suffer a nervous breakdown which has damaging effects. Perfectionists often feel that they need to be continuously improving themselves or they are letting themselves down. However, if we are always feeling exhausted and anxious, it is necessary for us to pause and reflect on our current situation.
3. Feel as happy as you want to.
Do not think that we do not deserve to be happy. We must have kindness and compassion for ourselves. Don’t be uncomfortable with being unhappy. If we are unhappy, the unhappiness will spread to everyone closest to us.
In short, we are not expected to be happy all the time, but when the moment of happiness comes, we should give ourselves a chance to be at peace with it. Do not shy away from it or chase it away from the door as if it is an unwanted stranger. It is every person’s right to be happy and we should believe it is ours too.