Are you afraid of happiness? Take a quiz to find out.

Failing at happiness-.

Are you afraid of happiness? Take a quiz to find out.

Underlying much of the traditional research on happiness is the assumption that personal happiness is a valuable goal that should be actively pursued: HAPPINESS is one of the most important values guiding individuals’ lives, if not the most important. UNHAPPINESS on the other hand is to be prevented, avoided or eliminated.

The literature is littered with quotes on this quest,

…every human being, no matter what culture, age, educational attainment, or degree of physical and mental development, wants to be happy. It is the common end to which all humans strive.

…failure to achieve happiness… can be seen as one of the greatest failures a person can experience.

I guess most of us would agree that happiness is a basic emotional need. Studies confirm most people highly value personal happiness. They think about it at least once a day.

Many people look to self-help, coaching or therapy on their quest for paths to happiness.

Turning happiness research on its head: fear of happiness.

Recently, when flicking through SciAmMind over my morning coffee, I came across an interesting report. Studies have found that it’s not UNHAPPINESS that’s the problem, but feeling HAPPY that’s scary.

Some people (and if you think about it, you could probably identify a few) actively avoid positive emotions.

People fear positive emotions for many reasons. They may feel unworthy or believe good fortune leads to a fall.

One researcher writes,

“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 …It is not uncommon for people to fear that if they are happy about something, it will be taken away.”

A second research team (lead by a kiwi!) suggest that recognising this fear of happiness and targeting it with therapy may be a critical first step in treating some mental health disorders.

Take the quiz: Are you afraid of happiness?

Mohsen Joshanloo, the psychology graduate student at Victoria University of Wellington over in my homeland of Aotearoa, and first author on the paper published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, developed a ‘Fear of Happiness Scale’ as part of the investigation.

Here’s Mohsen’s quiz:

Read each of the following statements, and score each from 0-4 ( where 0 is ‘not at all like me’ and 4 is ‘extremely like me’).

  1. I am frightened to let myself become too happy.
  2. I find it difficult to trust positive feelings.
  3. My good feelings never last.
  4. I feel I don’t deserve to be happy.
  5. Feeling good makes me uncomfortable.
  6. I don’t let myself get too excited about positive things or achievements.
  7. When you’re happy, you can never be sure that something is not going to hit you out of the blue.
  8. I worry that if I feel good something bad could happen.
  9. If you feel good, you let your guard down.

If your total score is above 20 this may indicate a higher fear of happiness than average.

It’s worth noting the study found this scale to be reliable in 14 different cultures.

Avoiding happiness? How mindfulness can help.

Professor Paul Gilbert, head of the Mental Health Research Unit at the University of Derby, published similar research in 2012. He suggests that an aversion to positive emotions often coexists with mental health problems. Patients with major depressive disorder, for example, avoid and suppress negative and positive emotions more than healthy people.

According to Professor 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.”

Gilbert says that exposure therapy or mindfulness techniques show people how people 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.

In reading around this topic, I came across the following words from a social worker, Melody Baker, who puts it so very eloquently:

“It seems to me that a person who fears happiness does not actually fear the feeling of being happy… Rather, that person fears what happiness will bring with it. For some, happiness brings with it a fear of losing the things in life that have brought about that happiness.”


Gilbert et al 2012, Fears of compassion and happiness in relation to alexithymia, mindfulness, and self-criticism. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice (2012), 85, 374–390.  Joshanloo et al 2014, Cross-Cultural Validation of Fear of Happiness Scale Across 14 National GroupsJournal of Cross-Cultural Psychology (published online 2013).  Scientific American Mind (January/February 2014), 25, 18  Published online: 19 December 2013, doi:10.1038/scientificamericanmind0114-18a.

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  1. sandi on January 30, 2015 at 2:16 am

    In the past as early as I can remember, everything has always been taken from me. I often am viewed a wonder woman because of all that I over came, but the fact is if there is no tragedy I don’t know what to do with myself. I am in a wonderful place in life and yet can’t shake the ,when is the ball going to drop , feeling. I get anxious and start to see myself sabotage my life with the negative I fear. I recognize this now but it took turning my world upside more than once to see it was me. Keeping myself in check is a daily thing and can be exhausting.

  2. anon on September 19, 2015 at 2:20 am

    I can remember telling my first boyfriend when I was 13 that I was feeling good and that this was a terrible thing, because I knew that if I felt good a bad mood was likely to follow. Logically speaking, this is true – you wouldn’t notice a good mood followed by another good mood, as you would experience it as the same mood – but perhaps it just shows I was a pessimist and focusing on the negative. I did however experience a time when I felt very good when I was about 20 and remember having a sudden fear that the ‘bubble’ would burst. For me, this was because the sensation I had was extremely unfamiliar – I think perhaps it was the first time I had felt it – and so it seemed unlikely that I was feeling it now and I thought I must be missing something. At the time, I thought it was a little like being in a fairytale, which made me uncomfortable. I essentially just didn’t like being in an unfamiliar place. Things did fall apart quite dramatically for me in that year and I ended up unemployed and homeless. I’m not sure it was self sabotage in the sense that I actually behaved in a way that tore my life apart, I did not change my behaviour, it was more that the panic attacks I started experiencing after my initial ‘is this real?’ thought and the resulting exhaustion meant that I found it hard to function. As a result, I lost everything I had at that time, but like I say, I’m not sure it was self sabotage in the usual interpretation of that word.

    Nowadays, I do not fear happiness – I’m not sure I ever specifically did – but what I have found is that I have never longed for it. I have always simply settled for what I have and seen happiness as a kind of cherry on top of the cake – a nice-to-have, but not essential. This almost seems like a good way to look at things on paper, because if you strive for happiness you will be unlikely to find it, but I find it keeps me from seeking pleasure at all (not expecting to find it), which probably accounts for my low mood. I know quite a few people like me. An ex-boyfriend of mine once said to me, when I suggested we do something together for ‘fun’ to reignite a lost spark: “Your problem is that you expect life to be fun”. I have never seen that man happy in all the years I’ve known him (we’re still friends), and I suspect it is his own low expectations that keep him that way.

    When you believe you will not have something, I think you learn not to want it. I don’t know if it’s always really a fear of being happy, but more an acceptance that one will not be happy. Once you’ve accepted that as ‘fact’ (quite erroneously, of course), you make it so.

  3. Lydia on May 31, 2016 at 4:29 pm

    Felling good makes me uncomfortable, because I know it’s not going to last. So I don’t trust positive feelings, I rather stay neutral

  4. jenny on May 31, 2016 at 5:39 pm

    HI there,
    I live in chronic pain and yet I am a very happy person. I scored zero on your quiz. How did this happen? I made a decision at the age of about 45 to be satisfied with every thing I have in life and I have so much to be happy for. A loving husband, good health, great relationships with my family, a roof over my head and a strong faith. Chronic pain used to make me miserable, but not anymore. I do everything in my power to manage it and then that is enough. I have a great GP and a wonderful pain specialist. I have so much to live for. For me happiness was a choice.

  5. Aunty on May 31, 2016 at 6:52 pm

    I love this post Dr McKay.

  6. Jose E Martinez on May 31, 2016 at 10:35 pm

    I’m pleased that I scored a 1 or 2 in your happiness quiz.

    I’m experiencing insomnia, and took interest in your suggestion that mindfulness can help mental stresses. I am learning how to meditate, and on occasion I achieve deep relaxation and satisfaction from meditation, but not always. I understand the benefits of abdominal breathing, and I do it as much as I can. I’ve been practicing yoga at my YMCA for over 15 years.

    Yet, I am anxious from a past separation from my wife when she enrolled at Columbia University in New York while I stayed in Texas because of my business. I know she loves me, and I love her. We tell each other, “I love you,” frequently, yet I feel afraid of REJECTION. I only wish I could learn how to overcome this fear. Maybe I need to ask total strangers silly requests/ questions only to get rejected. Maybe then I could learn to accept rejection, and move on.

    I appreciate your work.

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