In our society, happiness is often considered one of the defining factors of a successful life. More so than a booming career or a beautiful house in a nice neighborhood, most people in Western culture value happiness above anything else.
The self-help industry was practically built on this belief. There are hundreds if not thousands of books all claiming to teach the secret to happiness. People will pay thousands of dollars in the hopes of finding happiness, and yet, for all the value that we place on happiness, there are many people—indeed, entire cultures—that feel very differently towards the idea.
Cherophobia is the technical term for an aversion to happiness. It means the fear of gaiety, joyfulness, or rejoicing. This is different than depression or anxiety or any other mental state that comes from a lack of happiness. Cherophobia refers to an active avoidance of happiness.
As such, although the term “cherophobia” sounds clinically frightening, it really just means a different cultural mindset towards happiness. There are many reasons why a person might feel an aversion to happiness. The old adage “What goes up must come down” certainly comes to mind. In other words, some people feel that experiencing too much joy will ultimately cause an equal but inverse reaction: too much sadness.
There are also notable differences in how various cultures view happiness. Moshen Joshanloo and Dan Weijers published an article in the Journal of Happiness Studies that examined these cultural differences. One of the most important findings of their research is that individuals from different cultures have different values.
It seems obvious on a surface level, but when those differences in values completely overthrow what many in Western culture hold to be fundamentally true—happiness above all—Joshanloo’s and Weijers’ findings are surprising.
“One of these cultural phenomena is that, for some individuals, happiness is not a supreme value,” Joshanloo and Weijers argue.
Their study points out that cultures that do not value happiness as highly as Western cultures often believe that that too much joy will inevitably bring sorrow, or sometimes they believe that happiness is a shallow emotion that diminishes a person’s seriousness in his/her faith.
Certain cultures, “such as Iran and neighboring countries, worry that their peers…or [a] supernatural deity might resent their happiness and that they will eventually suffer…severe consequences.”
In another study published in the Journal of Happiness in 2004, researchers found that participants from East Asian cultures were very concerned about how their expressions of happiness affected those around them. In other words, expressing joy and gaiety over a personal achievement can actually make someone else feel bad for not having achieved the same thing.
Even beyond the experience and expression of happiness, some cultures believe that the pursuit of happiness can be harmful to the self an others. This sentiment is quite succinctly surmised in this Buddhist text: “And with every desire for happiness, out of delusion they destroy their own well-being as if it were their enemy.”