Cherophobia. No, it’s not the fear of aged pop sensation Cher; although, some people might find that sentiment warranted. It is, in fact, the formal name of a social anxiety or fear of happiness or joy. While many of us may relate to this feeling from time to time—perhaps by worrying about being too excited about a romantic prospect or a potential job opportunity for fear of jinxing it—the fear of feeling happy is a serious issue for many people.
An article posted by TV personality psychotherapist Nicole McCance last year recounts her experience with patients she describes as too afraid to feel happy for fear that something tragic will occur. According to her observations, people only allowed themselves to feel happiness momentarily because it was just too uncomfortable to sustain.
In most cases, the fear of feeling happy stems from past experiences, and not necessarily from having a traumatic childhood; though that is a common trend. Traumatic experiences can be caused by associations as well. Perhaps everything in life was going well, like you got straight A’s one school year, and then suddenly, when you returned home for the summer, something truly terrible happened, like your dog died. Though completely unrelated events, it would be, and oftentimes is, easy to associate something genuinely worthy of evoking happiness with something extremely painful. Getting rid of such associations can be extremely difficult.
Negative associations are not the only road block to happiness. Sometimes the fear can stem from feelings of unworthiness, of feeling like for one reason or another, you don’t deserve to experience true happiness and will never be lucky enough to know the feeling. Guilt could be one explanation, but other underlying behavioral health issues could just as easily contribute to this state of mind. According to an article in Scientific American, a 2012 study conducted by Paul Gilbert of Kingsway Hospital and his colleagues in England found a high correlation between depression and fear of happiness. It should be no surprise that having negative thoughts about oneself and life in general can prevent one from wanting to feel or feeling there’s worth in having any positive emotions, let alone happiness.
Professionals from other fields, such as author, composer and performer Bob Baran have published works that suggest that this fear of happiness can stem from deeper fears of losing the things that are most important to us.
The same article discusses a study published in the Journal of Cross Cultural Psychology in Oct., 2013 in which a graduate student from New Zealand developed a “Fear of Happiness Scale.” Participants in the study disclosed their level of agreement with certain notions, including those that suggest that too much joy and happiness can directly lead to tragedy. The scale was reliable across 14 different cultures, and participants from various countries demonstrated that mindset.
Researchers have been looking for methods to combat this sometimes toxic mental paradigm. McCance offered a few helpful tools that any person struggling to escape this mental rut can employ. First, one can attempt to learn the root cause of one’s unhappiness. Finding the solution to one’s problems could build the bridge to happiness. Second, practice makes perfect. One’s brain won’t be used to feeling happy for extended periods of time, so sometimes it’s best to force the feeling. When it starts to become difficult, stop, and try to reconnect with the “happy place” you are searching for. This, of course, does not mean one should totally ignore moments when feeling unhappy is completely warranted. After all, a good cry is good for the soul. Third, use your body. Whether it’s through rigorous exercise to raise your endorphins, some peaceful yoga, or just a few minutes of deep breathing, letting your mind rest and physiologically attenuate itself to happier place could do just the trick.
Finally, I personally suggest that you open your mind to the possibilities of how different your life could be if you just let yourself be happy. Realize that no one can be perfect and no one expects you to be.
Ade Ilesanmi was born in Dallas, TX to two Nigerian-born parents. She was raised for most of her life in NC but also spent a few years in Nigeria with extended family as a young child. She is currently a junior at Wake Forest University and is a pre-med biology major with a strong interest in mental health, health communication, and mass communication. She enjoys writing and blogging and eating snacks off of her chest while she watches her favorite shows on her laptop. She looks forward to finding a lot of excuses to travel during her adult years.