A Surprising Feature of the Human Condition: Do you suffer from “Fear of Happiness”?

I guess that most people would be willing to agree to a statement such as: “All humans strive to be happy.” But it turns out that might be wrong.

While most people certainly try to experience happiness (in all its different facets) most of the time, there are some individuals out there that consciously and unconsciously try to avoid being happy – at least when it happens too often and/or too long. Here´s the story…

A lot of scientists in the field of psychology readily admit that their research started out as me-search – that´s investigating a topic which is highly relevant to one´s own life. Now, I´m not a scientist (by profession), but that doesn´t keep me from conducting my own (quick and dirty) research projects on the side. And more often than not, those projects certainly qualify as me-search.

General Consent

Late in 2012, I published a book here in Germany (Lizenz zur Zufriedenheit = License for Satisfaction) that is based on a coaching study I conducted in 2009/10. Back then, I tried to measure certain “meta-themes” that frequently seemed to be perceivable with my coaching clients. I created and validated a questionnaire to assess the occurrence of these themes and then correlated those numbers (among other things) with Ed Diener´s Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS).

There was one theme that displayed a rather strong correlation with life satisfaction (.49) and it also turned out to be the strongest predictor in a step-wise regression model. Back then, I called this factor general consent. Here are two of the items I used (roughly translated from German):

  • At times I believe that somehow, I am not allowed to reach my life goals.
  • At times I believe that somehow, I am not granted to reach my life goals.

Satisfaction with life of those people who scored high on these questions was severely diminished on average – and they also earned significantly less money. That´s why – in the end – I chose “License for Satisfaction” to be the book´s title. Some people seem to have an internal permission to reach their life goals, to be happy, and satisfied. Basically, they are free to do whatever they want. With other folks, unfortunately that´s not the case.

Introducing Self-Permission

I took up the subject once again when it was time to pick a topic for my capstone thesis (Introducing Self-Permission: Theoretical Framework and Proposed Assessment) while being enrolled in the Master of Applied Positive Psychology program at Penn. I decided to explore the idea of general consent in more detail, and to ground it in extant research. I tried to explain how it is similar and/or different from well-established psychological constructs such as self-efficacy, self-determination, optimism, self-esteem, self-acceptance, mal-adaptive schemata, and self-handicapping (among other concepts) – renaming it self-permission throughout the process. This in an overview of the nomological net I set out to explore in the paper:

Self_Permission.jpg

To finish, I proposed a scale to measure a person´s level of self-permission – but I did not have the time to carry out an actual empirical study.* Here are a few sample items (some of them are framed in positive way, some point towards the other end of the continuum):

I do not have the permission to reach my life goals.

I have full approval to live a life full of purpose.

I am not granted to live up to my full potential.

I deserve to be everything that I can possibly be.

I do not have full endorsement to reach my life goals.

I have full consent to make the best out of my life.

Fear of Happiness

Sad_Dog_smallFor some reason, while doing literature research back then, I did not stumble upon a very much related strand of research: In 2012, Paul Gilbert (Kingsway Hospital, Derby, UK) and colleagues published a paper where they explore a concept by the name of fear of happiness. Consistent with my own ideas, they conjecture that some individuals experience a kind of aversive conditioning with regards to positive emotional states such as contentment and happiness during childhood – where, e.g., a child is punished for being (overly) happy, or, in a milder version, where positive states are treated with indifference, e.g., because one or both parents are severely depressed (…and this is the point where research turns into me-search…).

Gilbert et al. proposed and validated a scale in order to measure fear of happiness. Here are some of their items:

Good feelings never last.

I feel I don’t deserve to be happy.

I don’t let myself get too excited about positive things or achievements.

When you are happy you can never be sure that something is not going to hit you out of the blue.

Now, here is the surprising and, to me, rather shocking news: When the researchers gave that questionnaire to a sample of about 200 people and calculated the correlation between their fear of happiness scale and an established measure of depressive symptoms, that number turned out to be .70. That´s a huge association. Here´s part of their conclusion:

[…] We were surprised by the size of the correlation at r = .70, this indicates that clinicians probably need to explore fears of happiness in detail and in terms of enhancing well-being. We should not assume that ‘challenging negative thoughts’ or increasing positive behaviours necessarily are experienced positively. […] Some depressed people really do struggle with allowing themselves to experience positive emotions in general and can have a ‘taboo on pleasure’.

I´m excited to see how, in the future, Positive Psychology might assist in helping people with this special “condition”. I sense that this will be about creating a learning process.

Learning to allow oneself to be happy, maybe even to “bear the pain” of being happy – until it hurts no more and becomes something completely normal, just the way it was meant to be.

 

*If you are a psychology researcher in search of an interesting research topic: I would still love to see an empirical study on self-permission come to life. In my current life as a manager, I do not have the capacity to carry out a full-blown research study – but I´d be glad to provide all of my theoretical spadework, and I could even provide funding to generate a sample via, e.g., mechanical turk. Please reach out if you´re interested…

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