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When Depression Leaves You Fearing Happiness

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There it is. That little pang. It exhilarates me. It terrifies me. What is it? Anticipation? Excitement? Contentment? “Good grief,” I ask myself, “is that happiness?”

But far from feeling, well, “happy” about the prospect of feeling “happy,” I feel uncomfortable, I feel guarded.

“It won’t last,” I think to myself. “

“Good things are always followed by bad.”

“Perhaps I should just avoid it, and save myself the inevitable disappointment when things go downhill.”

“No thank you, I think I’ll just go over here and wrap myself back up in my cozy blanket of melancholia.”

And so back to the deceitful “safety” of emotional languor I go, at once both perfectly able to rationalize how foolish my thought pattern is, whilst simultaneously finding the force of habit too tough to break.

It turns out, I’m not alone. The “fear of happiness” (or “cherophobia”) is a phenomenon that transcends national and cultural boundaries. And yet, there seems to be less consensus on precisely what “happiness” is, let alone how one might put those fears aside in pursuit of it.

“European Americans typically want to feel peppy emotions like excitement and cheerfulness, while Hong Kong Chinese prefer calmer states like peace and serenity,” says researcher William Tov speaking to the University of Berkeley’s “Greater Good” magazine. “Even the factors that promote happiness may be different, as self-esteem is more important to our feelings of life satisfaction in the West than in East Asia.”

Tov points to universal factors that seem to be vital to any concept of happiness. “Income matters. Economic wealth matters across cultures” he says. “In every culture, wealthier people generally are happier than less wealthy people.”

We are all affected by the world outside: the world beyond our minds. Its joys and sorrows, its gains and losses, are constantly influencing the ebbs and flows of our mood.

The amount of control a person has over these external factors, such as their wealth and life chances in general, is debatable to say the least.

The Stoics of ancient Greece believed the answer was not to try to control the things that happen to us, but rather, control the way we think about those things. Easy for an aristocratic philosopher to say, perhaps.

Seventeenth century philosopher Blaise Pascal, thought happiness is achieved by distracting ourselves from the difficulties in life. “Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things,” he wrote.

For those with mental health problems, the world inside — the world of our minds — complicates matters. Does human reason bless us with the ability to navigate our way to a happier life, or thwart us by being part of the problem it pretends to solve?

Happiness can threaten to delegitimize internal struggles to date. In The Mighty article, “5 Ways People Internalize Mental Health Stigma,” I see a quote by Aether C. which sums it up perfectly:

“I can’t have one good day without immediately believing I’ve been faking it forever.”

Operating in parallel universes, the external world may be full of love and laughter, success and good luck, whilst the world inside, the internal world, feels like it is overflowing with sorrow and angst, guilt and self-doubt.

We may go through the motions of lifestyle changes, therapies and medication, but if we feel scared and unworthy of the place we are ultimately trying to get to, then what hope do we have of ever reaching it?

No matter how it is defined, if “happiness” is imagined as a one-dimensional state of perfection, then it’s hardly surprising it’s a bit intimidating. No wonder I worry by reaching such blissful tranquillity I will be undermining the validity of my struggles to date. No wonder on gaining this precious gift, I fear the only thing left to do will be to lose it. And no wonder the stark contrast between this alien paradise and my state of mind at the time — depressingly downcast whilst comfortingly familiar — makes me wonder whether I’m better with the devil I know than the devil I don’t.

Because I think the danger is that by fetishizing it, we make happiness as intimidating as it is unreachable.

Perhaps I’d start to overcome my fears if I recognized a “happy life” is perfectly compatible with the recurring sadness, fear and worry of being human. As challenging as they are at the time, the wisdom we garner through our struggles can strengthen and enrich our character in the longer term.

If I accept my mood will constantly switch between highs and lows, then perhaps I find a “happy life” in the spaces in between, where the natural cycle of emotions isn’t pulling me in one direction or another, when I’m spending quality time with my family, when I’m looking out at a beautiful view, when I’m down the pub with my friends.

Because however I define it and however I reach it, as imperfectly finite as it will be, and regardless of what help I need to get there, this emotional resting place should be somewhere I am pleased to call: “happiness.”

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis in the UK and Ireland, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Other international crisis helplines can be found at Befrienders Worldwide.

You can follow Will on Twitter at @wsadlertweets.

Unsplash image by Scott Webb

Originally published: May 22, 2021
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