Why We’re Scared of Being Happy (And How to Get Over It)

Recently, I’ve started waking up with a feeling that makes me incredibly uncomfortable.

It’s a strange feeling, a foreign one, and I’m more than a little nervous to be having it.

That feeling is something I suspect might be called contentment.

And apparently, I’m not quite sure what to do with it.


One of These Things Just Doesn’t Belong Here

After a year and a half freelancing full-time, several serious breakdowns and a heck of a lot of rebuilding, I’m finally at a place where I can almost dare to trot out the “H” word when it comes to my general mindset on a day-to-day basis.

Things aren’t perfect, mind you. My husband’s a year and a half into waiting for disability benefits that could take 5+ years to come through, we’ve racked up more debt than I care to admit as a result, and there are still days I wonder how long it’ll take the rest of the world to realize I’m a fraud masquerading as a professional writer (hello, Imposter Syndrome).

But on the whole, if I’m looking at it objectively, most days I find myself not really minding the things I’m doing with my time. My clients are awesome, I get paid to write (from home, whensoever I please), I wake up most mornings feeling pretty “alright” with my overall situation, and I go to bed most nights feeling productively satisfied with what I’ve accomplished.

I’m almost — if this is what the word means, because I never really got clear on it — kind of happy.

And that scares me shitless.

I don’t know what to do with this new feeling. I’m used to struggling and fighting and enduring and scrambling, and somehow the lack of all that tension makes me feel as though I’m getting away with something I shouldn’t be — I’m not challenging myself enough, I don’t deserve it, it can’t last, something horrible must be waiting just around the corner to pay me back for this brief moment of calm… and so on and so forth. You may know the drill.

Happiness, for any extended period of time, makes me want to knock on a wooden surface, then verify that it is in fact a wooden surface because a decent amount of our furniture is prefab, faux-wood stuff and this isn’t the sort of thing I want to take chances on.


I Know I’m Not Alone

Ask anyone you come across throughout your day how they’re doing, and their answer is likely to range from “Fine” to “Hanging in there.”

Very rarely does anyone answer, “Amazing!” or “Best I’ve been all year!” because that’s just not how people are supposed to answer that question. Unless we’ve recently gotten engaged, received a clear bill of health after a long bout with illness, or experienced some other life-altering event, we tend to downplay our answer to the “How are you?” question because… Well, why do we do it?

Because we don’t want to sound like we’re bragging?

Because we think upbeat people are annoying?

Because we don’t think whatever happiness we’re currently enjoying is big enough to be worth celebrating?

Any and all of the above. We’re not, as a neurotic and overly stimulated society, used to the concept of being OK with where we are and freely admitting that.

And that’s just plain sad.


Why We’re Scared of Being Happy

As a culture, we’re obsessed with the idea of the pursuit of happiness. It’s why life coaches and self-help sections and Oprah exist and rake in millions. It’s why you decided to read this post. It’s important enough the Founding Fathers saw fit to include it as one of our inalienable rights when they drew up the Constitution.

But for most of us, while we pay lip service to the pursuit of happiness, we have no fucking clue what to do with happiness if it actually comes our way.

If we find ourselves suspecting we’ve fallen into a state of being happy, we activate all sorts of avoidance techniques and superstitious invocations to hedge our bets and protect ourselves. We doubt our happiness, second-guess our happiness and try not to think too much about how happy we might be in case the Powers That Be are waiting for some silly chump to enjoy himself too thoroughly and need to be taken down a peg.

For something we’re seemingly so obsessed with obtaining, we’re awfully bad at actually possessing it. I suspect there are several reasons why this is:


1. We Don’t Think We Deserve It

Many of us are our own worst critics. (Raising my own hand here.)

We think we’re challenging ourselves, humbling ourselves or trying to better ourselves by being so tough on ourselves, but in reality, we’re just treating ourselves like big, bad bullies.

We would never speak to a friend or loved one — or even a random stranger on the street — the way we talk to ourselves: Why the hell did I just do that? I’m such an idiot. No wonder he dumped me. I screw everything up. Nothing I ever do is good enough.

Too many of us have a nasty, self-defeating dialogue like this running through our heads at all times, reminding us why we’re not pretty enough, brilliant enough, smart enough or successful enough compared to everyone else in the world. And it’s really hard to allow yourself to be happy, over anything, when you’re only used to seeing yourself in such a critical light.

You get an awesome new boyfriend or girlfriend, and you immediately start sabotaging the relationship because they seem way too good for you.

You get that big account at work, and you spend so much time second-guessing your ability to handle it, you eventually screw it up just like you suspected you would.

You lose 20 pounds, but while all your friends are complimenting how great you look, all you can see is those extra five pounds you still haven’t lost yet.

But beating yourself up won’t solve anything — whether you really do have something to address or you’re just being hard on yourself. We need to start learning to love ourselves the way we love the people who matter in our lives — by being patient, caring, empathetic, and forgiving. By celebrating the wins and being supportive during the losses. By being gentle. By chilling the fuck out.


2. We Feel Guilty for Having It

This can be a direct result of the above, or a separate factor in itself. We fall into this trap every time we answer “How are you?” with a humble little shrug.

We feel bad about advertising our own happiness because there’s this collective notion that it’s rude to be happy when others are not.

But happiness is not a zero-sum game. It’s not like there’s only a certain amount of it in the world, and if you take too much, someone else will get none. Anyone who views your happiness as a direct affront to theirs is someone who is not willing to be in control of obtaining their own happiness.

Of course, if your coworker is going through a rough divorce, you probably shouldn’t spend all lunch break raving about your awesome new s.o. If you’re up for a promotion against someone else and you wind up getting it, you don’t want to crow over the person who lost out. There are times when you need to be sensitive to other people’s feelings, especially when the thing that makes you happy is something that will pointedly make the other person unhappy.

But that doesn’t mean you should feel bad about that thing making you happy. And it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy that thing to the fullest without rubbing it in another person’s face. You have a right to be happy. You’re not hurting anyone unless they’re looking for ways to be hurt, and if they are, that’s not your fault.


3. We Think Struggling Is More Admirable

Entrepreneurs and hustlers will nod along with this one with particular vigor, but really, anyone who lives in modern Western society should relate.

In our up-by-the-bootstraps, Get Things Done society, we tend to glorify the dignity and discipline of the struggle. We admire fighters, workaholics, people who overcome insurmountable odds. We respect those who give it all in the shittiest of circumstances. We worship the cult of busy. We think success equals always striving for the next bigger, better thing.

The idea of being generally at peace with our world and our circumstances feels wrong to us — like we’re being shallow, lazy or unrealistic about the unfairness and turmoil in the world. Like we’re taking the easy way out. Like we don’t have a fire under our ass.

But there’s a lot more to being a successful human being than being stressed out and exhausted all the time, humble-bragging about how stressed out and exhausted we are as if that somehow means we’re doing this whole “life” thing better than everyone else.

Work/life balance is such a popular buzz topic because we’ve begun to realize that all work and no play makes us miserable little Something-Somethings. More people are getting back to the earth, back to the home, back to family because they realize all this busy-ness and chasing after things isn’t making us any happier. We’re starting to suspect life can be easier than we’re used to making it.


4. We’re Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop

I’m especially good at falling into this crappy mindset.

I make an awesome new friend, and I wonder how long it will take before the shine wears off and we’re both bored with each other.

The husband and I get through the month with a little cash left over, and I wonder how long it will be before something big breaks and needs pricey repairs.

I secure a new project I’m excited about, and I remember all the times past projects have fizzled or clients have turned out to be nightmares.

I am always in a state of bracing for the next big disaster, especially when something good has just happened. I tell myself it’s because life will throw me for a loop if I’m not prepared for the worst. I tell myself happiness is temporary. I most likely also suspect I don’t really deserve any good thing that’s come my way, and sooner or later life will realize its mistake and over-correct for it.

But life doesn’t have to be hard-knock. Does it naturally have ups and downs? Yes, but that doesn’t mean you need to chase an “up” with an immediate welcoming party for a “down.” Why not celebrate the good while you’ve got it, knowing it’s made all the more precious by the fact that sometimes things are not so good?


How to Get Over It

So, the ultimate question at the end of all this becomes: How do we stop being scared of being happy? How do we learn to get comfortable with happiness — to welcome it, even — instead of squirming and looking over our shoulder like we’ve just put on a wool sweater with a big, scratchy collar tag?

Here are some good places to start:


1. Redefine What “Happiness” Means to You

Many of us have in image of “happiness” in our minds that’s akin to a commercial for a new miracle drug (or yogurt, which is inexplicably advertised as creating the same sort of euphoria as a miracle drug): people romping through fields, holding hands in bathtubs on the beach, smiling like morons as they ride double-bicycles in matching cardigans.

But this isn’t what real happiness looks like in action.

Real happiness is a quiet, subtle thing. It’s not an abundance of excitement or elation; that’s joy, and it’s a fleeting high that don’t come all the time (think: weddings, athletic triumphs, etc.). Joy is vibrant and noisy and impossible to ignore. Happiness is softer. If you don’t look carefully, you might not even notice it.

Happiness is waking up in the morning ready to face the day and going to bed that night happy with what you’ve done with it.

It’s the absence of sorrow, anger, frustration and resentment.

It’s the feeling you get curled up on the couch with your significant other watching some silly TV show in your PJs — not the kind of thing that would qualify as “spectacular,” but you know in your bones there’s nothing else you’d rather be doing in the whole wide world right now.

Real happiness is easy to overlook or take for granted if you’re not prepared to see it. So learn to start watching for it, then cherish the heck out of it when you notice it.


2. Stop Feeling Bad About Being Happy

David Cain (whose blog you must read if you’re interested in living a mindful life) dropped a wonderful line a while back that’s stuck with me ever since. He was talking about the way we feel guilty for wanting to find a job we love when so many people would be happy just to have a job at all (can you relate?).

I don’t remember the exact wording of his response to this feeling, but it was something like, “That makes about as much sense as neglecting your health because there are people in the world who don’t have access to healthcare.”

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: There’s nothing “take one for the team” about being miserable just because other people are miserable.

Should you do everything realistically in your power to help the less fortunate? Absolutely.

Should you be mad-crazy grateful for the blessings you have in your own life? Damn skippy you should.

But should you ever restrict your own happiness out of “respect” for those who are, unfortunately, unhappy right now? Hell to the no. That would just be stupid.

Limiting your own happiness does nothing to help those less fortunate than you. If anything, holding yourself back from a life you love prevents you from giving your best to the world — including those who are struggling or in need. You owe it to the world (not to mention yourself) to live the best life you possibly can. Your playing small helps no one.


3. Accept That You Do Deserve Happiness (No Matter What You Think)

No one is perfect. We all have flaws. We’ve all made mistakes, some of them whoppers. We’ve all had moments in which we haven’t been the best human being we could have been.

But no mistake you’ve made or weakness you have is unspeakable enough to warrant a life sentence without happiness. In fact — and here’s where the mind-bending part comes in — embracing the happiness in life can actually make you a better person in a way doing lifelong penance never could.

Happiness opens your heart. It makes you generous. It breeds empathy, charity and a host of other awesome things that lead to positive repercussions in the world around us. And whether or not you think you deserve happiness (which you do), doesn’t the world deserve the best you can give it?


4. Realize Doomsdaying Doesn’t Accomplish Anything

My crazy doctor has a great line he delivers whenever I start spinning out on “What if” scenarios about a situation: What does this do to help you?

I can kid myself into believing that bracing for the other shoe to drop will somehow prepare me better in the event of said shoe-dropping — but in reality, all it does is steal the joy from the present moment on behalf of worst-case scenarios that might not ever happen.

Worrying over a grim future that may or may not come is not being proactive; it’s being stingy with the present you have for certain right here in front of you. It’s a waste of energy and heart. It’s the least productive way to spend your time.


5. Know That Choosing Happiness Is a Bold, Brave Decision

In a world where our most common form of self-expression is complaining, where “meh” is the dominant attitude and the stories that make headlines are the depressing, fear-mongering ones, making the deliberate decision to choose happiness is a wildly brazen act. (Tweet!)

It takes courage to believe in a better situation. It takes strength to embrace the positives in spite of the negatives. It takes determination to continue to pursue the things that will lift you up when it’s so much easier to just fall victim to the things that drag you down.

It also pays off way better than the alternative, which is living a stunted, closed-off life full of monsters in the closest and enemies at the door.

Optimists have power.

Positivity is a muscle.

Happiness is one of the fiercest things you can strive for, because it takes a lot of guts to both go after it and to live gracefully with it when you have it.

I’m trying to work on my own ability to let happiness live in my life. It’s not easy; I have years of second-guessing it to overcome, but I think it’s time I start reprogramming myself.

Because waking up without dread each morning? It’s kind of a nice feeling, and I’d like it to stick around for a while.

How are you when it comes to accepting happiness in your life? Have you struggled with any of these mindsets? (And, more importantly, what can you do to get over them?)

Image:  kelsey hannah. / Flickr


Never miss a post! Sign up here and get a free copy of Your Guide to Calling It Quits.

  • Nicely written. That is all.

  • Cordelia’s Mom

    Wonderful, insightful post. How did you get so smart? You sure didn’t get that from me! 🙂

    • Some of it must be genetic…

  • r-evove

    Thank you for the awesome perspective Kelly!
    You are so correct that we accept and even glamorize struggling.
    Life is short and we have the ability to choose happiness. Happiness does contribute to a better attitude and if the effort put in, success!
    Thank you for the thoughts and keep up the happiness!

    • You hit on precisely the right word: choose. Happiness is a choice. It’s a deliberate approach to life. It takes some practice, but the more you try at it, the easier you find to “find” it.

      • r-evove

        Indeed – it took many years to figure that out, but knowing I have the choice in both action(s) and belief it has made all the difference!

  • andrew

    I would like to add: 6) As much as possible, live in the present moment. When our minds look to the future, as they constantly do, there will be a constant feeling of waiting for the other shoe to drop. Ironically this thought is due to the mind reaching into the past to prove the point that one is a piece of crap, not deserving of happiness. When we are present we can feel joy without the need to prove it wrong or be afraid of losing our happy place.

    Many people read something like this and think “what are you talking about? being mindful is difficult.” I think torturing the shit out of yourself is difficult. When I am present, everything is relaxed. When I am worrying about my re-entry into the freelance world I need some Tums.

    • Yes! So important. And so spot-on about “difficulty” — whatever mindset you choose to adopt, you’ll have to work at it to maintain it. Me personally, I’d rather work towards one that gives me awesome things as opposed to crap. Life will still be life no matter how you approach it, so it all comes down to how you want to treat yourSELF.

  • Thanks for this one, Cordelia!

    I find myself resisting “going all the way” (no not like that!) so that there’s always a little more/extra “just in case”. Today specifically: dressing warm enough, even in the house (it’s 0 out in Chicago!) or using the last (fill in the blank). Maybe it’s about a mindset of Lack?

    These re-framings will definitely help me get beyond it!

    Bright Blessings ~

    • Spot on. When it comes to happiness, an abundance mindset is definitely better than a lack mindset. Happiness attracts more happiness. Not to get all The Secret-y on you. 🙂

      • 2 years down the road…I don’t mind the woo-woo ATall! I’m actually making progress on these questions! Like Georgette says below, it’s such a long, rocky path up and out of the “I don’t/I can’t deserve this” rut! (I feel a new post bubbling up, here!)
        Love this – Thanks for all the reminders!

        Bright Blessings to you, on your new climb, too. <3

  • A. Gonz

    This is exactly how I feel ALL the time. When things are actually going right, I get scared and nervous. You put into words what I’ve been trying to convey for so long. Glad I’m not the only crazy one! HA!

    • Nope, that you’re not. 🙂 So many people fall into these traps — and it’s time we learn how to stop!

      • Mikey Villareal

        I’m going through this now, i feel like there’s no open doors anymore i want to get some help but I’m to embarrassed i want to be happy with my ex gf we have had our issues because if all this, I’m afraid to jump and make that leap of happiness with her I’m so scared, now because of the actions ive displayed, she’s pulled herself away…i can’t keep living like this

  • Georgette Magrady

    PS Sorry so long. And oops! I called you Cornelia I did not mean to.

  • Thomas

    Wow amazing article, i thought i was the only one out their. You are a genius!

  • Mark Lamb

    That’s ace. Thank you very much indeed.

  • Diane Fay

    Happiness is often circumstantial and joy comes from God. Happiness is also so closely tied to gratitude and often happiness is a daily choice.

  • Giuseppe

    Just for the record, I absolutely, hardly EVER make public comments online, but I just have to comment on this article (even though it’s five years old). This really was exactly what I needed to hear at this point in my life (age 23). I am often anxious and definitely exhibit many symptoms of cherophobia, where I’m afraid or averse to feeling real happiness (a remnant from college, I think) for whatever reason. I really wanted to be convinced by someone else that the way I was thinking was just not productive. Well, you pretty much did it. I also know that I am a very cynical person and don’t usually buy into the mind positivity stuff, but even stubborn ol’ me couldn’t find anything to rebut here. Kudos for that. Anyway, thanks for writing it, it helped me get past some mental barriers I had. Glad I stumbled on this site.

  • M Svk

    I am thankful to you and God for having crossed my sight on google search. I struggle to be happy. I struggle to laugh without fearing. I struggle to do things I like doing. Well thankyou. and I really hope you get all the bravery you deserve. Because you hit the nail on the head about how I feel.