Research Paper By Helena Torres
(Life Coach, PORTUGAL)
Aversion to happiness: individual and cultural core beliefs and their impact on self-sabotaging happiness and flourishing, a Coaching approach
“We all want to be happy!”. As a happiness coach, such a powerful universal statement always caused in me automatic questioning. It sounded like a universal belief, which usually not grounded in facts, but subjective perceptions.
The premise that, as humans, we all seek to maximize happiness and minimize suffering has been serving as the ground base for the work of coaches, psychologists, and even scientific research.
The first part of this research paper reviews the latest research on Fear of Happiness, concluding that happiness has a different meaning and value for different cultures and individuals and that not all cultures promote self-happiness, on the contrary. Though the culture and social script influence the fear of happiness, four central core beliefs are common to individuals across different cultures. Subsequently, the conclusion is that many people are averse to happiness. Not all of us want to be happy. Actually, some cultures propagate a certain degree of aversion to happiness because it can lead to bad outcomes.
The second part explores the correlations of fear of happiness with fear of compassion, alexithymia, mindfulness, empathy, self-criticism, depression, anxiety, and stress. It explores how the beliefs behind the fear of happiness and fear of compassion can prevent the coachee from progressing in awareness, mindfulness, and other essential dimensions frequently stimulated by coaches. It also proposes different coaching approaches to work with coachees who express aversion to happiness.
Part I: Aversion to Happiness
Mind trap alert -We all want to be happy!
Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence. Aristotle
There are two kinds of men: those who could be happy and are not, and those who search for happiness and find it not. Arab proverb
The belief that all humans are pursuing happiness has been commonly accepted, including by the scientific community. However, in his work, Mohsen Joshanloo postulates that “many individuals and cultures tend to not value certain kinds of happiness highly, and may even be averse to happiness”. In fact, for many people, some kinds and degrees of happiness should be avoided, making them “averse to happiness”.
So much averse that some people develop a fear of happiness, a “belief that happiness may have negative consequences.”. Fearing the consequences of happiness, people might avoid:
- Sharing, externalizing, or expressing happiness;
- Consciously or unconsciously diminish positive emotions in general (dampening) by focusing on the negative aspect or purposefully reducing the importance and meaning of the cause of happiness;
- and even develop cherophobia – a deep fear of happiness that shares most of other phobias symptoms, such as severe anxiety.
In 2008, Paul Gilbert proposed a Fear of Happiness Scale (F.H.S), which has been widely used or adopted by happiness researchers. The more someone resonates with affirmations such as the ones below, the more happiness averse one is and the more likely it is for this person to suffer or develop a significant fear:
- I worry that if I feel good something bad could happen
- Feeling good makes me uncomfortable
- I find it difficult to trust positive feelings
- Good feelings never last
- When you are happy you can never be sure that something is not going to hit you out of the blue
- If you feel good you let your guard down
- I don’t let myself get too excited about positive things or achievements.
- I feel I don’t deserve to be happy
- I am frightened to let myself become too happy
Therefore, for some people, pursuing happiness is less valuable or even undesirable than what one might think, for it is something frightening.
Social scripts might prevent us from being happy
Happiness is not a horse; you cannot harness it. Russian proverb
Happiness is highly subjective. The very definition of happiness has many different dimensions to it:
- Happiness, such as experiencing joy and pleasure – positive effect in psychology
- Happiness measured by the overall satisfaction with life
- Happiness is the fulfilment of one´s life purpose.
For some, the concept of happiness can have a more hedonistic flavour: sensory pleasure, experiencing good feelings and not bad feelings. For others, it is more eudaimonic. In this view, as preconized by Aristotle, happiness is the exercise of virtue, having a moral character and values such as courage, generosity, justice, friendship, and citizenship.
Western cultures are more likely to associate happiness with ideas of progress, liberalism, egalitarianism and freedom. The clearest example is the United States, where happiness is a consecrated right. Moreover, in the U.S.A., “it is believed that failing to appear happy is cause for concern”.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. United States Declaration of Independence
More progressist or more hedonistic values, characteristic of the individualistic cultures, do not settle as well in Eastern cultures. Easterns, tend to value higher the collective and the higher good for society as a whole. For many, happiness goes beyond the sphere of the self, to a broader notion of one’s role within society. For example, while Americans tend to feel pressured to be happy, East Asians feel pressured to belong and can perceive personal happiness as detrimental to social relationships (Joshanloo, 2013).
Whereas for Americans, happiness is associated with pleasure, positive experiences and personal achievement, the Japanese link happiness with social harmony, transcendence and reappraisal (Uchida, Y., &Kitayama, 2009). This social aspect of happiness is also present in Ikigai, the reason for being. This Japanese concept of well-being expresses the idea that a meaningful life is a life where a person can achieve fulfilment by working in something that one can be paid for, one is good at, one loves, but also something that the world needs.
Another example of this cultural difference, while for Americans elation, enthusiasm, and excitement are emotions associated with happiness; Hong Kong Chinese link happiness to calm and relaxation. In line with this, four studies examined the emotion regulation between Easterns and Westerns. The conclusion was that Westerns savour positive feelings more than was actively influenced by dialectical beliefs about positive emotions (Miyamoto et al., 2011).
The concept of happiness itself has a different meaning for different cultures. A meta-analysis of the definition of happiness revealed that “elements of luck and fortune are at least partially included among 80% of the nations’ understanding of happiness, just as they were in ancient China and Greece, where happiness was considered a fatalistic concept, a divine gift that had to do with luck and fortune. (In the U.S., the definition of happiness no longer includes the notion of good luck and fortune, as it once did in the 1800s.)”.
It seems that the more the social concept of happiness tends to be associated with notions of hedonistic pleasure, luck or sin (note that we have “sin taxes”), the more likely it is that the social script promotes some aversion to happiness.
Cultures where people rely less upon independent thinking, that place a higher value in harmony, more cynical, and that believe in something higher or fated, are more prone to play a script that creates an aversion to happiness.
In short, given that the concept of happiness encapsulates many values – including a notion of morality – social beliefs, conceptions and norms (social script) influence how each one of us understands and values happiness. Subsequently, it mediates individuals´ predisposition to savour happiness and positive feelings by rejoicing in them or to which degree a person chose to regulate such feelings or avoid them, dampening. As a result, it influences how each person will evaluate their one well-being or life satisfaction, a phenomenon is known as “cultural bias”.
Four Universal Underlying Beliefs preventing us from being happy
Regardless of their culture, many people experience an aversion to happiness. In their work “Aversion to Happiness Across Cultures: A Review of Where and Why People are Averse to Happiness”, Joshanloo and Weijersscan the current research on happiness and find four beliefs that can lead to people being afraid of happiness across different cultures:
- Being happy makes it more likely that bad things will happen to you.
- Being happy makes you a worse person.
- Expressing happiness is bad for you and others.
- Pursuing happiness is bad for you and others.
Each of these 4 Universal Beliefs is usually originated by other beliefs or perspectives that come from the cultural or social environment of the person, as well as more individual beliefs that emerge after repeated personal experiences or traumas.
Being happy makes it more likely that bad things will happen to you
Impermanent truly are conditioned things, having the nature of arising and passing away. Buddha
Misery is what happiness rests upon. Happiness is what misery lurks beneath. Lao Tzu
Happiness and glass break easily. Danish Proverb
Aversion to happiness can be caused by a notion, perspective or general belief that sadness follows happiness, “What goes up, must come down.” or as in the Danish proverb, “Happiness does not give, it only lends.”. Some of the origins of this idea are:
The impermanent of flicker nature of happiness
- The notion that all things return to their state of origin or balance point was widely spread in East Asian cultures by Taoism.
- For Buddhists, life is constantly changing, all things are impermanent, and we should not get attached.
- Therefore, happiness will end for sure.
The “happiness rebound” can be worse than not experiencing happiness at all. This points to:
- The suffering caused by the loss of happiness per se.
- Aversion to loss: when the fear of being devasted by losing the source of happiness is higher than the pleasure or value brought by it. It also seems to be more likely to happen for extreme happiness or pleasure.
Being happy makes you a worse person
Abandon cleverness, discard profit, and thieves and robbers will disappear. Lao Tzu
For many, being (too) happy should be avoided since it can make people less attentive, productive, creative and virtuous:
- In traditional Christianity, happiness (perceived as pleasure or wealth) is connected with sin and deviant behaviour that ultimately can arm both health as well as the soul, by drawing a person away from God. Connected to this, is a fear of decadence and a “taboo on pleasure”.
- When the happiness concept is associated with pleasure, happiness becomes linked with shallowness, foolishness, and vulgarity.
- Happiness distracts people from fighting for good causes and pursuing their goals.
- Too much happiness is dangerous because it distracts people from their surroundings, making them careless.
- Being too happy can make people lose control of their emotions and behavioural reactions leading to harmful consequences.
- Artists believe that sadness makes them more creative, and their work somehow better.
Expressing happiness is bad for you and others
Displaying riches and titles with pride brings about one’s downfall. Lao Tzu
Happiness invites envy. Latin proverb
Many cultures believe that displays of success, wealth, or happiness generate envy and invite the evil eye, which can bring misfortune. Therefore, people are advised to avoid sharing their happiness or even looking happy.
When showing off happiness, a person is also subject to a set of potential prejudices:
- Happy people tend to be perceived as less serious, as opposed to sad people who are perceived as profound and deep.
- Happiness associated with wealth brings about the suspicion that happy people might have gained their wealth at the expense of others, which is a cultural belief in Russia, for example.
- It is not right to be happy when others, especially more deserving people, are suffering.
Pursuing happiness is bad for you and others
Consider the sunlight. You may see it is near, yet if you follow it from world to world you will never catch it in your hands. Then you may describe it as far away and, lo, you will see it just before your eyes. Follow it and, behold, it escapes you; run from it and it follows you close. You can neither possess it nor have done with it. Huang Po
The stronger the link between happiness and the pursuit of personal pleasure or success, the more likely it is for a happy person to be perceived as selfish. In this belief, selfishness is associated with high egocentrism that can lead to being insensitive, indifferent towards others, or somehow neglecting other values that are important for society in general.
On another note, if the notion of happiness is too broad, too big, or too difficult, it can bring about the pursuit of something unattainable, which could only lead to frustration.
Part II – Coaching clients averse to happiness
Fear of happiness and low awareness
185 students of the University of Derby participated in a study that showed a close relationship between fear of happiness with fear of compassion, alexithymia, mindfulness, empathy, self-criticism, anxiety, stress and particularly depression (Gilbert et al., 2012).
The higher the fear of happiness, the more likely it is for the client to display traits of alexithymia, the inability to identify and describe emotions experienced by one’s self or others, making the person less functional in emotional awareness.
In this case, it will produce better results if the coach focuses on inquiring about thoughts and staying away from feeling-related questions.
Fear of happiness and mindfulness
Mindfulness is a beneficial skill for being happier and savouring that happiness. A meta-analysis of 148 studies comprising 44.075 participants showed that the higher the mindfulness, the fewer people tend to experience negative feelings (Carpenter et al., 2009). Particularly for the mindfulness facets of nonjudging and act with awareness, followed by non-reacting and describing skills. The analysis also revealed that in Eastern individuals, describing (the way we label our experiences and express them in words to ourselves and others) is higher associated with positive feelings (affective symptoms). In contrast, Western samples had a stronger relationship with nonjudging.
Another study with 1628 participants concluded that mindfulness-based approaches, particularly for regulative negative feelings, should provide good results (Cregoet al., 2020).
Coaching can help improve the aversion to happiness, particularly developing the mindfulness skills to describe, be aware and non-judgemental, which are related and impacted in cases where the person is averse to happiness (Gilbert et al., 2012).
Considering the potential blockers, an approach more focused on nonjudging the self, non-reacting and describing the thoughts might prove more efficient until the coachee feels more relaxed and safer to explore feelings (awareness). In severe cases, the coach might recommend mindfulness-based cognitive therapy or acceptance and commitment therapy to help the coachee to re-write past events.
A recent study shows that mindfulness and meaningfulness are significantly associated with one another. More importantly, it shows that meaningfulness is more strongly associated with positive well-being (i.e., life satisfaction, happiness and positive affect) than mindfulness (Cregoet al., 2020).
While working with a very blocked coachee, mindfulness might be challenging to achieve. Perhaps exploring meaningful activities and meaningful ways forward might prove more useful in the first stage. By exploring meaningfulness, the anxiety levels should reduce, which would leave the coachee more relaxed to explore mindfulness, particularly while undertaking meaningful activities.
Fear of happiness, fear of compassion and self-criticism
Only the development of compassion and understanding for others can bring us the tranquillity and happiness we all seek. Dalai Lama XIV
Fear of happiness and fear of compassion are related and mixed. Fear of compassion has three different sub-dimensions:
- Fear of compassion for others – the person believes other people will abuse their compassion or the others may consider them as weak and obedient, and so they will be damaged because of that.
- Fear of compassion from others – the person does not believe that someone else will show him sincere mercy, and he does not see this mercy safe. They may think that they do not deserve to have mercy from others, that they should be unhappy, and they consider compassion from others as dangerous.
- Fear of compassion for the self – the person self-perception is of someone who does not deserve compassion.
To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing and be nothing. Elbert Hubbard
Perfectionism is a personality trait that may be associated with cherophobia: perfectionists may feel happiness is a trait only of lazy or unproductive people (Nall, 2017). Additionally, people with high self-criticism “do not think they deserve compassion. According to them, to see compassion from others or to be compassionate towards them leaves them vulnerable to criticism”. “Any treatment for these problems is closely linked to the identification of fear of compassion to be successful.” (Çevik and Tanhan, 2020).
Both the fears of compassion and fear of happiness are moderate to highly link with self-criticism (feeling inadequate and self-hate). Self-critical people are afraid of being kind to themselves (Gilbert et al., 2012). Nevertheless, practising compassion Increases happiness and self-esteem, with potential lasting improvements. The conclusion is drawn from a study where 719 participants recruited online were asked to compassionately write about an early memory (Mongrain, Chin and Shapira, 2011).
Since fear of compassion is so related to fear of happiness, the coach might need to revisit shame or lack of safe memories, potentially recommend compassion focused therapy with this focus to help the coachee become more open to compassion (Matos et al., 2017).
Self-criticism and self-blaming go hand in hand. To unlock the potential for self-compassion and to reduce happiness aversion, it might be useful to use a third-person perspective and inquire about ways in which the coachee´s present self is different to their past self, or even encouraging a full disidentification with the past self. After a successful disidentification, it is more likely that the coachee is ready for exercising self-compassion for that old and dead self (Meerholzet al., 2019).
In line with the above, as coaches, we encourage responsible perspectives, rather than blaming perspectives. By taking a perspective where the coachee explores his responsibility in his life struggles, the coachee becomes empowered to change his behaviours to achieve more positive results. On the opposite side, when the coachee blames, he gives his power away to others, the circumstances, or he reduces his value to himself. However, in situations where it is not yet possible to completely change the perspective, the coach could aim for a path of shifting the blame from the self towards the behaviour. This is supported by the research showing that people cope better when they blame their behaviours and not themselves, their personality traits. Also, it is easier to change behaviours and the perspective of the coachee towards a responsibility point of view.
Another implication of fear of compassion to coaching is with regards to self-acknowledgement. Asking a coachee that shows signs of fear of compassion with high self-criticism what he would like to acknowledge himself for is likely not going to prove any result. Even the coach acknowledgement for the coachee progress might have the reverse effect in the coachee, who might perceive it as compassion from the coach, which can be perceived as threatening or even fake. In this scenario, it might prove more useful to the coachee progress that the coach encourages the coachee to perceive himself as someone other. Once the disidentification occurs, it might be more comfortable for the coachee to express compassion and acknowledge himself when he perceives himself from an observer point of view. After all, we tend to be our most severe judges.
Fear of happiness and self-esteem
People with low self-esteem are not just more likely to fear happiness. People with low self-esteem tend to have a less optimistic outlook on life. Most importantly, people with low self-esteem tend to describe and self-evaluate lower than who they are and what they actually feel like. They tend to show themselves even less pleased with life than what in reality they are (Baumeister et al., 2005).
An example of this was explored in five studies with undergraduate participants. The results showed that people with low self-esteem are most likely to dampen scholar success. Results also suggest that dampening was associated with the worse mood the day after a success (Wood et al., 2003).
Exploring facts rather than emotions might help the coachee to perceive what good already exists in his reality. Moreover, facts bring a sense of safeness and reliability. For example, instead of asking the coachee how happy he is with their house, the coach can first explore what characteristics the house should have for the coachee. After that, the coach can inquire about how many of these characteristics the house has, in fact.
Conclusions and coaching implications
No amount of self-improvement can make up for a lack of self-acceptance. Robert Holden, PhD
Not all of us want to be happy. In fact, psychologist Robert Holden claims that in his practice ‘‘absolutely everyone experiences a fear of happiness’’. This suggests that fear of happiness could be one of the biggest blockers for professional and personal growth.
The first direct implication for coaches is never to assume that the client wants to be happy. That the client wants to progress and achieve a specific outcome does not necessarily mean that the client is after happiness or expects to feel happy once the goal is achieved. The client might simply wish to overcome a difficulty and feel some kind of accomplishment feeling or not to experience a negative feeling that is being caused by the blockage. However, to feel joy, excitement, or happiness is another thing.
Secondly, the coach should be listening to the hints for the beliefs explored in part one to use the coaching skills and techniques to raise the clients´ awareness about his aversion to happiness.
While inviting the client to celebrate their success or to acknowledge their progress, which is common and desirable in a coach, coaches should also be mindful that aversion to happiness might lead to dampening. It is vital that the coach also takes these moments to raise awareness of the perspectives and beliefs that are preventing the client from savouring.
Aversion to happiness might even prevent the client from bringing a goal that would lead to their happiness. It could be that the first goal the client names is not the goal “the soul desires” or it is a smaller ambition. For example, the client might express a goal for being given more responsibility at work, when in fact, the client would like to be chosen for a promotion but believes it is selfish to desire that.
The International Coaching Academy defines Coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”. If the potential of the human being is to lead a happy and meaningful life, then coaching is about maximizing happiness. Coaches, as stated in the I.C.F. core competencies, should show genuine concern for the client’s welfare and future.
Consequently, coaching could ultimately be described as a relationship where the coach seeks to move the client towards maximizing happiness and reducing suffering. Therefore, “How will this goal contribute to your happiness?” is perhaps one of the essential questions in coaching. While establishing the coaching agreement, coaches should inquire about the importance and meaning of the goal for the client. However, that something is important and meaningful, does not necessarily always translate to something that will bring us happiness. According to this suggested coaching definition, perhaps this is one of the mandatory questions while establishing a coaching agreement.
Following this reasoning, it is left open for discussion if the true and only measure for evaluating success in coaching is happiness.
Happiness is the main object of our aspirations, whatever name we give to it: fulfilment, deep satisfaction, serenity, accomplishment, wisdom, fortune, joy or inner peace, and however we try to seek it: creativity, justice, altruism, striving, completion of a plan or a piece of work. Matthieu Ricard
What is it to feel well and happy, after all? It seems to go beyond the limitations of the research on happiness and life satisfaction or subjective well-being.
A fresh new angle is taking off, based on Dr Martin Seligman concept of flourishing, which is building and maintain the P.E.R.M.A. model: Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishments.
In a study, flourishing was operationalized as the opposite of depression and anxiety symptoms. In the study, flourishing encompasses “ten features of positive well-being: competence, emotional stability, engagement, meaning, optimism, positive emotion, positive relationships, resilience, self-esteem, and vitality”. They applied it in the European Social Survey (Round 3). The results show a difference in “flourishing rate, from 41% in Denmark to less than 10% in Slovakia, Russia and Portugal and (…) striking differences in country profiles across the 10 features” (Huppert and So, 2013). It seems that flourishing can explain why the Nordics usually rank high in the World Happiness Report.
Definitions apart, people who believe they have an acting role in their happiness experience higher levels of well-being, personal growth and psychological resilience (Joshanloo, 2017). It also “increases the motivation for achieving desired goals (agency) and perceived capacity to produce the means towards achieving life goals (pathways) which in turn increase levels of flourishing” (Belen et al., 2019).
It seems that coaching is, in the end, partnering with the client for his flourishing.
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The analysis also revealed that in Eastern individuals, describing (the way we label our experiences and express them in words to ourselves and others) is higher associated with positive feelings (affective symptoms), whereas Western samples had a stronger relationship with nonjudging.
This is probably linked with the former distinctions between Eastern and Western cultures made in the first part of this research paper. It seems reasonable to inquire if the importance of nonjudging mindfulness trait in Western cultures can be related to more individualistic social values.
Joshanloo, Mohsen & Dan, Weijers. (2013). Aversion to Happiness Across Cultures: A Review of Where and Why People are Averse to Happiness. Journal of Happiness Studies. 15. 10.1007/s10902-013-9489-9.