It’s become a mantra of the modern Western world that the ultimate aim of life is to achieve happiness. Self-help blog posts on how to be happy are almost guaranteed popularity (the Digest has its own!). Pro-happiness organisations have appeared, such as Action for Happiness, which aims to “create a happier society for everyone.” Topping it all, an increasing number of governments, including in the UK, have started measuring national well-being (seen as a proxy for “happiness”) – the argument being that this a potentially more important policy outcome than economic prosperity.
But hang on a minute, say Moshen Joshanloo and Dan Weijers writing in the Journal of Happiness Studies – not everyone wants to be happy. In fact, they point out that many people, including in Western cultures, deliberately dampen their positive moods. Moreover, in many nations, including Iran and New Zealand, many people are actually fearful of happiness, tending to agree with questionnaire items like “I prefer not to be too joyful, because usually joy is followed by sadness”.
Looking into the reasons for happiness aversion, Joshanloo and Weijers identify four: believing that being happy will provoke bad things to happen; that happiness will make you a worse person; that expressing happiness is bad for you and others; and that pursuing happiness is bad for you and others. Let’s touch on each of these.
Fear that happiness leads to bad outcomes is perhaps most strong in East Asian cultures influenced by Taoism, which posits that “things tend to revert to their opposite”. A 2001 study asked participants to choose from a range of life-course graphs and found that Chinese people were more likely than Americans to choose graphs that showed periods of sadness following periods of joy. Other cultures, such as Japan and Iran, believe that happiness can bring misfortune as it causes inattentiveness. Similar fears are sometimes found in the West as reflected in adages such as “what goes up must come down.”
Belief that being happy makes you a worse person is rooted in some interpretations of Islam, the reasoning being that it distracts you from God. Joshanloo and Weijers quote the Prophet Muhammad: “were you to know what I know, you would laugh little and weep much” and “avoid much laughter, for much laughter deadens the heart.” Another relevant belief here is the idea that being unhappy makes people more creative. Consider this quote from Edward Munch: “They [emotional sufferings] are part of me and my art. They are indistinguishable from me … I want to keep those sufferings.”
In relation to the overt expression of happiness, a 2009 study found that Japanese participants frequently mentioned that doing so can harm others, for example by making them envious; Americans rarely held such concerns. In Ifaluk culture in Micronesia, meanwhile, Joshanloo and Weijers note that expressing happiness is “associated with showing off, overexcitement, and failure at doing one’s duties.”
Finally, the pursuit of happiness is believed by many cultures and philosophies to be harmful to the self and others. Take as an example this passage of Buddhist text: “And with every desire for happiness, out of delusion they destroy their own well-being as if it were their enemy.” In Western thought, as far back as Epicurus, warnings are given that the direct pursuit of happiness can backfire on the self, and harm others through excessive self-interest. Also, it’s been argued that joy can make the oppressed weak and less likely to fight injustice.
There’s a contemporary fixation with happiness in the much of the Western world. Joshanloo and Weijers’ counterpoint is that, for various reasons, not everyone wants to happy. From a practical perspective, they say this could seriously skew cross-cultural comparisons of subjective well-being. “It stands to reason,” they write, “that a person with an aversion to expressing happiness … may report lower subjective wellbeing than they would do otherwise.” But their concerns go deeper: “There are risks for happiness studies in exporting Western psychology to non-Western cultures without undertaking indigenous analyses, including making invalid cross-cultural comparisons and imposing Western cultural assumptions on other cultures.”
Joshanloo, M., & Weijers, D. (2013). Aversion to Happiness Across Cultures: A Review of Where and Why People are Averse to Happiness Journal of Happiness Studies, 15 (3), 717-735 DOI: 10.1007/s10902-013-9489-9