The Fear of Happiness
Given how much we all long to be happy, we might presume that accepting the possibility of happiness in our lives would be an uncomplicated, serene and automatic process. But for many of us, however theoretically attached we might be to the notion of being happy, the possibility of actually being so is liable to trigger deep ambivalence and fear. We would – it appears – often prefer to be worried and sad rather than attempt take on the risks surreptitiously connected in our minds with positive moods. We may – however paradoxical it sounds – be nothing less than afraid to be happy.
As ever, our fear has a history that begins in childhood, where one of the following is likely to have occurred. Someone we deeply loved, and perhaps admired too, was unhappy. Their sorrow moved us profoundly and led us to identify with them so that our caution around contentment continues to function as a secret tribute to them. To be happy would, in a way that would pain us profoundly, mean being disloyal. However much they might on the surface have encouraged us to venture out and seize opportunities for joy, an important part of us wishes to stay with them under the canopy of grief. So without knowing we’re doing this, we ensure that we will always have a modest career because they never had educational possibilities or we turn down sexual opportunities because they were sexually neglected. Alternatively, someone we were close to might have been jealous of us and led us to want to downplay our achievements and hide our contentment – in order to feel safe from their envy and rage. We learnt to associate gloom with safety and joy with risk. More generally, we may have lacked any plausible role models for happiness. We may have grown up in an environment where being anxious and panicky was the default state, where it seemed natural to picture the plane crashing, the police showing up, the business collapsing and the mole morphing into cancer. We may be intellectually aware that there could be other ways to interpret the future, but equanimity doesn’t feel like what our tribe does. To this resistance, we might have added a layer of intellectual superiority: happiness seems for the little people, the leading symptom of understanding the world intelligently must be sadness.
All such positions contribute to a psyche where the onset of happiness is a cause for grave and glaring alarm. When we are finally on holiday, or in love or surrounded by friends or free of financial pressure, we panic. Our senses have been jammed for so long in fear mode, they are filled with dread when the alarm stops wailing.
To return to a more balanced state, we’re liable systematically to sabotage the conditions of contentment. We start working on holiday and soon uncover a cause for concern at the office; within hours, we may be protesting that we need to return home. Or else we do our utmost to convince a new lover that we’re not worth it, by seldom calling them or (if they really don’t get the message) having an affair. It feels so much more normal to be abandoned.
In order to acclimatise ourselves to joy, we need to return to the past and unpick how we learnt to use anxiety as a defensive strategy to protect us against other threats we were too young and too easily overwhelmed to answer.
The manic worrier worries, as it were, about ‘everything’ because they are unable to be appropriately concerned with, and in mourning for, one or two big things from long ago. The anxiety that belonged to one particular distant time and place has been redistributed and subdivided across hundreds of ever shifting topics in the present (from workplace to reputation, money to household tasks), because its true source and origins remain unknown to the sufferer.
We are using the flotsam and jetsam of everyday worries as a proxy for an unmasterable trauma: shame; humiliation; a sense we don’t matter to our caregivers; neglect or abuse. We should not sarcastically point out to worriers that they need ‘something else to worry about’, we should realise that something terrifying that they have buried deep in their unconscious is lending a continuous sense of dread to their fragile present.
We manic worriers need not sarcasm but supportive and intelligent company to give us the love we need to dare to look back at the past – and the insight with which to try to do so. Our dread is a symptom of an ancient sorrow, a sign that we keep not finding anything in the outer world that answers to the horror of the inner one.
Needless to say, it isn’t the case that there is never anything to worry about in the present, just that there is a lot less than the manic worrier tends to believe. Furthermore, what there is to worry about can be coped with with far more resilience than the manic worrier can imagine, for they are operating with what is essentially a child’s sense of their own powers and capacity for survival. Manic worriers should gradually come to exchange their feelings of dread for the future for a patient understanding and mourning for an unfairly traumatic and as yet insufficiently explored past.
There is nothing greedy or stupid about happiness. The ability to take appropriate satisfaction from the good times is a profound psychological achievement: it is a mark of deep seriousness to be able to giggle, have a pillow fight with a child, delight in a fig, sunbathe, sometimes knock off work early to have an ice cream and appreciate a daffodil. Sorrow is obvious; there is always a richness of reasons to despair. Fear is safe as well; if we are waiting for the enemy with sword in hand, we may gain a vital few seconds were the blow to come. But the truly courageous and heroically defiant move (given our background) would be to dare to put down our weapon, lessen our preparations for catastrophe, resist the terrors ingrained in us over decades and once in a while believe that, astonishingly, for a time, there might truly be nothing to worry about.