A recent study measured a construct called aversion to happiness among a cross-cultural sample. The findings, published in the journal Motivation and Emotion, revealed that the top predictors of the belief were an unhappy childhood, perfectionism, loneliness, and belief in black magic and karma.
Happiness is a highly coveted emotion that many of us build our lives around. But psychology research suggests that people can be afraid of happiness, a concept called aversion to happiness. Study author Mohsen Joshanloo describes it as “the belief that experiencing or expressing happiness can cause bad things to happen.”
In 2013, Joshanloo developed a fear of happiness scale to measure this emotion belief. In a more recent study, he tested the scale across a variety of countries while examining potential predictors of aversion to happiness.
“Happiness is usually referred to as the ultimate goal of life that everyone strives for (or must strive for). But about a decade ago, I came to believe that this is not true for everyone,” explained Joshanloo, an associate professor at Keimyung University and honorary principal fellow at the University of Melbourne
“I noticed that some people and some cultures prioritize other goals and values (e.g., hard work, religion, justice, morality, excellence, and prestige) over happiness. Even more, I noticed that some people question the value of happiness or believe that happiness can be unnecessary or harmful. I began a series of studies on fear of happiness or aversion to happiness in different cultures to refute the widespread notion that all people are constantly striving for happiness and prioritize happiness over everything else.”
“Today, I can say that the empirical research that other researchers and I have conducted has paid off and that there is greater awareness in the social sciences of the diversity of lay concepts of happiness.”
In the new study, a final sample of 871 adults completed an online survey. Participants were from ten different parts of the world — the U.S., the UK, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Brazil, Vietnam, the Philippines, India, and Romania. The questionnaires included the 5-item fear of happiness scale, where participants rated their agreement with items like, “I prefer not to be too joyful, because usually joy is followed by sadness.” The surveys also included measures of nine potential predictor variables.
First, Joshanloo tested measurement invariance — the extent that the fear of happiness scale measured the same construct across countries. These tests, conducted across five countries with samples larger than 50, revealed almost complete measurement invariance. Notably, a past study found measurement invariance for the fear of happiness scale among college students in 14 countries. These two findings suggest that the scale can be reliably used to measure aversion to happiness across countries.
The researcher next tested the predictive power of the nine assessed variables. The findings revealed that all predictors were significant except for gender and religiosity. Aversion to happiness beliefs were stronger among people who were younger, more lonely, and more perfectionist. They were also more common among people who believed in collective happiness, believed in black magic or karma, and recalled an unhappy childhood.
“The results show that people from collectivistic cultures are more likely to show an aversion to happiness than people from individualistic cultures,” Joshanloo told PsyPost. “At the individual level, perfectionistic tendencies, loneliness, a childhood perceived as unhappy, belief in paranormal phenomena, and holding a collectivistic understanding of happiness are positively associated with aversion to happiness.”
Importantly, reporting an unhappy childhood predicted aversion to happiness even after controlling for current loneliness. As Joshanloo explains, “This suggests that traumatic experiences as a child may have a long-lasting impact on the person’s perception of happiness, independently of the individual’s satisfaction with current relationships in adulthood.”
The author discusses what the other significant predictors might mean. The fact that belief in karma and black magic were significant predictors suggests that some people see supernatural forces as responsible for the negative consequences of happiness. As for perfectionism, people with perfectionist tendencies may be overly focused on avoiding failure, causing them to down-regulate their happy feelings and even view happiness as a barrier to their achievements.
Believing in a collective concept of happiness (e.g., “A person cannot be happy, if his or her family or friends are not happy”) may lead people to downgrade displays of happiness to prioritize group happiness and maintain social harmony. In line with this idea, study participants from collectivist countries (India and the Philippines) had stronger aversion to happiness beliefs.
“We have different genes, different fingerprints, different personality traits, and different ideas about happiness,” Joshanloo said. “Our attitude toward happiness is not just a matter of personal choice. This attitude is determined to some degree by cultural factors, our psychological traits (e.g., degree of perfectionism), and the quality of our relationships with others throughout life.”
Of limitations, the sample sizes from each country were small and non-representative. The questionnaire also used single-item measures for nearly all variables, so the results will need to be replicated with further study.
“Although individuals from 10 countries participated in the survey, the sample size in some of these countries is very small and no firm conclusions can be drawn about these countries,” Joshanloo explained. “For future research, we need larger samples from a larger number of countries. Future studies will also need to use longer measures to assess different dimensions of the predictors. For example, perfectionism has multiple dimensions (e.g., worry about making mistakes, high personal standards, perception of high parental expectations, and doubt about the quality of one’s actions). These dimensions may have different relationships with aversion to happiness, which can be explored in future research.”
“It is worth noting that happiness can be defined in different ways,” the researcher added. “People are far more likely to be averse to emotional definitions of happiness (based on pleasure, fun, and positive feelings) than virtue-based definitions (based on finding meaning in life and fulfillment).”
The study, “Predictors of aversion to happiness: New Insights from a multinational study”, was authored by Mohsen Joshanloo.