Foreboding joy can be described as that moment when joy is interrupted by thoughts of “but what if something bad happens.”

Happiness is precious to us. For many people, it’s the epitome of life achievements. What more do you need if you’re happy?

Experiencing joy unfettered can be an amazing experience, but what happens when joy comes with strings attached?

Can that joy turn into a fear of happiness?

Foreboding joy is a phrase coined by author and researcher Dr. Brené Brown. She’s spoken about this term in her books and interviews.

While not necessarily the same as cherophobia, a fear of happiness, foreboding joy can have many of the same sensations.

It can be described as that feeling you get when joy is followed quickly by thoughts of worry and dread, an inner dialogue of “but what if this happens,” or a sense of impending doom that something bad will happen to counteract the happiness you feel.

You’re still experiencing joy, but you’re also worried, convinced, and fearful that joy will leave you.

You may even fabricate worst-case scenarios in your head about post-joy possibilities, diminishing the joy you’re experiencing.

In her book “Daring Greatly,” Brown indicates that foreboding joy is one way you subconsciously try to protect yourself from vulnerability.

Foreboding joy says: If I don’t feel extremely happy, I won’t feel extremely disappointed.

Foreboding joy vs. cherophobia

Cherophobia is a type of specific phobia. Specific phobias are diagnosable mental health conditions characterized by impairing, irrational fear and anxiety.

Foreboding joy doesn’t have to be impairing or immobilizing. It may be more like a habit — that thing you do every time something good happens.

If foreboding joy stops you from seeking happiness, attending social events, or impairs important areas of function, it may be a candidate for a cherophobia diagnosis.

Consider reaching out to a mental health professional for evaluation and treatment if needed.

Was this helpful?

You might see examples of foreboding joy in different areas of life, including at school, home, or work.

At home

Joyful action: You just moved the new living room set in, and it looks fantastic.

Foreboding thought: “My pet is immediately going to tear into it, and then it will look as bad as the old set.”

At work

Joyful action: You just received recognition for a job well done on a project.

Foreboding thought: “What if I can’t live up to those expectations now? I’ll probably lose my job.”

At school

Joyful action: You passed that test with flying colors.

Foreboding thought: “None of that information will likely be on the final. I’m still going to be unprepared.”

Joy is an emotion associated with positive affect in psychology.

Positive affect is an umbrella term that describes several emotions, such as:

  • joy
  • enthusiasm
  • optimism
  • contentment

The National Institute of Health (NIH) links positive affect emotions such as joy to mental and physical health benefits.

Experiencing joy is also one of the ultimate mood boosts. A 2020 study suggests that it can involve many of the chemicals in the brain associated with happiness, such as dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin.

But when you’re experiencing foreboding joy, it can feel like a little storm cloud raining on your party. You might experience a sense of fear, anxiety, or both.

Joy is often fleeting. The fear and anxiety that something bad will happen can disrupt our joy and lead to catastrophizing — a cognitive distortion that often comes with asking “what if” questions.

What if my alarm doesn’t go off? What if I mess up that presentation? What if I fail this test and don’t graduate?

We ask the “what ifs” to protect ourselves from fully giving into joy just in case the worst happens.

Catastrophizing can remove attention from the present moment to a hypothetical or imagined future, putting a damper on the situation and negating the benefits you might receive from joy.

When you’re used to foreboding joy, allowing yourself to experience true joy might not be easy. Here are some strategies you can try.

Rejoicing in everyday gratitude

In Brown’s works, she indicates that one of the most powerful ways to combat foreboding joy is to practice gratitude.

It doesn’t have to be in grand, obvious ways, either. Each night, you can take a moment and write down things you’re grateful for as a first step.

Practicing gratitude can help you acknowledge the positive things in your life and find reasons to feel joy, even in small ways.

Cultivating self-awareness

Knowing when you’re experiencing foreboding joy may help you stop those negative thoughts in their tracks.

You can recognize when you’re about to go down that path and choose another way.

Research from 2012 suggests that self-awareness can be cultivated through mindfulness — a practice that teaches how to experience thoughts and feelings in the moment without judgment or rumination.

Embracing the opportunity to build resilience

In “Daring Greatly,” Brown recommends focusing on turning moments of joy into opportunities to build resilience.

She explains that it’s natural for this to feel uncomfortable and scary, but every time you use joy as a tool against despair — rather than for it — you can cultivate hope and resilience.

When those feelings of “but what if this happens” appear, try to challenge yourself to push those thoughts aside.

Honoring the good, not the bad

Another form of gratitude recommendation Brown makes is to avoid honoring negative outcomes by ignoring your blessings.

If a friend lost a child to tragedy, that doesn’t mean you stop celebrating your child or apologizing for your child’s success.

Honoring your good circumstances, writes Brown, can be more of a tribute to someone else’s loss than focusing on the negative.

Foreboding joy may be your natural way of protecting yourself from vulnerability.

It’s a reaction based on the thought that you can’t be extremely disappointed if you don’t feel extremely happy.

While foreboding joy may evolve into cherophobia, it might never occur on a level that causes clinical impairment.

You don’t have to let foreboding joy disrupt the happy moments in your life.

Practicing gratitude, self-awareness, and cultivating resilience are all ways you can allow yourself to embrace joy without any “what ifs” attached.