Graduate student Mohsen Joshanloo and Dan Weijers, Ph.D., of the Victoria University of Wellington discovered the reason some people avoid being positive, happy, and satisfied with life is because they have a lingering belief that happiness causes bad things to happen.
The study, published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, is the first to review the concept of aversion to happiness, and looks at cultural variations to feelings of well-being and satisfaction.
“One of these cultural phenomena is that, for some individuals, happiness is not a supreme value,” said Joshanloo and Weijers in their review.
The researchers believe that being raised in a culture that does not value happiness could encourage a person to back away from it. However, an aversion to happiness exists in both Western and non-Western cultures, although happiness is more valued in the West.
In American culture, it is almost taken for granted that happiness is one of the most important values guiding people’s lives, its pursuit enshrined in the U.S. Bill of Rights.
Western cultures are more driven by an urge to maximize happiness and minimize sadness. Failing to appear happy is often a cause for concern. Its value is echoed through Western positive psychology and research on subjective well-being.
In non-Western cultures, in contrast, happiness is a less valued emotion. The ideals of harmony and conformity are often at odds with the pursuit of personal happiness and the endorsement of individualistic values.
For instance, studies have shown that East Asians are more inclined than Westerners to think it inappropriate to express happiness in many social situations. Similarly, Japanese are less inclined to savor positive emotions than Americans.
Many cultures hold the belief that extreme happiness, especially, leads to unhappiness and other negative consequences that outweigh the benefits of such positive feelings.
In both Western and non-Western cultures, some people sidestep happiness because they believe that being happy makes them a worse person and that others may see them as selfish, boring, or shallow.
People in non-Western cultures, such as Iran and neighboring countries, worry that their peers, an “evil eye” or some supernatural deity might resent their happiness and that they will eventually suffer any number of severe consequences.
“Many individuals and cultures do tend to be averse to some forms of happiness, especially when taken to the extreme, for many different reasons,” the researchers concluded. “Some of the beliefs about the negative consequences of happiness seem to be exaggerations, often spurred by superstition or timeless advice on how to enjoy a pleasant or prosperous life.
“However, considering the inevitable individual differences in regards to even dominant cultural trends, no culture can be expected to unanimously hold any of these beliefs.”