You’re having a wonderful day and so far everything seems to be going your way. People are being unduly nice to you, the weather is lovely, and even your bank account seems pleased with you. In the back of your mind, though, is there a small, nagging voice insisting that you knock on wood before your good luck ends? Do you think the other shoe is about to drop and you’ll soon hear some terrible news?
In a new study, Keimyung University’s (South Korea) Mohsen Joshanloo (2018) focused on the “fragility of happiness,” or this belief that your good luck is too good to last. The concept of happiness fragility follows directly from the state in which you fear being happy, which Joshanloo defines as “an aversion to the experience and/or expression of happiness due to the belief that happiness may cause bad things to happen” (p. 115). Fragility, in turn, refers to the view that “happiness is fleeting and may easily turn into less favorable states” (p. 115). Who knew that happiness could actually be aversive?
Not everyone fears happiness, but those who do tend to derive less pleasure from life, as you can imagine. According to Joshanloo, the belief that happiness is fragile is more likely to plague people who fit the definition of “insecurely attached.” These individuals have carried with them a lifelong inability to form close relationships with the confidence that their trust in others will be returned. The insecurely attached may be of the “avoidant” variety, in which they steer clear of relationships altogether, or they may be of the “anxious” variety, in which they cling nervously to partners for fear of being abandoned. Joshanloo’s study was the first to investigate whether people with these long-standing patterns of insecurity would find themselves unable to enjoy moments of happiness without fear.
The 316 undergraduate participants in Joshanloo’s study completed measures of subjective well-being (high life satisfaction and high positive affect), overall life satisfaction, fear of happiness, and the fragility of happiness scale. You can rate yourself on your own beliefs in the fragility of happiness by asking yourself these questions, based on Joshanloo et al.’s earlier work (2015):
1. Something might happen at any time and we could easily lose our happiness.
2. Happiness is fragile.
3. It is likely that our happiness could be reduced to unhappiness with a simple accident.
4. There is only a thin line between happiness and unhappiness.
Rate each item on a 7-point scale ranging from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (7).
In the earlier Joshanloo et al. study, based on cross-national comparisons from 15 countries, the average fragility score per item was in the mid-range of the scale (about 4-4.5) though a number of Southeast Asian countries had higher scores than the U.S. and Brazil. If you have two or three items with which you strongly disagree, this means that you are indeed teetering on the edge of waiting for bad things to happen even when things are going well.
Let’s look next at the role of attachment. You can start by identifying your own attachment style. Joshanloo measured only insecure attachment, which was indexed by the two factors- preoccupied and dismissive. The preoccupied style items included “I want to be completely emotionally intimate with others” and dismissive by items such as “I prefer not to have others depend on me.”
Although this was a correlational study, and therefore the usual caveats apply that happiness fragility could cause insecurity and vice versa (or a third factor may be present), Joshanloo’s analysis permitted him to test a model consisting of predictive pathways among the personality test scores. Both attachment scales predicted lower levels of subjective well-being, the outcome in the model. However, fear of happiness and happiness fragility both influenced subjective well-being above and beyond attachment style. In other words, people with insecure attachment styles are at risk for lower well-being, but in part because they fear that any happiness they experience will soon dissipate.
The good news from the study is, as Joshanloo points out, that you can fix people’s pessimistic approaches about being and staying happy. In the author’s words, “helping individuals to reassess and modify their maladaptive beliefs about happiness could be an important component of positive psychology interventions and therapeutic techniques that aim to improve overall mental well-being” (p. 117).
Looking back at your own score on the happiness fragility scale, if you are in the 5-6 region per item, this suggests that you do hold these maladaptive beliefs. In those moments of happiness, you’re thinking not about the good feelings you’re experiencing, but about what will happen when they go away. Knowing, further, that insecurity adds to the equation, you can also ask yourself whether you fear that your relationship partners, too, will invariably disappoint you. Because of this, you can become either clingy (preoccupied) or cold (dismissive). It’s your insecurity about your relationships, possibly a part of you for many years, that leads you to suspect the worst is about to happen, even when you’re feeling your best.
Being happy in the moment is certainly an important part of the experience of fulfillment. Once you understand these 4 ways that lead you to believe your own happiness may be fleeting, you’ll be able to enjoy those happy moments without fear.