Fear of Happiness

By | 13/06/2016

I have been writing about the fear of happiness since the late 1970s, when an odd, unexpected idea came to my mind: I suddenly realized that when people fall in love they start living in a constant state of alert—of panic, even—as if they expected a tragedy to befall them at any moment. I noticed that people in love seemed to be unable to eat or sleep and became obsessed with their relationship, compulsively wondering what was going on with their beloved, and wanting to know, at every moment, if their partner still wanted to be with them.

At first, this made no sense to me, because after all, falling in love was the innermost desire of so many people. I couldn’t see why they would, then, after finding their match, try to step away from the situation, as if they were living in a war zone on high terror alert.

Later, I realized that people also seem to feel like tragedy is about to strike whenever they are successful at any important endeavor, be it work, sports or financial gains. Basically, whenever something very good happens, people feel threatened, as if all that good fortune increases the odds of a subsequent tragedy. Then I figured out that these feelings are at the root of all human superstitious rituals, whether new or ancient. If in Ancient Egypt, people were so afraid of the “evil eye” that barren women were forbidden to even glance at pregnant women, lest they cause harm to the fetus, these days people knock on wood when things are going well, to ward off the envy of humans and the anger of gods.

In Brazil, there’s a tradition for shots with cachaça: before you drink, spill a drop for “the saint,” as a sort of payment for the coming enjoyment.

The fear of happiness is directly related to our destructive tendencies. People tend to ruin part of what they accomplished when anxious about their own achievements, as, for instance, a person who “accidentally” scratches a brand new car, to dim the joy of having been able to buy it.

Freud proposed a theory to explain these aggressive, self-destructive tendencies: he claimed human beings have a death drive, an enduring and strong impulse that works against them. But while human beings unarguably develop mechanisms that sabotage their own welfare, I disagree that these mechanisms come from a force that sends people in the direction of death.

I believe, more and more, that birth is a defining and extremely traumatic event, following the school of thought of Otto Rank, a psychoanalyst who was first Freud’s disciple and later a dissenter. To Rank, being born is a transition to a worse state of being; it’s an “expulsion from paradise” that was the mother-fetus symbiosis.

The dramatic rupture of the harmony felt in the womb brings panic, which can clearly be seen on the face of the newborn. Thus the first sensation the human brain experiences is harmony, followed by the pain of separation and a feeling of vulnerability that will, one way or another, follow them throughout life.

I attribute the human tendency to sabotage their own well-being to this traumatic experience, that affixes itself to the mind in an absolute manner. It creates a kind of conditioned response, so that when people achieve a sort of harmony and well-being similar to what they had experienced in utero—and nothing feels more like that than the comfort and closeness that come from a good romantic relationship—they immediately feel threatened, as if waiting for tragedy to strike. They now associate harmony with a disaster that will destroy their happiness; after all, their uterine peace was destroyed, and they still fear that similar feelings will have a similar ending.

Psychical processes follow a very peculiar logic, which must be discovered in their own specific way. If people were asked if they ever felt fear when at particularly happy moments of their lives, of course most of them would say no. The truth, however, is that the fear of happiness seems to be universal, and I have never met anyone who did not feel it to some extent.

Learning to live with happiness and not run away from situations in which it appears is a suitable act of bravery. After all, despite what it may seem, happiness doesn’t kill!

Tradução: Amanda Morris