How to Escape the Happiness Guilt Trap

There’s plenty wrong in the world. Acting gloomy won’t fix any of it.

A person hides their face using a fan with a frown on it.

How to Build a Lifeis a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.

Browse your social media, scroll through your Netflix documentary queue, or turn on cable television, and you will be flooded with reasons to be worried and angry about issues large and small. There is plenty wrong in the world, lots of injustice, and too much suffering. The pandemic made that clear to even the most oblivious among us.

That suffering is not uniform, though. And for those who are better off, that might just provoke a bit of guilt. They might conclude that to project cheerfulness and life satisfaction is to be irresponsible and insensitive to the world’s problems. Some might even find themselves acting sad or outraged in order to show they care.

I understand the impulse, but research shows that acting unhappy is a great way to actually become dissatisfied with life. By saying you’re unhappy, you can talk yourself out of joy and right into gloom, which won’t do anything to ease others’ suffering. What will help is striving to achieve and project happiness even while showing your concerns about wrongs to be righted in the world. In fact, your happiness will make you more effective in making the world a better place.

Want to stay current with Arthur's writing? Sign up to get an email every time a new column comes out.

We are all familiar with what we might call the “laughing on the outside, crying on the inside” phenomenon. It has received some attention from researchers, who generally find that acting happier of one’s own accord leads to more well-being. In contrast, being forced to act happy can have deleterious consequences, from depression to cardiovascular ailments. The implications are fairly clear: Act the way you want to feel, but don’t demand that others act the way you want them to feel.

The opposite phenomenon, “crying on the outside, laughing on the inside,” might have a few limited benefits. There’s some evidence that displaying negative emotions like sadness, anger, and boredom can help us garner more sympathy from others and even make us more attractive. But it almost certainly won’t make us happier.

If you find yourself projecting more sadness than you actually feel, you might suffer from a fear of happiness, an identifiable condition known as cherophobia. According to the research, cherophobia might stem from a belief that being happy will bring misfortune; that expressing or pursuing happiness is bad for you; or that being happy makes you a bad person. There is evidence that cherophobia is often found in religious communities. (You can assess yourself on the Fear of Happiness Scale to see whether you suffer from this condition.)

A sense that happiness makes you a bad person (or at least a horribly un-empathetic one) might be especially relevant to contemporary political culture. While there have not yet been studies involving cherophobia and political activism, it is easy to imagine that in an environment of protest, you might fear opprobrium for not showing sufficient seriousness about something negative.

There are two big problems with this framing. First, acting unhappy leads to real unhappiness. Researchers have shown that labeling oneself as depressed can lead people—especially young people—to think negatively about themselves (what psychologists call “self-stigma”) and experience depression. Similarly, acting angry can make you angrier. Cherophobia is itself associated with lower scores on surveys of life satisfaction.

Second, your unhappiness, anger, or depression about the world’s ills won’t make the world better. On the contrary, research has long found that our facial expressions and emotions, including the negative ones, are highly contagious. Your cherophobia could be motivated by sympathy, but it might just compound the misery of those who are already suffering.

Being concerned with the world’s problems should not conflict with our desire to be happy or to radiate that happiness. Here are some tips to balance the two.

1. Examine your unhappiness.

If you find yourself chronically irritated or constantly complaining about the world, you might in fact be unhappy about aspects of your life. If so, work to understand your feelings by sitting with them. If necessary, address them therapeutically, or at least learn more about them, which can yield tremendous benefits.

But you should also ask yourself if you might be playing up the negative aspects of life and downplaying the positives. Is it possible that you’re a little cherophobic? If so, remember that you risk becoming an unhappier person, without that sadness benefiting others. To combat any aversion to contentment you might be experiencing, consider the next two tips.

2. Think like a missionary.

If you have strong views on a topic, you probably want to change how other people think and act. Ask yourself what is more persuasive: anger and gloom, or joy and warmth? Missionaries understand this principle very well, which is why—no matter how unhappy you are to see them—they’re always smiling when they show up on your porch.

Adopt the spirit of the missionary. Remember that your cause is a gift to others, so present it as such, without hate, contempt, or fear. Even if you have righteous anger about the present, smile as you describe a better future.

3. Call on your inner entrepreneur.

Imagine you came across a huge entrepreneurial opportunity. You’d want to seem as enthusiastic as possible around potential investors; if you acted outraged and bitter because no one had yet taken the opportunity, no one would invest. Or consider one of your long-term goals, like starting a family or building a fun and exciting career. You’ll probably feel excited, and if you describe it to others, your enthusiasm for the goal will show.

If you believe that there is an opportunity to make things better through social change, you’re more likely to achieve it if you’re fired up, like it’s an enterprise or a big life goal. The point is not that you should pretend the status quo is just fine, but rather that optimism about positive change is the best way to make people want to be part of that change. Instead of thinking of your concern as an unsolvable problem or a source of ongoing misery, make it an exciting project. If it is too daunting, break your end goal into more achievable steps. Let the effort energize you, and let others see that energy.

Paramhansa Yogananda, who was one of the first great Hindu gurus to come to the West, gave this advice in his book Autobiography of a Yogi: “Learn to be secretly happy within your heart in spite of all circumstances, and say to yourself: Happiness is the greatest Divine birthright—the buried treasure of my Soul.” I would take it even further: Share your buried treasure with those around you.

There is no need to keep your happiness secret, suppress it, or bury it under complaints and outrage. Showing the joy in our hearts and sharing it with others will improve our lives. And if the state of the world has you genuinely down in the dumps, remember that finding and spreading cheer in an imperfect world will make life better for you, and make your efforts at progress that much more effective.