There’s a Difference Between ‘Waiting for the Other Shoe To Drop’ and Cherophobia, the Genuine Fear of Happiness

Photo: Getty Images/ Lucas Ottone
Raise your hand if you’ve ever been butterflies-in-your-stomach happy (let’s say, when your phone lights up with a text from the person you're newly dating), but then, the butterflies seem to sink into a deep, dark pit. You start feeling stressed instead of happy—in this case, maybe once you start thinking about the possibility of that person eventually ghosting you. Your original spark of happiness seems untouchable, risky even—that's what people with cherophobia (aka fear of happiness) feel whenever they encounter happy feelings.

You may know what it feels like to get jittery or anxious and worry about negative outcomes in the wake of receiving positive news. But with cherophobia, there's actually a full-blown fear of happiness itself. Below, you'll find a breakdown of this phobia, exactly how it manifests, and how it can be treated, according to psychologists who specialize in phobias.

Experts In This Article

What are the symptoms of cherophobia?

“A phobia of happiness, or cherophobia, involves an irrational fear of being happy due to beliefs that something bad will happen as a result,” explains clinical psychologist Alexander Alvarado, PsyD, phobia specialist at Thriving Center of Psychology. “This is distinct from the more generalized anxiety of ‘waiting for the other shoe to drop,’ which is about anticipating negative outcomes rather than fearing happiness itself.”

People who have cherophobia inherently associate happiness with negative, bad, or dangerous thoughts, adds clinical psychologist Tirrell De Gannes, PsyD, anxiety disorder specialist at Thriving Center of Psychology. According to a 2019 study1, cherophobia may also manifest in the following ways:

  • Positive emotions not experienced as pleasurable
  • Avoidance of emotions in general, including sadness and anger
  • Dissociation from situations
  • Rumination and obsessive thoughts about happiness being associated with evil or danger
  • May be associated with depressive symptoms

How is cherophobia diagnosed?

There has not been much clinical research on cherophobia, and there is not a specific set of diagnostic criteria, says Dr. De Gannes. Most likely, mental health professionals will use clinical interviewing and may utilize the “Fear of Happiness Scale” to figure out how intense the phobia is.

The Fear of Happiness Scale measures different statements that signify the person’s aversion to happiness: A score of 0 or 1 on a statement indicates disagreement with the statement, and a higher number indicates agreement with the statement, explains educational psychologist and board-certified behavioral analyst Reena B. Patel, LEP, BCBA. “You are then given a final score based on your responses, and the higher scores indicate a greater aversion to happiness and a higher risk of experiencing cherophobia,” Dr. Patel says. A mental health professional will then go over the test results with the client and determine the best path forward to treat the phobia of happiness.

What causes cherophobia?

The above 2019 study in college students found that cherophobia is often associated with childhood trauma, especially among people identifying as women. In particular, sexual trauma among women was correlated with high scores of fear of happiness in the study. People who have cherophobia are often hyper-aware of their trauma and experience dissociation as a result. A common phrase that many study participants agreed on was that “cheerfulness may result in a bad thing.”

“Cherophobia can be rooted in the belief that if something good happens, then something bad is going to happen next,” Dr. Patel says. “As a result, a person who thinks this way may avoid activities related to happiness because they truly believe something bad will happen next.” The belief in avoidance is that by not letting anything happy or good happen, they can skip over the bad situation; this can lead to isolation from others.

Is cherophobia a mental illness?

Again, more research into cherophobia still needs to be done, but as of now, it is not officially recognized as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the manual that psychiatrists use to classify mental health conditions. Cherophobia can be considered part of a larger anxiety disorder and may be rooted in past trauma or negative beliefs about happiness, says Dr. Alvarado.

Is cherophobia a trauma response?

Dr. De Gannes believes cherophobia to be a maladaptive trauma response based on adverse conditioning, or the development in childhood of an association between happiness or joy and danger.

Indeed, Dr. Patel says the “irrational aversion to being happy” often has its roots in anxious thoughts tied to past trauma, for example emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. In response to such trauma, a person can become reclusive, isolate themselves, or stop participating in events or activities that are considered fun, happy, or joyful. Over time, that can lead them to develop an aversion to (and eventually fear of) happiness or being happy altogether.

Can cherophobia be cured?

Much like any other phobia, cherophobia can be treated and improved with a variety of therapeutic approaches; some therapists may combine multiple approaches to work with a client's particular case of cherophobia. Below are some of the most common methods that mental health professionals might utilize:

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT can help address negative thought patterns, such as the idea that any happy activity or event is going to result in something “bad,” says Dr. Alvarado. Some specific techniques a therapist or mental health counselor may work on with you are cognitive challenging and cognitive reframing, says Dr. De Gannes; this involves questioning the validity of a statement or belief, such as “Every time I do xyz, xyz negative event will happen.” Another technique that may be used is counter conditioning, which can help retrain the mind to associate something previously thought to be negative with something “safe.”

Exposure and response prevention

Exposure and response prevention (ERP) is a type of CBT that is often used to treat obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety disorders, and phobias. ERP could be a next step after beginning cognitive behavioral therapy to use experiences to solidify the newly established associations of happiness with safety, explains Dr. De Gannes.

As its name implies, exposure therapy exposes people to stimuli related to happiness, Dr. Alvarado adds. That could look like physically experiencing a happy event or visualizing a scenario where you feel joy, and proving that you also can be safe and not experience trauma in that happiness.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing

If trauma is a major factor in cherophobia, a type of treatment called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) could be beneficial, says Dr. Alvarado. It involves focusing on a memory or thought associated with trauma in the midst of rapid stimulation of the eyes via something like lights moving back and forth, or stimulation of the brain via sound moving back and forth in each ear; the goal is to desensitize the person to the intensity of that memory or experience, according to the American Psychological Association.

How do I stop fearing being happy?

Some people may have a milder experience of cherophobia. One example is perfectionists and people who are self-critical. Their negative inner voice can take over, and they can experience a form of cherophobia, says Dr. Patel.

“Since [perfectionists] often don't allow themselves to be at full-capacity happiness and in a state of content, they may feel that people who are happy are settling for less because there is always more to do to achieve happiness,” Dr. Patel says. “If they feel happy, then they assume something must be wrong or something bad is coming next to let them down.”

Below, you'll find some strategies for breaking that association between happiness and the feeling that something bad may imminently happen.

Avoid isolating from others

You should first give yourself grace for the way that you’re feeling, Dr. Patel says, whether your primary symptoms feel more like anxiety or depression. It’s important to be vocal about what’s going on and seek help—you can start by talking to trusted loved ones about your state of mind, she adds. Seeking out the help of a therapist, if that’s available to you, to work through the phobia can also be so beneficial as a next step.

Try to practice gratitude when you can

It can be much easier to get wrapped up in negative thought patterns than it is to take a moment to find something good in a situation, no matter how brief. Keep an active track of little things that bring you happiness, or happy triggers (a gratitude journal is a great place to start!) and practice focusing on staying positive instead of the fear of what may happen next. “All the little things add up to big things, so start counting and noticing the little wins and moments of happiness, which over time turn into the big things and can turn into happiness as a state of mind,” advises Dr. Patel.

Allow yourself to sit in the happiness

The next time you’re able to feel joy, allow yourself to be present and content with that, instead of self-sabotaging or “future tripping” about what may happen next. Beyond the little moments of gratitude, begin to take mental note of the moments or full days that bring you joy, suggests Dr. Patel. Then, you can turn back to them and meditate on those to prove to yourself that you were safe and something bad didn’t follow the moment of happiness, she adds.

Coping with cherophobia

There is no magic bullet treatment for cherophobia, or any phobia, but this is treatable and something you can cope with—likely with the help of a mental health professional. If you or someone close to you notices that you are exhibiting avoidance around happy or joyful feelings and sitting in your unhappiness (but may not be clinically depressed), this could be a sign of cherophobia and a sign you should reach out for help, says Dr. De Gannes.

Keep this in mind: If fear is superseding your ability to experience joy, engage in social activities, or function throughout your daily routine, you should seek out a mental health professional, Dr. Alvarado advises. They can help you gradually get back into a routine where happiness can be part of your daily life.

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Şar, Vedat et al. “Fear of happiness among college students: The role of gender, childhood psychological trauma, and dissociation.” Indian journal of psychiatry vol. 61,4 (2019): 389-394. doi:10.4103/psychiatry.IndianJPsychiatry_52_17

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