How To Cope With “Happiness Guilt”

Molly Longman
·11-min read

After learning she was pregnant in April, Danielle Cadet stared down at the home test, processing what she saw. Her husband was in the bathroom about to take a shower, and Cadet debated whether she should wait until he was done to tell him. But she couldn’t. She knocked, asked him to come out, and shared the news. They were shocked and blissful.

The next day, though, Cadet found out her 82-year-old grandmother, Brigitte Synsmir, had COVID-19. Soon, Synsmir was admitted to the hospital.

“I knew she wasn’t in the best health, and I demanded to speak to her before the ambulance got there,” Cadet says. “I told her I was pregnant, and she was trying to make sure she heard me correctly. Her home health care worker was telling me what her face looked like as she got in the ambulance. She was happy.” Synsmir passed away a week after Cadet’s positive pregnancy test, on April 30.

Nearly a month later, on May 25, George Floyd was killed in Minnesota. Cadet, a Black woman who’s spent her career in media serving Black audiences (including, until October, at Refinery29) was heartbroken. Like much of the country, she’s spent the majority of this year grieving.

“I struggled with celebrating my pregnancy at first because it felt associated with so much sadness,” Cadet says. “I was trying to find room for excitement for this new chapter in my life, but there was some guilt associated with that because there was so much struggle going on, particularly for my community, between COVID and police violence and brutality. I was simultaneously thinking about bringing a Black child into the world… It was an intense and complex emotional experience,” she says. “I think it just feels like the year where bad things are supposed to happen, and if you’re experiencing any goodness, it seems wrong.”

The sensation Cadet is describing is known as happiness guilt, and although the phenomenon existed before the pandemic, it may be more widespread right now. “As a psychologist, a quarter to a third of my clients have mentioned feeling guilty for feeling good at times during the pandemic because there is so much pain and suffering around them,” says Ryan Howes, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author in Pasadena, CA. He says some of his clients are enjoying having more time to devote to their hobbies or to spend with their family, but they share these joyful moments with him “in a hushed tone that says, ‘I would only tell this to my therapist.’”

Happiness guilt can occur if, like Cadet, you’ve gone through both positive and negative experiences, and are struggling to balance your joy with your grief. But even if nothing great has happened to you, you may feel guilty if nothing really bad has occurred in your life this year either. You’re grateful, but also wonder, “Why me?” It’s not dissimilar from survivor’s guilt. “It’s normal to ask yourself why something good happened to you when something bad happened to someone else, or to ask why something bad happened to you when good things happened to a friend,” says Heather Goff, MD, a psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente in Hawaii. “As humans, we often compare ourselves to each other and try to make sense of what is happening to us and around us. The reality is that everyone’s situation is unique, and there aren’t always answers or ‘fairness.’” Emotions are complex, too; people rarely feel purely happy, sad, or scared. It’s natural to have mixed, even conflicting emotions — especially during such a turbulent time.

If you’ve felt happiness guilt, your knee-jerk reaction may have been to try to hide or quash your joy. You may even feel guilty for worrying about something like happiness guilt, brushing it off as a privileged non-problem. And of course, feeling this way right now is a luxury that many of us don’t have. This year, people have grappled with the threat of serious illness, racial violence, economic uncertainty, the loss of safe housing, and more.

But trying to ignore the bright spots in your life won’t benefit anyone who’s going through a hard time right now. “Happiness is not a zero sum game,” says June Tangney, PhD, a professor of psychology at George Mason University, who studies guilt. “The idea that your happiness takes away from others is false.” In fact, rejecting how you feel — either the happiness or the guilt — can be harmful, says Natasha Bailen, MA, a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis. She led a study about meta-emotions, which are emotions we feel in response to other emotions, such as happiness guilt. “There’s nothing helpful about beating yourself up and telling yourself, ‘I shouldn’t be feeling this way, there’s something wrong with me, and I’m a bad person,’” Bailen says. “Talking to yourself like that and believing those things can lead to really negative feelings towards yourself, and is related to symptoms of depression.”

Still, it can be hard to stop feeling bad for feeling good. And let’s face it, at some point in the past year, you’ve probably scrolled past a self-congratulatory social media post that seemed tone deaf and dreaded the thought of making the same mistake. So we asked Dr. Goff, Dr. Howes, and other experts to explain how we can let go of the guilt, enjoy our 2020 wins, and use the positive energy in our lives to lift up the people who need it most.

Remember: Happiness has purpose

Sarah McBride had a good year, all things considered. In November, she was elected to the State Senate in Delaware, making her the nation’s highest-ranking trans official. The win was both a personal and a collective triumph, but when I asked McBride whether she ever felt guilty for being happy about the outcome when the world was in the midst of such turmoil, she said no. Although she wasn’t exactly out “celebrating” her victory, she believes that joy is necessary, especially in difficult times. In 2014, she told me, she lost her husband to cancer. The loss changed her perspective on happiness forever. “You see in those experiences just how necessary it is to find those moments of joy and laughter,” she says. “Joy is the only way to honour the lives that we’ve lost.”

Finding a sense of purpose in your happiness can help you avoid guilt, confirms Gretchen Rubin, the author of The Happiness Project. You might remind yourself that your present moments of joy will help sustain you during the tough times. Or like McBride, you can think of your good fortune as a symbol of hope or strength — something that honours the difficulties you and the people you love may be going through too.

Make use of your “happy energy

There’s a story that’s famous on Reddit that ends with the quote: “Today, you… tomorrow me.” The whole thread is worth a read (grab a tissue first), but the idea behind it is that everyone falls on hard times. So when things are going our way, why not spend a few extra minutes or pounds lifting up the less-fortunate people who cross our paths? When we’re in a slump, maybe we’ll be lucky enough to meet someone who does the same thing for us. And in the meantime, channeling your positive energy into acts of service may help ease happiness guilt, because you know you’re putting value into the world at a time when so many people are going through the hardest experiences of their lives.

“When we’re happier ourselves, we’re more able to turn outward and to think of other people,” Rubin says. “Ask yourself, ‘How can I turn my energy and cheer into something that can benefit others?’ Give to a food bank, take an arduous task off the shoulders of someone at work who has kids running around, run errands for your neighbour who’s at higher risk of getting severe COVID.”

McBride, for instance, plans to use her platform to fight for equality, health care, and better paid leave laws in her state. People tend to think of negative emotions as being the greatest motivators for positive change, but happy emotions can be too.

Set aside time to celebrate solo

Happiness guilt can make us want to ignore or deemphasise our positive experiences, but savouring these events is an essential part of feeling happy, research in the Journal of Positive Psychology shows. If we never allow ourselves to feel good, we won’t be able to turn our present happiness into the fuel that gets us through future lows, points out Dr. Howes.

So try hosting a private mini-celebration: Block off 30 minutes or more on your calendar, and dedicate that time to feeling happy and grateful about whatever’s going your way, no guilt allowed. If this feels strange, Dr. Goff suggests doing something you love to celebrate, such as having a celebratory dance party, popping a bottle of Champagne, or pampering yourself with a new face mask. “Giving yourself that validation, that’s really important,” she says.

Bring in close friends

For some, sharing good news with loved ones can be a key part of the experience of being happy, says Dr. Howes. But it’s normal to feel a little awkward about, for example, telling a close friend who recently lost her job that you just got a new one.

In these instances, Dr. Goff suggests saying, “Hey, I know you’re having a rough month. Would it be helpful if I share some good news with you?” Make it clear that they can say no. And if they say yes, but have a lukewarm reaction to the news, give them a little space and compassion. “Remember their response is more about them than you,” Dr. Goff says.

Focus on spreading the love

Sharing good news with close friends is one thing, but breaking it to your giant group chat, or your social media followers, can feel different. The broader the audience and less personal the platform, the more likely you are to potentially upset someone. That doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t post — we all deserve to talk ourselves up. But if you’re wondering if a certain share is appropriate, err on the side of caution, and consider two things. First, what else is going on in the world? You may want to hold off on personal posts the day news about the widespread devastation caused by a natural disaster breaks, for instance. Second, what are your motivations for posting? Ideally, you’ll share your news with the intention of spreading your joy. “Happiness is contagious” is such a cliché, but it’s actually true, says Dr. Tangney. Case in point: Two of Twitter’s ten most-liked Tweets of 2020 in the U.S. were people sharing that they were cancer-free. We want to feel good for other people — sometimes, we need to.

Paola Agnelli knows firsthand how sharing good cheer can make a positive impact. In mid-March, her sister was playing the violin on her balcony in Verona, Italy, entertaining their stir-crazy neighbours during the country’s first COVID-19 lockdown. Michele D’Alpaos walked out on his terrace to listen, and soon he and Agnelli locked eyes. “I thought he was so cute,” Agnelli, a 40-year-old lawyer, tells Refinery29. D’Alpaos’s sister went to the same gym as Agnelli; she gave him Agnelli’s name, and he found her on social media. They started messaging on Instagram, then moved to phone calls.

They finally met in person in the gardens behind her apartment complex on May 4. “We had a little kiss, even though we were wearing masks and weren’t meant to be doing that,” she says. They’ve been in a committed relationship ever since.

If it sounds familiar, there’s a reason. Local media caught wind of the burgeoning romance, and the story was widely shared across the globe, in outlets from The Daily Mail to The Washington Post. The couple was hailed as the Romeo and Juliet of the COVID-19 era. Since the stories have come out, Agnelli’s received DMs and gifts from people who are genuinely happy for her. “One woman messaged me, ‘This makes me feel that I can find love, too,’” Agnelli says. “So, I don’t feel guilty… Sharing my love story has given people hope.”

Cadet, too, felt sense of solace when she shared her pregnancy news with her grandmother over the phone, just before Synsmir was admitted to the hospital. “My grandmother and I were incredibly close — my family always jokes that we’re kindred spirits,” says Cadet, who delivered her daughter, Lenox, on Dec. 19.

Being able to get the news off her chest before Synsmir passed made Cadet feel like she was leaving nothing on the table. “I know that there’s nothing more she wanted for me than to be a mom,” Cadet says. “Being able to tell her, I think that was God’s and my grandmother’s way of giving me a bit of closure and peace so that I could embrace the joy of bringing a baby into the world at a complicated time.”

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