Apparently the fear of happiness has a name: cherophobia. You can check if you have it by answering a questionnaire that is halfway between teen mag summer quiz and the Edinburgh postnatal depression scale. “Having lots of joy and fun causes bad things to happen” – strongly agree, somewhat disagree, neither agree nor disagree?
I am a “strongly agree”. Not one of nature’s sunbeams, I am superstitiously inclined to regard happiness with suspicion; absurdly, I seem to believe that expecting the worst can ward it off.
If you are wired this way, it is hard not to overlay an ominous grey filter on idyllic moments: at the moment, this includes wild indulgences such as hugging family members, being in a friend’s house or browsing a charity shop. “Yes, this is nice,” says my subconscious, eyes narrowed, like the bad fairy at my own christening. “But you’ll pay for it later.”
It is not a modern cognitive quirk: Renaissance memento mori art placed a skull or emptying hourglass alongside sumptuous flowers, fruit and worldly possessions, indicating the decline and decay at the heart of every good thing. If you have the expectation of a better hereafter, fine, but if, like me, you think this is as good as it gets, it is unhelpful – a self-sabotaging, rather than self-help, mechanism.
I have been thinking about it recently because I am wondering if cherophobia has a cousin: the fear of optimism. When things look more positive, pandemic-wise, my kind find ourselves primed and scanning the horizon for the next disaster, unable to believe things can really get better.
Scrolling through social media (animal video, shouting, more triumphs for my enemies, global catastrophe, another animal video), I see how that gets under the skin of those inclined to see the brighter side. There does not seem to be a particular demographic or political leaning that tends to optimism (although if your preferred party is in charge, you are probably less inclined to think they have made an irremediable balls of everything), so my usual consistently group-thinking bubble is unprecedentedly divided on whether or not everything is terrible.
“We’re screwed,” someone says, sharing a piece of data on case rates, Delta variant or black fungus. Then someone else takes it as a personal affront, countering with high rates of vaccination in the UK and low hospitalisation figures. Then the first person produces more graphs or arguments and the second angrily restates the good news.
Both are true: vaccines are working, but there is cause for real concern. And both are expressing the same thing: everyone wants things to be OK – of course they do. I feel the fear of optimism, that sense that it would be worse to allow the thing with feathers to unfurl a little in your chest, only to be crushed, than never to feel it at all.
It is also true that optimism bias – hoping for the best – is partly responsible for some of our devastating recent messes: “saving Christmas”, anyone? But I understand, too, the protective anger that flares up when you have dared to feel that lightness, then someone suggests that you might be wrong. Looking ahead is challenging wherever you lie on the optimism spectrum; with no definitive guidance on exactly how much hope is appropriate, we are left to read the runes and take it out on each other when our readings differ.
I have been working on my cherophobia, not so much one day at a time as one thought at a time. Watching my hens potter in the early morning sun, having breakfast at Bettys (the world’s best teashop – fight me) or rootling through the TK Maxx beauty section with hunter-gatherer absorption are tiny moments of joy to bank for the future, small enough not to frighten the mental horses, but significant enough to note.
Optimism is hard to cultivate, because goodness knows what lies ahead – always and especially now. But I hope you can build a baseline of optimism by tracking these specks of delight and realising how many of them there are in a day, a week or a year.
I am not saying everything is fine – heaven forfend – but wherever we are heading may have enough good in it to be worth looking forward to.
• Emma Beddington is a Guardian columnist