Happiness Guilt: What Is It And Do I Have It?

There's a big difference between feeling guilt over achieving your goals and gloating.

Finding pure happiness hasn’t been the easiest for many since early 2020. There are things that can bring us little bursts of joy – like receiving an extremely detailed yet hilarious voice note from a friend, or something small and simple like sitting down after a long day with a well-deserved cup of tea and half a packet of custard creams.

There are then the bigger, more joyous moments like seeing your friends and family after a long time (which plenty of us have experienced lately) or celebrating life milestones from weddings to new additions to the family.

There are so many things that we all long after – money, relationships, a new house, a family. But underneath it all, without trying to sound like the cringiest person alive, we all just want to be happy. So why does our happiness sometimes be tainted with a pang of guilt?

The term ‘happiness guilt’ has been around long before the pandemic, but it had never seemed to be as widespread or as common until now. It’s easy to see how confusing it could feel to be so happy when others around you are clearly suffering.

One conversation I had recently, with someone we’ll call Sarah*, really proved to me how much of a major impact experiencing happiness guilt can have.

“In January of 2021, someone in my close friendship circle opened up to us all about how she had been struggling to get pregnant. She and her partner had been trying for a number of years, and it was really getting her down. While she was talking about what their next steps are, I burst into tears. I really felt for her, she was going through an awful time. But I also just found out that I was in the early stages of my own pregnancy, and I felt guilt wash over me like a shock of cold water.”

Continuing, Sarah told STELLAR how her feelings of happiness guilt consumed her: “I was happy, but I instantly felt tinged with guilt. The worst part was that I wasn’t even particularly trying to become pregnant. How could I tell my friends and celebrate with them when one was going through such a hard time? How could I justify being so happy, when I knew that someone close to me was so broken-hearted?

“Of course, when I did later break my big news, all of my friends were delighted – but I couldn’t help feeling that it was still not the right time to share, the feelings of guilt that I had initially didn’t really pass. Now that it’s almost a year later and so much has changed, we’ve already welcomed our baby boy, I still think that something shifted that day, but I can’t tell if that’s down to my own feelings or if something really did change.”

Happiness seems to be both similar to, and the complete opposite of, survivor’s guilt, in which it’s normal to ask yourself why something good has happened to you, and not to someone else who you feel is just as equally deserving – if not more. Or even darker, wondering why some people get such a tough ride of it when your life is pretty much plain sailing.

But trying to downplay your happiness, or even downright ignoring it for a period of time, simply won’t help someone else who’s not going through a good time. If you’re struggling with happiness guilt, try setting some time aside first to celebrate solo.

Give yourself time to really enjoy it, no guilt allowed. Reach out to close friends or family members who you just know will be equally as delighted for you. If the guilty feelings aren’t decreasing, chat to one of the aforementioned friends or family and chances are, they’re gonna tell you exactly what you need to hear: that’s there’s zero need to feel guilty.

But once we deal with, or eventually learn to get over happiness guilt, how do we then talk about how proud we are of our accomplishments without feeling as if we’re bragging or boasting?

Recently, I was chatting to a friend of a friend who, not five minutes into the first IRL conversation we’ve had in over two years, launched into the details of how much money she’s now on after starting a new job. Of course, that’s great for her, but I couldn’t seem to overlook the thought that she just jumped at the chance to gloat about her salary, going into specific details that no one asked for.

Bragging is a big no-no in general, but in Ireland, we seem to take our fear of bragging to the next level. Just recently, even Irish actor Jamie Dornan revealed to Jimmy Kimmel that Irish people seem to be ‘uncomfortable with success’ and that he gets ‘a bit of a hard time’ about his own success when he’s back home. Although that can sometimes translate as plain begrudgery (which is another subject for a completely different day), it shows exactly how we can be easily embarrassed by our own accomplishments.

So where’s the line? How can we talk about our achievements without downsizing our own joy or seeming as if we tooting our own horn constantly?

Share your joy

Rather than going into the nitty-gritty details, focus on sharing just how delighted and/or relieved you are. For instance, if you’re after nabbing that job promotion, share how happy you are that you’ve finally got it, rather than launching into the details of how much more money you’ll be on (always a plus though, let’s not play around here) or how your new company car could take the Batmobile a run for its money.

Reference your hard work

‘Oh it was SO easy’, ‘I could have done it with my eyes closed’ – I’m just gonna get it out there, there are few things more annoying than when someone accomplishes something pretty impressive but gives the pretence that it was possibly one of the easiest things they’ve ever done. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of your hard work, especially when it leads to you landing some good news that’s more than deserved.

Forget the belittling

Now, I’m not saying that you may be prone to belittling others, but hear me out. Let’s take the promotion example again – while you’re chatting about how delighted you are, you’re not going to get any bonus points for bringing anyone else down. ‘Nobody else on the team made half as many sales as I did anyway’, or ‘they had no chance at getting promoted anyway, they’re always at least ten minutes late’ isn’t going to make you sound any more deserving anyway, so let’s just leave that out.

Of course, it’s all easier said than done and the hardest part of talking about your accomplishments is probably getting over that sheer embarrassment of having complete focus on you – even if it is for celebrations. It’s similar to not knowing what to do when someone is singing happy birthday to you, only amplified by ten.

But we all deserve to relish in our accomplishments at least a little, otherwise what was all of the hard work for?

Now, go forth and enjoy your happiness without giving yourself the added guilt trip, and let’s try not to get too braggy while we’re at it *insert peace out emoji here*.


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