Unpacking the lyrics of the iconic happiness anthem to find surprising science-tested insights on well-being.
In 1988, Bobby McFerrin wrote one of the most beloved anthems to happiness of all time. On September 24 that year, “Don’t Worry Be Happy” became the first a cappella song to reach #1 on the Billboard Top 100 Chart. But more than a mere feel-good tune, the iconic song is brimming with neuroscience and psychology insights on happiness that McFerrin — whose fascinating musings on music and the brain you might recall from World Science Festival’s Notes & Neurons — embedded in its lyrics, whether consciously or not.
To celebrate the anniversary of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” I unpack the verses to explore the neuropsychology wisdom they contain in the context of several studies that offer lab-tested validation for McFerrin’s intuitive insight.
In every life we have some trouble
When you worry you make it double
Our tendency to add more stress to our stress by dwelling on it is known is Buddhism as the second arrow and its eradication is a cornerstone of mindfulness practice. But now scientists are confirming that worrying about our worries is rather worrisome. Recent research has found prolonged negative cardiac effects of worry episodes, following a 2006 study that linked worrying to heart disease.
Here, I give you my phone number
When you worry call me
I make you happy
Multiple studies have confirmed the positive correlation between social support and well-being, and some have examined the “buffering model,” which holds that social support protects people from the adverse effects of stressful events.
Cause when you worry
Your face will frown
And that will bring everybody down
Mirror neurons are one of the most important and fascinating discoveries of modern neuroscience — neurons that fire not only when we perform a behavior, but also when we observe that behavior in others. In other words, neural circuitry that serves as social mimicry allowing the expressed emotions of others to trigger a reflection of these emotions in us. Frowns, it turns out, are indeed contagious.
Put a smile on your face
Pop-culture wisdom calls it “fake it ’till you make it”; psychotherapy calls it “cognitive behavioral therapy“; social psychology call it story editing. Evidence abounds that consciously changing our thoughts and behaviors to emulate the emotions we’d like to feel helps us internalize and embody those emotions in a genuine felt sense. Paul Ekman, who pioneered the study of facial expressions,found that voluntarily producing a smile may help deliberately generate the psychological change that takes place during spontaneous positive affect — something corroborated in the recently explored science of smiles.
Don’t worry, it will soon pass
Whatever it is
In 1983, UCLA psychologist Shelley E. Taylor published a seminal paper [PDF] in the journal American Psychologist proposing a theory of cognitive adaptation for how we adjust to threatening events, based on evidence from a number of clinical and empirical studies indicating that we grossly overestimate the negative impact of the events that befall us, from cancer to divorce to paralysis, and return to our previous levels of happiness shortly after these negative events take place.
This article is reprinted with permission from Maria Popova. She is a cultural curator and curious mind at large, who also writes for Wired UK, The Atlantic and Design Observer, and is the founder and editor in chief ofBrain Pickings (also on Twitter and Facebook).
SHARE YOUR REFLECTION
6 Past Reflections
On Jul 1, 2013Deejay USA wrote:
I could not find vedio of this song.How to get this song?
According to what I read, Bobby walked into a friend's house and on the wall was a photo of Meher Baba and his wonderful quote: Don't worry, be happy. It inspired McFerrin to write this wonderful song, but too rarely does the quote get its proper attribution.
This article really got us thinking, so we wrote a post based on it at musicandhappiness.com. The music of "Don't Worry, Be Happy" is as important as the lyrics in conveying the benefits of the song, based on Positive Psychology research. We hope your readers will check into the research on optimal well being that Ms Popova draws on, as we do in our work with music.
wow, yes and no. On the front don't worry , be happy but in order to be really happy the more of us had better educate themselves on the real world that our major media covers with such a pablum patois. Don't stew and worry but stand up and challenge the aspects of the world that are designed to create imbalance and usury, designed for profit over human health and well being. The orientation of an entire culture has gone awry and taking care of the self and close friends will not undo the damage that we enabled under bad premises and false beliefs. Socially unjust practices in the USA and elsewhere will continue damaging the earth and her creatures unless we choose to engage in the work with our neighbors and strangers , to teach and learn as much and as fast as possible. We heve been plugged into a bad system , we need to pull that plug.