Remember the song popularized by Bobby McFerrin from the 1980s called “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”? It quickly ran up the charts and filled the No. 1 slot. But it wasn’t without its critics. Some people thought it unduly glamorized frivolous happiness and encouraged denial of the true harshness of reality. What do you think? Is encouraging happiness irresponsible? Is worrying a better course?
Professors at the Harvard School of Public Health have been studying that question, which has become a field of inquiry called the biology of emotion. In the winter of 2011 the HSPH published an article called “Happiness and Health,” which noted there is now a vast body of scientific literature that demonstrates how negative emotions harm the body. Chronic anger, toxic stress, long-term depression and persistent fear are some of the negative emotions that contribute to wear and tear on the body and ultimately increase our chances of such problems as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and atherosclerosis.
That seems reason enough not to worry. But the Harvard researchers claimed living without excessive negative emotions is only half the answer to promoting better health. Cultivating positive emotions, including happiness, is the other and equally significant component. Such qualities as happiness, optimism, hopefulness and enthusiasm seem to provide protection against certain illnesses.
What’s your emotional outlook? If you weighed your emotions on a scale with your tendency toward negativity on one side and your positive outlook on the other, to which side would the scale tilt? We’d probably all like to improve our fund of positive emotions. Not only does it feel more pleasant to be happy than to be sad, but we now know it’s far healthier to rid ourselves of negativity. Yet achieving happiness is not necessarily easily accomplished. Many of us have fallen into stubborn patterns or adopted habits of worry, pessimism, fault-finding or bitterness that we feel are justified. We may defend our negativity as “realistic,” given the cards life has dealt us, even though maintaining such a negative outlook only harms us.
Why not stop? Why not cultivate some of the emotional vitality that researchers claim benefits our health and well-being? Why not become more positively engaged in the world around us? Why not strengthen relationships with family and friends? Why not discover a faith community of people to challenge, support, and encourage us? Why not find some ways to take our minds off the worries of an uncertain future and concentrate on the joys of the moment? Why not dance, sing, jog, write, serve, meditate or pray? Why not strive to do our very best and then simply entrust the rest to God?
One of the most stirring texts of the Gospels advocates the development of trust in God as a way of minimizing worry and stress and helping us to focus life more constructively and faithfully. From Matthew’s gospel come Jesus’ words: “And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” (Mt. 6:27-29)
Why worry? There’s so little to be gained by it, and so much to lose. Consider the loveliness of the world around you, the gifts that sustain you, and the life you’ve been granted. And be happy.