Don't Worry, Be Happy?

by: Dr. Rami Nader


Just the other day, I heard an old Bobby McFarrin song on the radio if his name is not familiar, the song probably is - "Don't Worry, Be Happy." In the late 1980's, that light-hearted, Grammy winning song had everyone singing along. It was with bittersweet nostalgia that I listened to it thinking about how life seemed so much different now. Perhaps it was because the first time I heard that song, I was a young teenager, but I also think the world is a very different place now. It just seems like there are more things to worry about; identity theft, computer viruses, government corruption, wars, terrorism, insert your worries here.

Worry is one of those universal experiences that we all face. People have always worried; the content of the worries may change over time and generations, but the experience of worry will likely always exist. Worrying is a part of our human nature, but that does not make it pleasant. When worrying becomes excessive and uncontrollable, it can result in a number of physical problems including restlessness, fatigue, difficulty sleeping and muscle tension. If this type of excessive worry begins to interfere with a person's life, it can be given a diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD for short. In any given year, between 1500 and 2000 people on the North Shore will suffer from GAD.

So how are we to deal with worry, both excessive and "garden variety" worry? Unfortunately, Bobby McFarrin's advice to be happy when you worry is kind of like calling out to a man who is drowning and suggesting he try to swim.

In treating excessive worry, one of the main tools we use is to get people to begin to think differently about the usefulness of their worrying. Many people who worry excessively hold underlying beliefs that worrying may be beneficial in some ways. Worrying can be viewed as problem-solving "Worrying helps me solve my problems", or "Worrying motivates me to do something about my problems." Worrying can also be seen as a positive characteristic "What kind of mother would I be if I did not worry about my children?" However, when people take a step back from their worry and think about what effect it has on them and their situation, they often come to realize that worrying has no effect on reality. Worrying does not change situations, solve problems, or make a better person; it just creates anxiety.

These are not new concepts. Jesus pointed out the futility of worry almost 2000 years ago. In Matthew 6:25-27, he says, "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or stow away in barns, and yet the heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?" Jesus tells us to think differently about worry and put its usefulness into perspective. Worrying cannot add to life, it cannot solve problems and it cannot feed and protect the body. Those are all things that the Father provides. Life is full of uncertainty and "what if?" questions, which can often lead to worry. However, seeing worry for what it is (and what it is not) can go a long way in reducing worry and the anxiety that goes along with it. Don't worry, be happy? Not quite.

(Article appeared in the Spiritually Speaking Column of the North Shore News on March 31, 2006)