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Don’t Worry…

One of the effects of doing this blog has been that I really have thought about positive psychology and my disaffection for it more consistently than I would have otherwise. I do believe that this has led me to a better understanding than I had before, and one thing that I’ve realized is how much the people who turn to positive psychology may be suffering from depression and pain themselves, though they unfortunately sometimes turn their own pain into a superior fake blitheness that they use against others. Even though they “doth protest too much, methinks,” I sympathize with what led them to try to find better ways of living.

Of course, this has been much on my mind in the past few days as I re-enter the classroom (okay, fine) and the maelstrom of university politics and budget cuts (grim, heinous, and ugly, ugly, ugly). I have felt the need to cheer myself up by any means possible, and my friends have offered advice, poems, tips on stretching in my office to reduce tension, etc. etc. All this good will and understanding has moved me quite a lot, actually, because–Jesus!–I am coming back from a year where I worked on my own terms, in other words, from a great gift and privilege. I deserve no pity. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t need the transitional help–maybe even the long-term help in coping with an unhealthy work environment.

What I do insist on, however, is–in my own head–a continuing acknowledgement that the cheering is necessary because there are bad things in my world. I am not going to pretend that I am transforming reality by cheering myself up–I acknowledge both the very real causes and the limits of my ability to change that reality. This distinction is very important to me. I don’t want to throw out the baby of happiness with the bath water of enforced or oversimplified positivity.

Bobby McFerrin‘s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” is a good anthem for this purpose. The song, at first listen, seems like a simple, merry ditty. But there are a couple of things that make me enjoy this song beyond that surface.

One is the inevitable irony in it. McFerrin’s lilting voice is sincere (and he’s quite a jubilant fellow in general), but there’s a huge contrast between the advice given and the numerous miseries listed in the song–being robbed, lacking a home, potential lawsuits for unpaid back rent, general financial insolvency, lack of love. Perhaps this song even participates in the long African-American tradition of the coded song; it is certainly akin to the blues in its sense of encouragement in rough times if not in its musical brightness.

But I also like the utter simplicity of this song. If, as I noted in my analysis of TEDTalks, Sebastian Wernicke has boiled all the TEDTalks down to “Why worry? I’d rather wonder,” why, then, do we need the elaborate edifice of all those talks with their complex charts, graphs, and illustrations? Why not just listen to a cheerful song and get on with the day?

5 responses »

  1. I’m with you 100%. I have a chronic disability and grow increasingly frustrated with people who tell me that I create my own reality. No. I live with an often shitty objective reality–with real limitations and pain. I suffer real losses that need to be acknowledged, not denied.

    Being a true adult, in my opinion, is facing that reality head-on and choosing to be as happy as possible in spite of it. If Bobby McFerrin or meditation or prayer or counting your blessings works–go for it. But, as rational beings, we need to recognize that we are changing our angle of observation, not reality itself (Heisenberg notwithstanding :)).

  2. I agree with the above comment, that “we need to recognize that we are changing our angle of observation, not reality itself.” I’m often pithy–“hang in there” is one of my favorite mood-soothers. I have little else to say. I want to say “suck it up,” really. Go soothe yourself or look to your support system, but try not to project your frenzy on the poor Starbucks barista. Like the other commenter, I have learned that things can (and probably will be) worse than current circumstances, and, like Lisa, I’ve learned that things can be better, so I’d better not worry. For example, I get fifteen days off a year where I teach, so I get sick of hearing about other profs having to go “back.” The grass always looks greener and such. I’m sick of cliches, however, and would like to face each situation separately, honoring the person rather than the experience. Does that make sense?

    • I’ve been using the concept of “re-framing,” and that’s been helpful to me. I spent too much of the past few years looking only at what was right in front of me. Now I am trying to spend more time looking inside and looking beyond the immediate insanity to friends and opportunities outside my immediate environment. But that doesn’t mean the insanity isn’t still there and that I don’t have to pay some attention to it.

      If I start talking about jobs and greener grass, I will never shut up. And that will not be a good thing. But, yes, you make complete sense, to me anyway.

  3. Terry Ann Thaxton

    “Re-framing,” “changing our angle of observation, not reality itself,” and “hang in there.” These are thoughtful ways of acknowledging life’s challenges while also being able to find some contentment.


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