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You Can Worry and Be Happy

anxious_worrySome time ago, there was a popular song by Bobby McFerrin that urged us “Don’t worry. Be happy.” The lyrics suggest that worrying and being happy are contradictory feelings. They’re not.

When kept at a reasonable level, worrying has a positive function in our lives. In fact, refusing to worry about being evicted for not paying the rent or about not having anyone in your life to love you as the song says, isn’t at all wise. Not worrying means not being motivated to do what you need to do to make positive change. Never having a worry can isolate us from people we love and can even put us in danger.

The Positive Functions of Worry:

Worrying protects us. We are wired to worry. Think about it: Cave people had to be alert for danger at every minute of every day. Cave lions, Saber tooth tigers, and Cave bears were constantly on the prowl for a caveman dinner. Those early humans had to watch their step as a broken leg could well mean death. Mother Nature wasn’t kind.

Fortunately, the “on edge” gene that served those people so well hasn’t been bred out of us yet. Worrying about the right things at the right times helps keep us safe. We watch for the crazy driver who might make a left turn in front of us. We wash our hands to prevent illness. We calculate the moment that an exciting adventure can turn into an unacceptable risk and take care of ourselves.

Worry is information: Feelings are always a source of information. When we feel worried, it’s important to ask ourselves what we’re worried about. Sure. Sometimes worries are unfounded. But sometimes growing worry is a signal that we need to pay attention to something. Another name for this kind of worry is “intuition.” When we’re in touch our feelings (including worries) and are willing to listen, we sometimes realize something that’s important.

Worrying helps us stay on track: Being worried about consequences to our actions is a good thing. In school, worrying a little can help kids study for a test and get assignments turned in on time. The same is true on the job. Being a little anxious about the boss’ satisfaction gets us to do tasks and reports that our employer counts on us to do. Worrying about what and how much we are eating or drinking or exercising helps us stay healthy.  A certain level of worry helps us make good decisions.

Worrying keeps us on our game: Actors and athletes tell us that a little bit of worry is actually positive. They may call it “stage fright” or “pre-game jitters” but it’s really the same thing. A little bit of worry gets the adrenalin flowing. It puts them on their toes to do the best performance they can do.

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Worry is an expression of love: It’s sad when someone isn’t worried about by anyone. A little bit of worry is a way that people say, “I love you and care about you.” It’s why partners and parents want a phone call when their loved ones arrive at a travel destination. It’s why we are concerned when someone we love is sick or out of sorts. It’s why we start to obsess when someone we love is late.

Yes, unchecked it can be immobilizing to the worrier and overbearing for the worry-ee. But when it’s keep at a reasonable level, saying “I’m worried about you,” is another way to say, “I love you and you count.”

Worry on Overdrive

Like most things, worrying is fine as long as it is kept in moderation. When it is on over-drive, it changes to anxiety. And when a person can’t shut the worries off or starts worrying about their worries, it can become an anxiety disorder. Worries on this level can get in the way of doing the most basic of daily activities and can severely damage relationships. Often it causes physical symptoms (like heart palpitations, trouble with breathing, sweating and shaking) and psychological symptoms (like intrusive thoughts, avoiding people and situations that trigger the worries, and repetitive rituals to make it go away). Some people turn to drug and alcohol abuse or overuse of prescription medications in an effort to shut off the worries and calm down.

Fortunately, some combination of the following techniques can help bring anxiety disorders back down to garden variety everyday worry. Effective treatment usually includes some combination of the following:

  1. Proper use of anti-anxiety medications can interrupt the cycle of worrying about worrying and can ease the anxiety enough to make it possible to listen to a counselor and engage in self-help.
  2. Counseling can help an individual get to the function of the worries and rethink how best to deal with them. Counselors also teach new coping skills and coach their clients in practicing them.
  3. Meditation practices are also an effective antidote to anxiety. A formal Buddhist practice of meditation, use of the Relaxation Response or prayer can all help someone settle down and refocus attention and relieve stress.
  4. Self-care: Physical exercise releases endorphins, a natural hormone that relieves stress. Restorative sleep does exactly that — it restores our health and eases our fears. Eating well provides the body and mind with the energy needed to cope.

If I were to rewrite Bobby McFerrin’s song, I’d have the chorus go something like this:

Worry only about the things you need to worry about

Worry just enough to ease your doubts

Worry a little and be happy.

You Can Worry and Be Happy

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). You Can Worry and Be Happy. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 3, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.