Some 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.