I always thought this phrase sounded like an instruction, and my reaction was to think, ‘It’s OK for you, but in my life…’ We are given so many major reasons to worry: health, money, insecurity of work, threat of war. Then there are all the everyday ones: will the traffic be bad, will so-and-so react badly when I tell them…, will I have enough time to… . It’s no wonder so many of us spend so much time worrying!
What I’ve realised is that the phrase ‘Don’t worry, be happy’ is not an instruction, it’s a simple statement of cause and effect: if we don’t worry, we are happy!! So what can we do to change the habit of worrying?
Well, let’s start with being clear about what worry is and does. The word originally meant to kill or act towards in a hostile manner. When we worry about things, it’s ourselves that we are being hostile towards! If we begin by really considering its effect on us, we are more inclined to change.
Worry is a form of prediction; it is usually about something in the future, which may or may not happen. And it is always an imagining of something not working out, or going wrong, or being difficult. When we stop and consider this in a detached way, we realise that it really isn’t very useful to us.
Firstly, the effect of worrying on us physically is that we live through our predicted catastrophe in our imagination. This releases the stress hormones we would release if it were really happening, and causes our bodies to react as if we were really in the catastrophe – not good for our health!
Secondly, this playing through in our imaginations is like a rehearsal – we are practising how to behave and react to play our part in it going wrong – is this really what you want to rehearse?!
On top of all this, the initial release of stress hormones affects not just our bodies, but also our minds, so we are far more likely to create a spiral of catastrophe in our mind once we start, because it is the ‘knee-jerk reaction’ part of our mind that is primarily switched on, not our objective analysis.
My mum was an inveterate worrier, so I was brought up to be very good at worrying! It took years for me to realise that it wasn’t useful! Slowly, I began to register that all my worrying made life harder, not easier. I suffered the effects of the immediate worrying: feeling stressed, not sleeping well, not thinking straight, and not dealing well with what was actually happening because I was busy worrying about the next thing.
Then I began to notice that worrying about the future was sometimes a complete waste of time and effort, as it turned out quite differently, and all worked out! Finally I had to admit that often, when my worrying was an accurate prediction, it was because I had more than played my part in causing it to happen: I had approached that person as if they were going to be awkward and difficult, and guess what, they were!
So what’s the alternative?
Let’s begin by recognising that predicting our future is a useful skill when used well. It gives us a dynamic in our lives which can be very positive. So predict things going well! Tell yourself you’re going to have a good day. Expect that others will be helpful and co-operative. Remind yourself of how well you’ve handled similar things in the past.
If you do find yourself running a ‘what if it goes wrong’ story, remember that rehearsing that story is not useful. So ask yourself what the wise, calm you would do to handle the situation well. If you can’t find a full answer to this question, at least find the first step: ‘If they are being difficult, I will suggest we take a break, or have a cup of tea, or wait until later to discuss it’.
If you are already going down the spiral of catastrophe, and can’t think of anything you could do to make the situation work better, distract yourself for a little while: read something you enjoy, go for a walk, watch a tv programme that holds your attention. This will allow your mind to calm down, and make it easier to switch on the calmer, wiser you.
And remember, we don’t know what will happen in the future – often our fears are unfounded – so put your attention on what’s happening here and now, and make this moment a happy one!
Actions for less worry, more happiness
- Gather the evidence that worry doesn’t work: makes you feel bad; messes up your thinking; often inaccurate prediction; may lead you to cause what you didn’t want.
- Do predict your future in a positive way: a good day; a situation you can handle.
- If you find yourself worrying, ask yourself how you could handle the situation well, or at least the first steps the wise you would take.
- Just concentrate on whatever is going on now for you and make that as good as it can be.