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Is Saying “Don’t Worry Be Happy” Just a Cruel Joke?

Updated on August 24, 2020
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A former university media communications professor, Sallie, an independent publisher, also writes romantic fiction novels and short stories.

Learning to Replace Fear with Faith

When I first heard the song “Don't Worry, Be Happy,” by the very talented musician, Bobby McFerrin, even though I liked the tune, I was a tad miffed by what the song was saying. “Don’t worry,” his beautiful voice said over and over again. Shortly after that, he simply directed hearers of the song to just “be happy.” As if it was just oh-so-easy to turn any old frown upside down.

It was 1988, and I remember changing the station many days when the popular song came on the radio when I was driving. See, I was doing some serious worrying in those days while facing some challenge or other that young people face who are not yet mature Christians. At the time, I thought it was kind of cruel for someone to sing such a beautiful melody, a cappella, and to say something I felt was impossible to do. “Troubles,” I said to myself, “don’t just disappear when we smile.” I remember questioning, in my own mind, if the singer (or song writer) thought the words could actually bring happiness to people like me who were facing mountains of troubles. Or was it just a catchy phrase that sounded good to hear and say, but had no real significance other than that? I soon dismissed the words as being much too simplistic, even callous. I decided it was just a song, not to be taken seriously by anyone, for any reason. No way could anyone stop worrying and find instant happiness from doing so.

The song was released in September of 1988, and it became the first a cappella song to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It held that position for two weeks (and according to Wikipedia, the tune is ranked No. 31 on VH1's 100 Greatest One Hit Wonders of the 80s and appears on Rolling Stone's list of the 15 Best Whistling Songs of All Time).

"Don't Worry, Be Happy," by Bobby McFerrin

Through the years, I’ve often thought about that song and its message. I guess I protested it so vehemently when it was a hit that it made an indelible mark on my consciousness. Every now and then, after being reminded of the song by something or other, I have often found myself questioning the idea again. Is it possible to achieve a brand of peace and happiness of mind, like what the song promised, simply by choosing not to worry? Now that I’m an older, more mature Christian, I believe the answer to the question I've asked myself many times through the years, has to be a resounding “Yes.”

"Don't Worry, Be Happy"

“Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by being anxious can add one cubit unto his stature?

"And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore be not anxious, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Be ye therefore not anxious for tomorrow: for tomorrow shall be anxious for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is its own evil.” (Matthew 6:25-34 from the King James Version of the Holy Bible)

Fear Hurts While Faith Heals

Worry is based on fear, and the Bible warns us not to allow fear to guide our steps. Using the actual words, or different words and/phrases conveying “fear not,” or “do not be afraid,” it is said that the Holy Scripture offers Christians cautionary warnings about fear around 366 times (perhaps one for each day of the year, including Leap Year?), or perhaps even more.

I have to confess that I have never counted the cautions, so I don’t know if the number stated is correct or not. But I do believe that even if it were only offered once in the entire Bible, it would have the same significance of meaning: Believers should not fear, they should have faith, and they should trust in God. Why? Because the primary accompanying benefit of faith and trust in God is life without fear, and that means life without worry.

I’m not saying it’s easy to let go of worry. I know it’s not easy. I know it’s hard. But every time I feel fear increasing inside me, about anything, I pray and ask God to help me to increase my faith. And every time I ask, I believe my faith becomes bigger, and my worries, smaller.

Believe to Relieve Worry, Pain, and Suffering

While He walked the Earth, Jesus demonstrated to us over and over again why it is so important to have faith, and how, when we have it, there is no need to worry. Remember Jairus? The man who, in Mark 5:22, went to Christ and fell at His feet, begging Jesus to help his daughter who was ill and dying? A synagogue ruler, Jairus still had to make his way through a crowd of people who gathered around Jesus as soon as the boat Jesus was in landed on the shore of Capernaum. Distraught over his child’s condition, Jairus asked Jesus to come and lay His hands on his 12 year-old daughter, to heal her.

I’m sure it must have required a great degree of humility for a synagogue leader to fall at Jesus’ feet when many temple leaders of that time were criticizing Jesus. But out of sheer desperation, with his only child lying ill and dying, Jairus made his plea. His plea, however, was abruptly interrupted by a woman who fell at the feet of Christ and touched the hem of His garment. The woman had an “issue of blood” that had caused her great pain and suffering for 12 years, and she was convinced that if she could just touch the hem of Jesus’ cloak, she would be healed. She squirmed her way through the crowd and fell and the feet of Jesus, and still she was only able to touch the hem of His garment. But as soon as she did, she was healed.

But it wasn’t the touching of Jesus’ cloak that healed her, it was her faith. She believed that touching any part of Jesus—even His clothing, would heal her, and because she believed, she was healed, instantaneously.

But while this was going on, some men arrived from Jairus’ home to tell him he could leave Jesus, the “teacher,” alone, because Jairus’ daughter had now died. As soon as Jesus heard what the men said to Jairus, Jesus spoke to him, saying (Mark 5:36): “Be not afraid, only believe.” Then Jesus went to Jairus’ home. He told the family and others present that the child wasn’t dead, only sleeping. In awe of having Jesus in their home, Jairus must have believed greatly what Jesus told them, even though by earthly standards, the child was already dead. Then, as soon as Jesus spoke, telling the little girl to rise up and walk, she did. After that, Jesus instructed her parents to feed her.

The story is a powerful one, indeed. It tells us there is never any real need to feel fear, when we have faith. No mountain is too high, no valley too deep, no ocean too wide. And even though our struggles and trials may not always work out the way we want them to, if we have faith, and if we trust and believe in the power of God to see us through anything, everything will work out just the way it's supposed to. No matter what outcome you pray for, and no matter what outcome God allows, worry won’t change anything. It is, in reality, just an unproductive activity that demonstrates, for Christians, the need for prayer and stronger faith.

If you ever find yourself struggling with fear, I pray that God will give you the wisdom and strength you need to surrender to Him all your worries, struggles, burdens, and troubles. And I pray that your faith will grow stronger every day, so that you will always trust and follow His will for your life. On those inevitable down days it might not be possible to change your mood as quickly as just saying, "don't worry, be happy," but with faith and trust in God, it is possible give all your worries to God Almighty. And it is true that lightening your worry load by letting go and letting God will bring you much closer to finding the happiness you are seeking.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also like this one, by the same author:

How to Replace Big Worries With Bigger Faith

© 2012 Sallie Beatrice Middlebrook PhD


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