Does anyone remember that song? 27 years ago, Bobby McFerrin wrote a catchy little tune that became the first a cappella song to reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 list. “Don’t worry, be happy” won 3 Grammy’s that year. It was, briefly, the official song of the George H.W. Bush presidential campaign. The song was used in advertisements for Alamo Rent-A-Car, Ocean Spray, and Huggies. These four words spawned books, bumper stickers, t-shirts, and a nation of people do-do-doing that catchy tune.
Critical and commercial success for “Don’t worry, be happy” eventually gave way to backlash. Some derided the song’s message as trite...idealistic...overly simplistic...and detached from the reality of a complex world. The "don't worry, be happy" mantra was, to some, escapism at its worst - worry is not something a person can or should simply ignore.
After all, everyone worries. And most of us can’t flip a switch and just stop worrying. Wouldn’t it be great if you could? I mean, sure, worry and anxiety can at times provide motivation to act. But I think it’s more common for worry to suffocate us...to disable us...to leave us curled up in our homes or drowning in an ocean of fear or self-loathing.
My family and friends will tell you that I worry. A lot. They’d probably say I worry too much - and I say that they don’t worry nearly enough. With so much turmoil and uncertainty and evil in the world, how can you not worry? I worry about the health and safety of my children...I worry about what others think of me...I worry about the future of the protestant mainline church...I worry about the growing water spot in my dining room ceiling. I worry.How about you? What do you worry about?
Jesus knows that we worry. He knows that we can be overcome, even crippled by fear. By anxiety. The nagging voices that cause us to doubt if we’ll have enough...or that tell us that we aren’t enough. And yet, several times in this excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says “do not worry”. He tells us how God provides for the simplest of things. The birds. The flowers. The grass. Jesus tells us that God provides for these things, even without their working for it. The birds don’t reap or sow. The flowers don’t toil or spin. God provides.
At some level, we know that God provides. We’re here, aren’t we? We have clothing...food and water...a warm place to be. And we’ve had these basic essentials long enough to make it to this point in our lives. Some of us have more than others, some of us have been around longer than others. But like the birds, the flowers, and the grass - God has provided for us.
So why are we worried? We know that worry doesn’t make us live longer. It doesn’t make us any happier from day to day. It might make us more productive, but it’s just as likely to make us less productive. So why can’t we shake it?
Last year The Independent UK conducted a survey of the things people worry about most. Here are the top 10:
- #1 -- Getting Old
- #2 -- Having enough money saved up
- #3 -- Low energy levels
- #4 -- Diet
- #5 -- Financial Debt
- #6 -- Job Security
- #7 -- Wrinkles
- #8 -- Physique
- #9 -- Paying rent/mortgage
- #10 -- Being generally unhappy
Regarding that last one -- worry about being generally unhappy -- this survey also indicated that 42% of people are unhappy. So not only are nearly half of us unhappy with our lives...we are worried about being unhappy. Kind makes it hard to sing, “Don’t worry, be happy” with any integrity.
On Sunday the New York Times published an OpEd piece with the title - “Choose to Be Grateful. It Will Make You Happier.” The author referenced a 2003 study in which a one group of participants were asked to keep a short weekly list of the things they were grateful for, while other groups listed hassles or neutral events. Ten weeks later, the first group enjoyed significantly greater life satisfaction than the other groups. This is one of many such studies referenced in this piece - all of which led to the same conclusion. Being grateful makes you happier.
But how, exactly? "One explanation is that acting happy, regardless of if you actually are happy, coaxes a person’s brain into processing positive emotions. Research published in the Cerebral Cortex Journal indicates that gratitude stimulates both the hypothalamus (a key part of the brain that regulates stress) and the ventral tegmental area (the part that produces the sensation of pleasure)."
It’s science, the article concludes. But for many of us it also may be common sense. Making the choice to focus on good things makes you feel better than focusing on bad things. Duh!
Science tells us that taking time to be thankful will make us happier. And I think that this kind of happiness just might crowd out the worry that invades our lives. Choosing to say “thank you” - to God and to the people in our lives - for ordinary things just might make us worry less. Deciding to fixate on the blessings more than the burdens will not just make us happier - it will make it possible for us to heed the words of Jesus:
“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.”
Do not worry.
Today, on the eve of our national day of Thanksgiving, it’s good for us to give God thanks for our many blessings. And, as we give thanks, we will likely find ourselves a little happier...and a little less worried.
Don’t worry, be happy?
Don’t worry. Be thankful.
When we are thankful, and a little less worried, and a little more happy -- we are then strengthened to do what Jesus tells us to do at the end of this gospel: strive for the kingdom of God.
Friends from other congregations may have sung the hymn, “Lead on, O King Eternal” this past Sunday - Christ the King Sunday. The second verse of this hymn, written by Ernest Shurtleff, is one of my favorite texts...and it tells us exactly how we seek the kingdom: For not with swords loud clashing nor roll of stirring drums But deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.
Don’t worry. Be thankful. Seek the kingdom. Through deeds of love and mercy.
We trust Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit and in our communities of faith, to help us with this. To encourage one another. To remind each other, in love, of the ways that God provides for us. To focus on the good things and not the bad things. To motivate us to deeds of love and mercy, for the sake of the kingdom here on earth.
(Sermon preached on Thanksgiving Eve 2015 at Capitol Hill Lutheran Church.)