Wednesday, September 25, 2013

"Don't Worry, Be Happy"

Although I remember well his best known song, I hadn’t remembered that Bobby McFerrin was the one who sang “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” That song topped the Billboard Hot 100 charts on Sept. 24 and Oct. 1 in 1988, twenty-five years ago now. It was the first a cappella song to ever reach number one. Then in February 1989 it also garnered the Grammy Award for Song of the Year.
The lyrics for McFerrin’s lilting song seem to have been inspired by Meher Baba, whose picture with the words “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” appeared on numerous posters and inspirational cards. Baba, whose birth name was Merwan S. Irani, was a “spiritual master” from India, who claimed to be an Avatar, God in human form.
So with his hit song McFerrin made Baba’s simple words known around the world. People greatly enjoyed both the music and the appeal of the lyrics. George H. W. Bush even used McFerrin’s popular song in his 1988 U.S. presidential campaign—until he had to stop doing so because of McFerrin’s objection.
Bobby McFerrin (b. 1950)
One of my good friends always includes the words “Be well and feel good” before his name at the end of his email messages. That is a nice wish, but we don’t always have control over whether or not we are well, nor completely over how we feel. But I assume my friend David also likes the words “Don’t worry, be happy.” And we can have considerable control over worry and some over whether or not we are happy.
Long ago I heard it said that we humans worry about two things: things we can change and things we can’t change. If we can change something we don’t like, we should get busy and do it rather than just worrying about it. And if we can’t do anything about it, there is no use to worry.
And then I remember these words attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Just last week I saw an article on “The Habits of Supremely Happy People.” The author of that piece cited psychologist Martin Seligman, who stresses that at least 40% of our happiness is up to us.
So perhaps to a large degree we can be happy and not worry, if we so choose.
I became interested in learning more about McFerrin when his paraphrase of Psalm 23 was sung by the choir in the church June and I attend. The lyrics of that song begin,
                 The Lord is my Shepherd,
                 I have all I need,      
                 She makes me lie down in green meadows,
                 Beside the still waters, She will lead.
                 She restores my soul, She rights my wrongs,
                 She leads me in a path of good things,
                 And fills my heart with songs.
McFerrin wrote those lyrics as a tribute to his mother, but it is a good reminder that God can (and probably should) be pictured as Mother as well as Father. There are several YouTube videos of McFerrin’s “Psalm 23,” and I particularly enjoyed this one (click here), which includes a tribute to famous women throughout history.
Earlier this year McFerrin released a new album, “spirityouall,” and he talks about it in an interesting interview on the May 24 Religion & Ethics Newsweekly program (found here).
Perhaps McFerrin can sing about being happy and not worrying because of his deep faith, such as he expressed in “Psalm 23” and in his new album.


  1. I was first introduced to McFerrin in this fascinating video about the power of music and how some things—the pentatonic scale, for instance—are deeply rooted in our collective consciousness.

    1. Joshua, thanks for sharing this. I wanted to mention this in the article, but because I didn't want to make it any longer I didn't. But I appreciate you sharing this, and I hope others will watch that fascinating YouTube video.

  2. Thank you, Leroy, for a delightful link to McFerrin's "Psalm 23," and to Joshua, for the fascinating link to McFerrin's use of the pentatonic scale. I am very happy.

    But am I happy because these links came into my life, or because I "chose" to be happy? This sounds like debates about nature and nurture. Both are powerful forces. Usually our lives are enough in balance so that can indeed to a considerable extent chose whether to be more or less happy. Yet, there are also those mountaintop experiences where we are so happy we seem to have not choice about it, and those dark valleys of despair where choice seems a very hollow concept. I remember reading a holocaust story where a prisoner in a Nazi death camp was moaning in his sleep. A friendly neighbor got up and started towards him to wake him. Another man intervened, asking, "What are you going to tell him?"

    We live in a world where there are political debates about whether people "choose" to be homosexual, poor, or even sick. As Yoda says, "There is no try, only do." Judgment quickly follows a "wrong" choice. For instance, if the "choice" involves abortion.

    Psalm 23 is a personal, confessional psalm. On that level, choice means a great deal. We can choose our goals, and seek to find ways to choose to implement them. We may find a path to success and happiness we did not know we had open before us. Yet, even here, we must proceed carefully. We may "choose" to stop smoking, drinking, or over-eating, but that does not mean it will be anywhere as easy as choosing which brand of cigarette or food to buy. So we are back to Seligman's estimate that 40 percent of our happiness is open to our choice. Probably not a bad guess.

    1. Craig, thanks for again posting perceptive, though-provoking comments. As I have said before, the value of my blog is greatly enhanced by your comments, and I am grateful (happy!).

  3. Thinking Friend David, mentioned in the blog article, commented about my reference to him. I appreciate his reading my posting and sending these comments, which I am pleased to share.

    "Thanks for noticing and referencing my closing greeting. I believe each of us does have a choice about our health and our feelings.

    "There are somethings out of our control, but most of my life is driven by me if I choose."

    "Be well and feel good - David"

  4. An esteemed Thinking Friend in Kentucky wrote,

    "I like McFerrin's version of Ps 23. He's not a bad theologian!"