When we feel down and out, we may hear someone say—we may even use it ourselves in our personal or clinical lives—“Donʼt worry, be happy!”
But we still feel miserable. And so may those to whom we direct it.
Perhaps we, as either friends, family members, or clinicians have also said these words to someone. We just wanted to cheer them up, to give them hope that everything is going to be fine. Or, just because we didnʼt know what else to say.
These words are also repeated in the famous song by Bobby McFerrin, which he quoted from the Indian mystic Meher Baba: “In every life, we have some trouble. When you worry, you make it double.” And then he repeats it again and again: “Donʼt worry, be happy!”
Itʼs as if in repeating this Mantra, again and again, it will finally sink in.
But does it? Will anxious people stop worrying just because someone tells them to? Will sad people become happy just because they are told to? Really?
Similar well-meaning words of advice are readily available. They tell us to get busy, to get a dog, to do exercise, not to be alone, not to think about it anymore, to rely on Godʼs mercy, or just to drink a glass of water. When that doesnʼt help, they try to make us feel better by telling us that many others are much worse off than us and that we should know better than feeling sorry for ourselves.
But the words donʼt sink in. We still worry. And we still do not feel happy. In the face of trauma and loss, people tell one another all these things. But for the person listening, itʼs all very frustrating to hear, especially when we are tormented by terror and feel that the end of the world is coming.
Even though there is no comfort in these recommendations, the chorus line is repeated again and again: “Donʼt worry, be happy!”
As if anxiety and happiness was a choice. Some say that if we only stop thinking about it, it will get better. But whatever is bothering us is always on our minds. Oh, I wish they could at least remain silent. Itʼs almost like hearing “May the Force be with you!” (from the film Star Wars). When the Force has disappeared, however, we need something else.
If we or our clients have had a bad experience, should we/they not be upset?
If we survived a war, a famine, or a pandemic, should we not worry and be sad? To trauma survivors, most well-meaning advice doesnʼt make much difference. Nothing anyone says can undo what was done. Coming from those who have not “been there” and not “seen that,” the words become nonsense rhetoric.
When emotions are the main thing that troubles us and/or our clients, we/they need to find a way to express it. If they have built up for a long time and are threatening to suffocate us, we need to find a way to let them out. We need to be permitted to feel what we feel, think what we like, and be who we are for as long a time as needed. Rather than getting advice, people need to feel understood, supported, validated. But there are no magic formulas that can promise us that if we only do this or that, everything will be just fine.
A few years ago, I participated in a seminar on trauma therapy in Jerusalem with some “experts” in the field who tried to summarize what we had learned about the best clinical practices for trauma survivors. We presented different kinds of “evidence-based” therapies, abbreviated with popular acronyms including EMDR, CBT, ACT, PE, NLP, PD and PMT, and explained how they worked in neuroscientific terms.
At one point, Leah Balint (a child survivor of the Holocaust) voiced her own understanding of the subject. She shared the story of a fellow survivor who was weeping heavily after recalling the loss of her parents during the war. Leah suggested that the woman take a hot shower with a lot of body lotion. Leah ensured us that it had been immediately effective.
We clinicians first smiled at one another and teasingly called this the “Leah Lotion remedy” because, after all, it canʼt be so simple. Later, however, I reflected that there was a profound message to her story.
Itʼs of course impossible to come to terms with things that are lost forever. So, what else can we do, except to take a shower, literally and/or figuratively, and go on with our lives? It may even be another way of saying “Donʼt worry, be happy!,” without actually using those words.
When nothing will ever be the same again, life still goes on. It will be an incomprehensible journey. Itʼs sometimes short, sometimes long, sometimes a lifetime—and then we may suddenly find ourselves “on the other side” without really understanding how we got there.
It will include many hot showers.
With time, the words of Meher Baba may become our own inner voice. We and our clients may suddenly stop worrying about the future, think less about the past, and even start to enjoy a hot shower in the present.