‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ is Bad Advice, Better Advice Is ‘Do Worry a Little, Be Happy’

Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse working in palliative care. Essentially she spent her time tending to the people so sick that they were living their final days. After treating these patients for several years, she learnt a lot about the intimate thoughts of people in their final days. She had the privilege of knowing what these folks regretted most as they reflected on their life.

And it’s not what you’d expect.

Why Do We Worry So Much?

We worry a lot. We worry about money, family, friends but very frequently we work about work. We worry about what to say in that meeting, how that senior person might view us, whether our work is good enough. Or rather, whether we are good enough.

One article reported that we humans spend 5 whole years of our lives worrying. 5 years. Imagine someone told you could add 5 years onto your life if you could figure out how to stop worrying. 5 years is a long time and since we are in the business of trying to work out how to live the best lives we can, it’s worth exploring why we worry.

We Worry Because It’s In Our DNA

Why do we worry so much? Well, according to Leonard Martin, a social psychologist, it’s because of the agricultural revolution. Rewind 10,000 years ago, for the first time in our lives, we’d move from hunter-gathers to planners. We weren’t simply thinking day-to-day, about what we could catch and kill.

Instead, we would spend time planning our crops. Thinking about the best time to plant and then when the crops were planted, we would think about what could cause a problem to the crops. Pests, weather, people. Our mindset had started to shift. To become people that think about future events, to think ahead and plan today based on that. Sound familiar? All of a sudden we moved from just thinking about the day to thinking about weeks, even months in advance. And that’s no different to where we are now. We worry about things that are potentially going to happen in the future. We don’t live day-to-day anymore.

According to a study, 85% of the things we worry about never happen. And of that 15% that does happen, 79% is better than we thought. What brilliant news. 5 years of worrying to realise that most of it doesn’t happen anyway and it’s all because we started being proactive and planting crops.

How We Worry In the Working World

Starting the world of work is pretty scary. There are, what feels like, 2 million things that could go wrong at any point. And it feels like you worry about all 2 million of them, simultaneously.

Although It’s quite curious when we rationalise what we worry about. Worrying about a single meeting on a single day is a curious thought. Apparently, at any one time, 15% of organisations are in a meeting. Which means that they are quite a common occurrence. And not one likely to cause us serious harm. I wonder how many people have died in meetings.

Probably very few.

On the other hand, consider the simple task of washing our hands. Our hands harbour immeasurable amounts of bacteria. The worse place is under our fingernails. We’ve got better at it over time but still, it’s measured that we don’t do it nearly enough. A Forbes article revealed that in a study, people ‘attempted’ to wash their hands around 33% of the times they were meant to. Contrast that with the clear facts, handwashing can prevent 30% of diarrheal related illness and 20% of respiratory-related illnesses. Wouldn’t it make more sense to worry about washing our hands?

There is an Upside to Worrying

Well, there are some upsides to worrying. Like most things, we humans do it for a reason. From a genetics perspective, we have the ability to worry so it must have a purpose, or why else would it have made it through the gene pool?

Kate Sweeny published a paper that was entitled ‘The Surprising Upside of Worrying’ which essentially argues that very point. That worrying has a function, otherwise, we wouldn’t have evolved to possess the ability to worry.

According to Sweeny, there are quite a few benefits to worrying:

  1. It‘s a cue that a situation is serious
  2. It keeps that stressor at the forefront of our minds so we can react
  3. It motivates us to find a way to deal with it i.e. a plan B

It makes sense right. You’re worried about that meeting. By worrying you are able to think about what to wear, what to say, how to act, what you want to achieve. If you didn’t worry, you might not have thought through all those things. It might have pushed you to read some information about the topic of conversation or prompted you to get familiar with the agenda. Now, I’m not saying you are completely incompetent, not by any means but there is a science behind why we have the ability to worry.

But There is a Much Uglier Side

But like most things. In excess it becomes toxic. Worrying for five minutes which then leads you to make a plan for your meeting is good. Worrying for five hours and then being paralysed by it, is a bad thing. The reassurance is that 85% of the stuff we worry about doesn’t actually happen.

The reality is there is no way to know. But you can work with what you know. Look around you. Who has a job that you want or is leading a life that you like the looks of. Not who you are envious of, what I’m talking about is understanding who you get inspired by. Oh, and make sure you wash your hands.

In Summary, Takes Us Back to Bronnie

The most common regret of all was this:

“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

In other words? I wish I didn’t worry about what other people thought of me. In the end, it didn’t matter. Do worry about the things you can control. It’s beneficial. Live life like you want to have zero regrets on your death bed. Live the life that is truly yours.