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23 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”: A Neuropsychology Reading

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Unpacking the lyrics of the iconic happiness anthem to find surprising science-tested insights on well-being.

In 1988, Bobby McFerrin wrote one of the most beloved anthems to happiness of all time. On September 24 that year, “Don’t Worry Be Happy” became the first a cappella song to reach #1 on the Billboard Top 100 Chart. But more than a mere feel-good tune, the iconic song is brimming with neuroscience and psychology insights on happiness that McFerrin — whose fascinating musings on music and the brain you might recall from World Science Festival’s Notes & Neurons — embedded in its lyrics, whether consciously or not.

To celebrate the anniversary of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” I unpack the verses to explore the neuropsychology wisdom they contain in the context of several studies that offer lab-tested validation for McFerrin’s intuitive insight.

In every life we have some trouble
When you worry you make it double

Our tendency to add more stress to our stress by dwelling on it is known in Buddhism as the second arrow and its eradication is a cornerstone of mindfulness practice. But now scientists are confirming that worrying about our worries is rather worrisome. Recent research has found prolonged negative cardiac effects of worry episodes, following a 2006 study that linked worrying to heart disease.

Here, I give you my phone number
When you worry call me
I make you happy

Multiple studies have confirmed the positive correlation between social support and well-being, and some have examined the “buffering model,” which holds that social support protects people from the adverse effects of stressful events.

Harvard physician Nicholas Christakis has studied the surprising power of our social networks, finding profound and long-term correlation between the well-being, both physical and mental, of those with whom we choose to surround ourselves and our own.

Cause when you worry
Your face will frown
And that will bring everybody down

Mirror neurons are one of the most important and fascinating discoveries of modern neuroscience — neurons that fire not only when we perform a behavior, but also when we observe that behavior in others. In other words, neural circuitry that serves as social mimicry allowing the expressed emotions of others to trigger a reflection of these emotions in us. Frowns, it turns out, are indeed contagious.

Put a smile on your face

Pop-culture wisdom calls it “fake it ’till you make it”; psychotherapy calls it “cognitive behavioral therapy“; social psychology call it story editing. Evidence abounds that consciously changing our thoughts and behaviors to emulate the emotions we’d like to feel helps us internalize and embody those emotions in a genuine felt sense. Paul Ekman, who pioneered the study of facial expressions, found that voluntarily producing a smile may help deliberately generate the psychological change that takes place during spontaneous positive affect — something corroborated in the recently explored science of smiles.

Don’t worry, it will soon pass
Whatever it is

In 1983, UCLA psychologist Shelley E. Taylor published a seminal paper [PDF] in the journal American Psychologist proposing a theory of cognitive adaptation for how we adjust to threatening events, based on evidence from a number of clinical and empirical studies indicating that we grossly overestimate the negative impact of the events that befall us, from cancer to divorce to paralysis, and return to our previous levels of happiness shortly after these negative events take place.

As Daniel Gilbert puts it in Stumbling on Happiness, one of our 7 must-read books on the art and science of happiness, “The fact is that negative events do affect us, but they generally don’t affect us as much or for as long as we expect them to.”

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So there you have it: “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” timeless oracle of mental health science. For more on the profound and fascinating intersection of music and mind, see our omnibus of 7 essential books on music, emotion, and the brain.

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22 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Missed Connections Illustrated: Visual Paeans to Modern Love

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Reverse-engineering serendipity, or what ice skating collisions have to do with fish market romance.

You might recall Sophie Blackall, known for her distinctive children’s book illustration, as one of the brains and brushes behind these brilliant design makeovers of the mundane. Since 2009, she has been capturing Craigslist missed connections in her delightful illustrations and unmistakable style of Chinese ink and watercolor, brimming with charm, romanticism and soft whimsy. Now, Blackall joins our running list of blogs so good they became books: Missed Connections: Love, Lost & Found collects the best of these poetic visual what-if love stories, each told in a shorthand “missed connection” ranging from the lyrical (I Gave You My Umbrella but the Wrong Directions) to the warm-and-fuzzy (We Shared a Bear Suit) to the shared love of the tragicomic (Ice Skating in Central Park We Collided).

Every day hundreds of strangers reach out to other strangers on the strength of a glance, a smile or a blue hat. Their messages have the lifespan of a butterfly. I’m trying to pin a few of them down.” – Sophie Blackall

Both playful and profound, Blackall’s delicate drawings — many of which are available on Etsy as prints — immortalize the ephemeral with a wink and a wand, breathing into these mundane encounters a kind of magic that transforms them into open-ended modern-day fairy tales.

In the book’s fascinating introduction, Blackall explores the history of missed connections, both her personal fascination with them and our larger collective memory across time:

For centuries the lovelorn have carved messages in tree trunks and rolled letters into bottles and cast them out to sea. On the 19th of January, 1862, the following appeared in The New York Times:

‘If the young lady wearing the pink dress, spotted fur cape and muff, had light hair, light complexion and blue eyes, who was in company with a lady dressed in black, that I passed about 5 o’clock on Friday evening in South Seventh Street, between First and Second, Williamsburg, L.I., will address a line to Waldo, Williamsburg Post Office, she will make the acquaintance of a fine young man.’

Some of the illustrated messages were written by their smitten authors moments after the encounter took place, and others decades later. Some are written to an impossible love interest, a person famous or dead or forbidden for one reason or another, and some lament the loss of a familiar lover. Hopeful, pensive, lonely, drunken, optimistic — they span the entire spectrum of human emotion.

Missed Connections: Love, Lost & Found weaves some much-needed romance and magic into the fabric of the daily grind, reverse-engineering serendipity with equal parts imagination and humor to deliver a chorus of rare and wonderful paeans to modern love.

Images via Sophie Blackall

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22 SEPTEMBER, 2011

The Story of the Millennium Seed Bank Project + Gorgeous Vintage Seed Catalog Cover Artwork

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What 30 double-decker buses have to do with biodiversity and our dinner parties of the future.

All human life — all life — depends on plants. The genetic information for future plants is held in their seeds, so the biodiversity of our planet, as well as the sustenance of our species and others’, depends entirely on the seeds that survive from generation to generation. Since 2000, the Millennium Seed Bank Project by the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens has been working with hundreds of partners in 50 countries to provide an “insurance policy” against the extinction of plants in the wild by storing seeds for future use. In 2007, it banked its billionth seed. By 2010, they had collected seeds from 24,000 different species of plants, representing 10% of the world’s dryland wild plants. By 2020, the project will have collected 25%. The underground seed vault, if filled wall-to-wall, could hold 100,000,000,000 rice grains or 30 tightly packed double-decker buses.

The Last Great Plant Hunt: The Story of the Millennium Seed Bank Project offers an unprecedented look at one of the most important and ambitious international conservation efforts of our time. From how seeds are collected and cared for to what role they play in conservation research, the book blends equal parts practicality and perspective to reinstill in you a profound appreciation for our planet’s remarkable biosphere.

If you still doubt the vital significance of plants, this short but compelling 2009 TED talk by Kew’s Jonathan Drori will convince you otherwise:

For an even more breathtaking, visceral reminder of the magnificence of plants — one unaffiliated with the Millennium Seed Bank Project but in a way a manifesto for it — get lost in this stunning vintage cover artwork from the Smithsonian’s collection Seed Nursery Catalogs.

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