At the start of Mental Health Awareness Week, Olivia Sudjic makes a case against blind positivity, and the 'don't worry be happy' meme posting yay-sayers
In 1999, on the cusp of the new millennium, a Big Mouth Billy Bass, the soon-to-be ubiquitous animatronic fish, appeared in my family’s downstairs loo. Billy, made of latex with a mechanical skeleton inside, ostensibly deceased having been wall-mounted, started twitching whenever someone entered. He would then break into a breezy rendition of Don’t Worry, Be Happy by Bobby McFerrin. A strange gift. I remember being surprised by this novelty the first time, then amused by the reactions of unsuspecting guests, then it became unbearably irritating and we took the batteries out.
The lyrics of that song, released the year I was born but unknown to me until the arrival of Billy a decade later, consisted mainly of the catchy titular refrain. McFerrin reportedly called it ‘a pretty neat philosophy in four words’. Expanding on this, the first verse cautions that worrying makes problems doubly bad, the second advises that even in the case of homelessness, it is better not to worry. The third verse says that when you worry, it brings everyone else down with you.
Its whistling optimism was a huge hit. It apparently became George Bush Senior’s favourite track, used as his 1988 presidential campaign song without McFerrin's permission. In response, McFerrin demanded he stop using it and then stopped performing the song. He never sang it – at least not publicly – again. Lyrics about mental survival while being materially powerless, drawing on spirituals and the blues, written by a black musician whose father was the first African-American man to perform at the Metropolitan Opera, convey something very different when appropriated, bumper-sticker style, by a white millionaire in a limousine – or a whistling fish of the kind Bush probably had among his sporting trophies. For many in the western world, that pre-9/11 decade (supposedly ‘the end of history’) could be summed up by the complacent optimism of Big Mouth Billy Bass.
Twenty years later and several global crises downstream, the ‘good vibes only’ merch spawned by Billy seems less complacent than deluded. The same goes for the influencer accounts dripping in positive platitudes, the privileged friend unaware how politicised her decision ‘not to let’ politics affect her is, the self-care articles implying suicidal thoughts can be kept at bay by the cheery exhortations of Urban Outfitters’ homeware. This ‘think happy thoughts’ variety of 21st century positivity, especially as exploited by brands, seems nostalgically kitsch at best, like Uri Geller using mind control to bend a spoon. At worst it intensifies my sense of impending doom.
My idea of an inspirational quote is Greta Thunberg’s ‘I want you to panic’. I believe, as Mark Fisher wrote in his 2009 book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, that ‘it is necessary to reframe the growing problem of stress (and distress) in capitalist societies. Instead of treating it as incumbent on individuals to resolve their own psychological distress […] we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill?’
In my latest book Exposure, I explored my own anxiety within the ‘anxiety epidemic’ of the headlines – not simply as a personal issue in which my mental health is at fault, but as a systemic one to which anxiety is a natural response.
Even when practised by well-meaning people who love us, the idea that individuals can simply choose happiness not only ignores the very real ills of our time, but invalidates someone’s mental state, thereby exacerbating self-doubt, isolation, alienation and so on. It also makes them feel guilty, shamed, personally responsible, a failure, less likely to seek help. Of course reassurance is welcome, but rather than dismissing negativity, it would be better to say: ‘I understand.’
The first time I realised how helpful a therapist could be, she didn’t make me feel good. She made me feel heard and understood, which, ultimately, did feel very good. I remember our first session vividly. I rambled tearfully for half an hour and she nodded, made notes, then summarised what she understood to be the root of my anxiety in a way that felt as if a key had been physically inserted into my chest, unlocking it. I cried again, but with relief.
Though I didn’t understand it until that moment, it was precisely that certain people had dismissed or denied the reality of my pain in the past that had led me to her door. I’d only ever experienced something like it once before, when I’d called the Samaritans and the woman’s voice on the other end said I shouldn’t apologise to her for my tears. This kind of emotional validation is what made the recent post-match interaction between tennis stars Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff at the US Open so moving. Rather than ignore or downplay Gauff’s emotional state at having lost, Osaka comforted her by saying it was better to cry on court than alone in the shower, inviting her to take part in her interview with the words: ‘We have to let these people know how you feel.’
Looking at the lyrics of Don’t Worry, Be Happy again as I write this, one line stands out I’d previously missed, squeezed out of collective memory with that repeated command: ‘Here I give you my phone number, when you worry, call me.’ It’s less catchy but, to my mind at least, an infinitely more reassuring philosophy.