The “Bobby McFerrin Effect” on Your Brain

Bobby McFerrin

Bobby McFerrin is a singer and conductor known best for his 1988 hit song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”. If you haven’t heard the song, go to YouTube or iTunes and listen to it. Pessimists dismiss the song as being “Pollyana” yet those more optimistic typically love the song. But let’s narrow this conversation down to your school and even the classroom. Which side is correct and which is actually better for student learning? You might be surprised at the answer…

The Research

Two game changing studies to report on. Each will answer the question about the “Be happy” effect. But the kind of happiness you’re feeling is what matters, because each type of happiness has a VERY different effect on your physical well-being and your genes.

To your brain, you feel happiness two different ways, producing two types of “happy.” The first is instant gratification from everything from eating great food, shopping, smelling awesome flowers, sex, entertainment and all other forms of “quick fun.” This is known as a “hedonic” experience, where a person seeks pleasure as the outcome.

The second type is different. With this type, pleasure is the by-product. It’s more of a joyful satisfaction, almost a deep smugness of pleasure. This type is called eudaimonic (pronounced “you – day – monic”). This kind of happiness comes NOT from consuming but from producing something. It comes from a sustained effort at working toward something bigger than you, seeking purposeful and meaningful goals.

Now, let’s go back and answer the happiness question. First, scientist Barbara Fredrickson now tells us that BOTH actually influence your genes (Fredrickson, et al. 2013). As the lead researcher, she says, “I’ve known anecdotally that positive emotions impact us on a cellular level, but seeing these results have given us proof that there is a real difference in the kinds of happiness we feel and its potential long-term consequences.”

But, back to the question, “Which is better for your kids in class?”

This study found that those who pursued the hedonic happiness that comes from self-gratification had both 1) high inflammation rates and 2) low antiviral and antibody gene expression. Shockingly, this is similar to what people who are depressed typically have.

In short, this type of pleasure helps one feel much better in the moment, but it’s evil for our health. High levels of inflammation can cause exhaustion. At school, this leads to increased probability of sickness and absence, bullying, drug use and the chronic stressors of depression and learned helplessness.

But wait, I did not say, “Happy people get sick more often.” I said, “Those who pursue unhealthy hedonism (addiction to drugs, alcohol, internet, etc.) may experience greater long-term health issues.” So, let’s summarize. Joy is better for you than grief. Pursuit of happiness is not as good for you as the pursuit of a goal that makes you happy. Momentary joy is great, as long as its pursuit has not become addictive.

However, those who found happiness by pursuing a greater good (long-term purposeful goals) had 1) a lower level of this inflammatory gene expression and (2) strong antiviral and antibody gene expression. This is a dramatically healthier profile. At school, these individuals are more likely to stay healthy, have greater resilience and avoid drug temptations. Last month, the newsletter was about setting “Gaudy Goals.” So, let’s tie this together.

It is the pursuit of “Gaudy Goals” that helps us experience the “thrill of the chase.” It is the very thought that you just may be able to reach the goals that gets our brain to produce the positive chemicals and create the helpful gene interactions.

How it does this is a bit complicated on a molecular level, but here’s the “sound bite” on it. Feeling more satisfied and more hopeful triggers the release of dopamine, the “reward transmitter.” This new ‘feel good’ helps your brain feel pleasure in anticipation of your goals. It’s not the same feeling as the hedonic ‘wow’. Now you can differentiate between ‘deep satisfaction’ and a ‘wow’ or ‘woo-hoo’ pleasure.

There’s a novel and new function of dopamine in the prefrontal cortex. We now know that it regulates the specific threshold at the synapses during modification. Higher levels of dopamine are associated with greater synaptic plasticity (learning and change)! Dopamine is the new player in the homeostatic process in the prefrontal cortex (Sheynikhovich, Otani & Arleo, 2013). Dopamine is now associated with increasing your odds for change!

Bottom line? Happiness that comes from working for the greater good has a much more positive genetic impact. And, it facilitates change in the brain, too. In the classroom, the implications are quite important.

Practical Applications

Let’s ‘flesh out’ each of the studies listed above. This is fairly easy to do. The “Bobby McFerrin Effect” on either your brain or your students’ is this: Keep students (or yourself) in a positive emotional state for as much time as you can. The “how” is important.

With very young children surprises, games, novel and new experiences provide the brain’s novelty. But as soon as kids are about third grade, it’s time to ‘kick it up a notch.’

Start with kids dreaming up Gaudy Goals (from the September 2013 newsletter found at

They will need help with this at first. To help them, you share your own Gaudy Goals. Then help them set up a plan, a process with clear steps to reach their nearly impossible goals. Their goals should be maybe… possible… achievable… by the end of the school year. If they can reach them for sure, they’re not “Gaudy;” they’re too easy. Choose goals that if you tell another person, their jaw drops.

Create interdependency. Make one kid’s success dependent on their “study buddy’s” success. Teach them how to care about one another and how to help each other.

Establish daily feedback so everyone in your presence gets feedback on how they are doing to reach their Gaudy Goals.

Celebrate the small successes. Then, tie those successes to their goals. Kids won’t do that. They don’t think like that. You have to do it for them.

Coach your students in 1) how to deal with obstacles, 2) delays, 3) setbacks and 4) disapproval from others.

Do your own goals in tandem and in parallel with your students. That way, everyone is relishing the process.

Use key coaching phrases such as, “I loved how you kept trying so many strategies on that problem until you got it.” (This reinforces creative strategy changing.) “I like that you refused to give up, even when it took a lot longer than expected. That extra effort will help you succeed again and again.” (This reinforces grit and effort.) “Before you began you thought you could succeed. I think that positive attitude helped you come through.” (This reinforces the positive attitude.)

Well, that’s it for this month. Feedback on my newsletters? PLEASE WRITE ME AT

Fredrickson BL, Grewen KM, Coffey KA, Algoe SB, Firestine AM, Arevalo JM, Ma J, Cole SW. (2013) A functional genomic perspective on human well-being. Proc Natl Acad. Sci. U S A. 110,13684-13699.
Sheynikhovich D, Otani S, Arleo A. (2013) Dopaminergic control of long-term depression/long-term potentiation threshold in prefrontal cortex. J Neurosci. 33, 13914-26.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply