The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


Those squiggles of consternation hovering above Charlie Brown’s head, give him a permanently frazzled look. He spends his life worrying—about his baseball team, his school grades, his loneliness, his unconventional dog, Snoopy. He’s undoubtedly the most conscientious eight-year-old in the history of cartoons. But if being agitated and careworn is not generally for children, it is, however, a very common side effect of adult life.

From the Old English wyrgan (to kill or throttle), the oldest meanings of being worried involved strangulation by serpents or asphyxiation by bad smells. Animals worried their prey with biting and shaking (“Said e.g., of dogs or wolves attacking sheep”), but so, in the seventeenth century at least, could lovers worry theirs with kisses and violent hugs. The Oxford English Dictionary first identifies worry as a “troubled state of mind arising from the frets and cares of life” in the early nineteenth century. Worrying—or worriting—became a habit of literary characters soon after, evidence of an intense concern for others at the expense of oneself. It could be noisy: when Eliza, the runaway slave in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, appears at the house with her child, she is “in great worry, crying and taking on.” Or silent, hidden beneath an optimistic smile. But it could still be deadly, exhausting and depleting worriers who, like Little Nell, were eventually killed by their concern.

In the 1870s the author Samuel Smiles, self-help guru for the Victorian middle classes, emphasized the dangers of worrying. “Cheerfulness,” he wrote, “enables nature to recruit its strength; whereas worry and discontent debilitate it.” The kind of worry that Smiles was particularly concerned about was that felt in response to vapid problems: the ups and downs of one’s social status, breaches of etiquette, the latest romantic intrigue. The fact that worry debilitated was worrying in itself. In a world where being productive and energetically improving oneself were important values, succumbing to worry was emerging as rather irresponsible (see also: BOREDOM). It was against this backdrop that, in the 1890s, some of the apprehensiveness associated with worrying was carved off into an important new medical condition: ANXIETY. Initially thought to be caused by unspent sexual arousal, it is now the most regularly diagnosed affective disorder in the United States.

Perhaps the invention of anxiety has left workaday worry with a happier ending. Almost 150 years after Samuel Smiles, modern self-help books still relish the possibility of a worry-free life: How to Stop Worrying and Start Living; Women Who Worry Too Much—how to stop worry & anxiety from ruining relationships, work and fun. But more recent psychological research has cautioned against always assuming worry is a problem.

Catastrophizing (always visualizing the worst possible outcome) may be counterproductive, but sometimes worrying at our problems can be an imaginative process. Rattling them apart like a dog shakes its prey and examining them from every angle allows new ideas to come into focus and existing ones to rearrange themselves. And, though it might seem obvious, a longitudinal study reported in the journal Psychological Medicine in 2006 has confirmed that worriers have fewer accidents. Some researchers have even suggested that there may be a “worry gene,” handed down through the generations, since while stress and anxiety may shorten lives, those who experience the lower-level, more optimal emotion of worry seem to live longer and reproduce more. So perhaps we should welcome at least some of our worries.

After all, not all worries are created equal. Some things are worth getting into a fluster about, as F. Scott Fitzgerald advised his eleven-year-old daughter, Scottie, in 1933:

Don’t worry about dolls, boys, insects, parents, disappointments, satisfactions or the future.

Things to worry about:

Worry about courage

Worry about cleanliness

Worry about efficiency

Worry about horsemanship…

See also: DREAD.