Tim McGraw's 'Humble and Kind' Gets Bitterness Wrong


While one part of the country was transfixed on the World Series championship, another was being serenaded by country crooners at the 50th annual Country Music Association Awards. Beyonce’s performance with the Dixie Chicks might have stolen the show, but it was Tim McGraw that got to walk away with Song of the Year. The prize is problematic: His song “Humble and Kind” may be a excellent sentimental ode to living a good life, but its scientifically flawed take on bitterness is anything but award-winning.

With his molasses cowboy growl, McGraw implores his listeners: “Don’t expect a free ride from no one/Don’t hold a grudge or chip and here’s why/Bitterness keeps you from flyin’/Always stay humble and kind.”

Nice sentiment, Tim, but that’s not how bitterness works. Sure, maybe he’s referring to metaphorical flying, but actual bitterness actually ignites your inner fight-or-flight response. Scientists have discovered that the physical experience of tasting bitterness ignites your motivation to survive. That’s what Chinese researchers discovered in 2012, when they found that people who drank bitter water were more quick to respond to series of survival-related tasks than people who drank plain water. This observation led them to conclude that “the taste of bitterness embodies survival motivation because both are adaptations to harsh environment.” So no, bitterness does not “keep you from flying” — it actually makes you fly out the door and into a safer situation.

McGraw’s take isn’t entirely wrong, though: The song does make a good point when it comes to the emotional aspects of bitterness. Scientists have discovered that constant bitterness can also result in very real illness, suggesting that exercising forgiveness has more than moral benefits. Emotional bitterness actually affects metabolism, immune response, and organ function, and it also causes the body to over-release the hormone cortisol.

A good solution, according to physicians at John Hopkins Medicine, is forgiveness.

Perhaps McGraw had our taste buds in mind when he wrote “Humble and Kind.” Emotional bitterness, scientists have discovered, causes the taste of bitterness as well: When someone is overly anxious, they’re likely to have a bitter taste in their mouth.

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