Spontaneous Happiness by Andrew Weil is a great book. I read it the first time a few years ago, being a bit curious about the subject of happiness, and yesterday I finished it again.
Dr. Weil is an M.D. schooled in the west, but with a focus and interest in holistic medicine, meaning an emphasis on the body and mind as a complete system that must be in balance to prevent disease.
The book has sections on lots and lots of topics related to happiness, mostly with the angle of preventing depression/moodiness, something Dr. Weil has suffered from. The author discusses topics such as food supplements, caffeine, St. Johns wort, SAMe, Holy basil, Rhodiola, Prozac, Ashwagandha, pets, noise, information overload, connecting with nature, loneliness, CBT, spirituality, breathing, flow, sleep, meditation, mantram, forgiveness, addiction, art and beauty, exposure to light, positive visualization, gratitude, physical exercise, physical contact, therapy among others.
He generally brings up related research, his own experience with the methods, and what you can do on a concrete practical level to leverage them. In the final chapters of the book he lays out an eight week program that you can follow, gradually introducing methods of increasing complexity, with the end goal of making you a happier person. I dare to say that if you follow that eight week program you are guaranteed to be happier by the end of it.
One of the axioms of Weil's views on happiness is that we have an emotional happiness set point – a level of happiness that we naturally gravitate towards. This set point is different for different people, but we can always work to make it higher. The point here is that there is no miracle cure or method that will instantly make you experience total bliss every day. You will sometimes have bad days. But if you heighten your emotional set point you will have bad days with lower frequency, and they won't be as bad as before.
It is perfectly normal to experience “the blues,” just as it is perfectly normal to experience joy and bliss, but optimizing emotional well-being means gaining greater control of the variability of moods, damping down the oscillations, and enjoying the rewards of the midpoint. It also means not shutting down that dynamic variability, not getting emotionally stuck.
One of the most valuable passages in the book in my view is his tips on vitamin D and fish oil, which I have followed for years now and which I feel (placebo or not) has made me a happier and more emotionally stable person:
The body needs regular daily intake of adequate amounts of both EPA and DHA, two long-chain omega-3 fats that are abundant in oily fish from cold northern waters but otherwise are hard to come by. Most of us do not get enough, making this the most serious dietary deficiency in our population. A great deal of scientific data links low tissue levels of EPA and DHA to a host of mental/emotional disorders, including depression, violent behavior, suicide, and learning disabilities. Dietary supplementation with these fats, usually in the form of fish oil, has proved to be an effective, natural, and nontoxic therapy for bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, postpartum depression, seasonal affective disorder, and more. It also helps prevent depression and improve overall emotional well-being.
Start taking fish oil: 2 to 4 grams a day of a product that provides both EPA and DHA (more of the former). Read labels carefully to make sure you’re getting 2 to 4 grams of total omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA), not of oil. Pass up products that include omega-6 or omega-9 fatty acids; you don’t need to supplement with them. Buy only brands of fish oil that are “molecularly distilled” or otherwise guaranteed to be free of toxic contaminants. You may have to take three or four capsules twice a day to get the recommended dose. Take them on a full stomach. If you get fish-flavored burps, try keeping the product in the freezer and swallowing frozen capsules.
Also start taking 2,000 IU of vitamin D daily. You can use either D2 or D3. Note that if your 25-hydroxy-vitamin D level is very low, you might need much higher doses for a few weeks to bring it into the normal range; your physician can advise you on this.
Another thing I think is interesting is Weil's stance that modern society has a major role in rising rates of depression among people all over the world. His hypothesis is that evolution has adapted us to living in a certain kind of hunter-gatherer society, and since we live in a very different environment as of recently, especially since the industrial revolution, we are not as happy.
Hunter-gatherer societies in the modern world have extremely low rates of depression. The Toraja people of Indonesia, the Trobriand Islanders of Melanesia, and the Kaluli people of Papua New Guinea are examples. Among the thousands of Kaluli assessed for major depressive disorder, a researcher was able to find just one person with the condition.
Within the United States, the rate of depression among members of the Old Order Amish – a religious sect that shuns modernity in favor of lifestyles roughly emulating those of rural Americans a century ago—is as low as one-tenth that of other Americans.
I find breathing to be an interesting subject, and as many other happiness experts, Weil has his own variant of Tony Robbins breath walking. I really recommend trying one of these two breathing techniques, as it can change your mood from bad to excellent in a few minutes.
The most effective anti-anxiety measure I know is a quick and simple breathing technique that I call the 4-7-8 breath. Here it is:
- Place the tip of the tongue against the ridge behind and above the front teeth. Keep it there through the whole exercise.
- Exhale completely through the mouth (and puckered lips), making a whoosh sound.
- Close the mouth and inhale deeply and quietly through the nose to a (silent) count of 4.
- Hold the breath for a count of 7.
- Exhale through the mouth to a count of 8, making the same sound.
- Repeat steps 3, 4, and 5 for a total of four breaths.
As a general guidebook on becoming a happier person, leveraging many different techniques that are out there, I warmly recommend Dr. Weil's book. It is one of my favorite books on happiness so far.
Thanks johnny_appleseed1774 for the photo of the Amish family, licensed under CC BY 2.0.
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