Having written more than a dozen books, founded a medical institute, opened a restaurant and appeared on "The Today Show," "Larry King Live" and "Oprah," among others, Dr. Andrew Weil has secured a reputation as one of America's most recognizable (and controversial) experts on natural healing and medicine. Over the course of his 40-year-plus career, his mission to raise awareness of nontraditional healing has taken various forms: In early works such as "The Natural Mind" and "From Chocolate to Morphine" (both of which endure as classics of the genre), he explored the consciousness-enhancing powers and healing benefits of psychoactive drugs, while later books such as "Spontaneous Healing" and "8 Weeks to Optimum Health," focused on natural remedies to common ailments. More recently, he's written two books—"The Healthy Kitchen" and "True Food"—offering advice on how to improve physical and mental well-being through diet. In "Spontaneous Happiness," Weil weighs in on that mysterious, elusive thing we chase all our lives but can never get enough of: happiness. Weil recently spoke with Bookish about the difference between happiness and contentment, how food affects mood and how depression can be useful.
Bookish: Your recent book is "Spontaneous Happiness." What do you mean by "spontaneous"? What's the approach?
Andrew Weil: I mean that it comes from within and it’s not found without. In my experience, most people imagine they’ll be happy if they get something that they now don’t have--whether it’s a new job or a new car--and I don’t think that’s a good place to pin your hopes for positive moods. Genuine happiness comes from within, and often it comes in spontaneous feelings of joy. In the book, [I've] emphasized that I think it’s much more important to strive for contentment, which is a percent of fulfillment that’s relatively independent of external circumstance.
Bookish: You take issue with the cult of happiness here in America—the "bullying cheerfulness," to use your phrase. You even mention Barbara Ehrenreich's book "Bright-Sided," which is a real takedown of the positive-thinking industry. What do you see as the difference between contentment and emotional well-being, and the kind of militant happiness that you observe in our culture?
AW: One of the things that I found as we researched the book is that there’s an inverse relationship between affluence and contentment: The more people have, the less content they seem to be. In America, the cultural expectation that we’re to be happy all the time and our children are to be happy all the time is toxic, and I think that really gets in the way of emotional well-being.
Bookish: You also mention your own experiences of depression. You compare your experience to that of writers. Do you think there’s a link between depression and creativity?
AW: It’s obvious if you look at the personal histories of successful creative people: artists, writers, composers. There’s striking incidence of depression [and] bipolar disorder. It’s possible that the inward focus of depression favors creativity when you come out of it, and I just report that to give people a sense that negative moods are not necessarily things you want to be completely without. Moods are supposed to vary, and depression may be useful in mild to moderate forms. Obviously, if it’s so severe that it interferes with your daily functioning, that’s not a good thing. But, accepting the fact that you have lows as well as highs may be part of coming to terms with low moods.
Bookish: A lot of creative people worry that if they flatten their mood too much—through psychotherapy, drugs, whatever it is—they could lose their creative juices.
AW: I am very sympathetic to that point of view. And, I’ve tried in the book to give people a sense that it may be worth accepting low moods and learning to live with them and derive the benefit from them rather than simply to make them go away.
Bookish: Do you find, in your own creativity, that you know when you’ve gotten to a point that’s too dark and you can’t work?
AW: The depression that I reported in the book was really a period in my 30s and 40s and I don’t experience it anymore, largely because…of the changes in lifestyle that I’ve made [such as] being physically active every day, eating an anti-inflammatory diet, practicing meditations, living with wonderful dogs, spending time in nature, taking a number of supplements. All this together—[with] practicing gratitude—all the things that are really described in the book.
Bookish: You also argue that one of the contributing factors to the depression epidemic may be the isolating nature of modern life, and you mention the Internet specifically. How is the Internet isolating or sedating?
AW: There’s a great deal of scientific evidence that social connectedness is a very strong protector of emotional well-being, and I think there’s no question that social isolation has greatly increased in our culture in, say, the past 50 years, past 100 years. There are many factors responsible for that. But in recent times, being able to interact with people virtually, for many, substitutes for interacting with them in reality. And while it’s true that the Internet and email may connect people—say, older people that otherwise would be more isolated—for a lot of us, and especially for younger people, it actually fosters social isolation and undermines mental health. I worry that it goes beyond the Internet. It’s all of the new technologies of information transfer and communication. They’re changing brain function and they subject us to unprecedented information load and kinds of stimulation that people were never subject to before. All of that may give us a sense of time passing much more quickly, of not having enough time to do things. It creates anxiety. The only advice I can give is: You really need to try to set limits on usage. I try to disconnect from all of that around two or three in the afternoon.
Bookish: In your recent cookbook, "True Food," and in "Spontaneous Happiness," as well, you argue that diet contributes to low mood. Which dietary changes can increase mood?
AW: The first step is getting away from refined, processed and manufactured food. [It's filled with] all the stuff that’s not good for us, and it’s deficient in everything that protects us--and that includes mental as well as physical health. The idea that depression is another manifestation of chronic inflammation in the body is gathering a lot of scientific support and, for years, I’ve been telling people to follow an anti-inflammatory diet. The anti-inflammatory diet that I’ve designed is a version of the Mediterranean diet, but I’ve added Asian influences and tweaked it. That’s the way of eating that’s portrayed in "True Food" and served at our restaurants.
Bookish: Is there something that I can easily do in the next seven days to improve my diet?
AW: I would say eat more vegetables. Eat in ethnic restaurants—Greek, Italian, Middle Eastern…[and] Mediterranean food. Use more olive oil.
Bookish: Do you ever feel like you’re banging your head against the wall that is the American culture of happiness and processed food? Do you ever just want to throw in the towel and go take your dog for a walk and leave us all to it?
AW: I see things going in both directions at once. It is really the best of times and the worst of times--maybe it’s always that way. You can look at trends that are so awful and getting worse. On the other hand, I see trends that are very hopeful.
The availability of good food is much, much better than it was 20, 30 years ago, in both food stores and restaurants. Consciousness and awareness of nutrition and health with eating are much better than they were. At the same time, there are many more fast food restaurants; there’s much more junk. The worst food has gotten cheaper and more available.
Bookish: Do you think it’s an economic thing, too? There’s still a huge number of Americans who would love to eat more healthily but feel they can't afford it. Is there something we can be doing on a day-to-day basis to make good food more available lower-income people?
AW: Everywhere I go, I tell audiences to write their legislators and demand an end to federal subsidies for commodity crops like corn and soy, and to get subsidies for fruits and vegetables, which are too expensive for most poor people in America to afford. What that also points [out] is that whenever you try to make changes in this area, you run up against vested interests that don’t want anything to change and have immense power in our culture.
Bookish: Are you working on another book?
AW: Yes, I am collecting stories from my life. I have lots of stories, and I like to tell stories, I like to be told stories. I’m working on recording stories on various themes. It’s not an autobiography. It’s just random stories from my life that I think will entertain and amuse people.
Bookish: Why not an autobiography? Isn’t everyone dying to find out about you?
AW: I don’t take myself that seriously. I’ll start with stories.
Andrew Weil, M.D., is the founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine and a partner in True Food Kitchen. He is the author of several bestselling books, including "True Food," "The Healthy Kitchen" (coauthored with Rosie Daley), "Healthy Aging," "8 Weeks to Optimum Health," and "Spontaneous Healing." He lives in Tucson.