Spontaneous Happiness


By Andrew Weil, MD

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Everyone wants to be happy. But what does that really mean? Increasingly, scientific evidence shows us that true satisfaction and well-being come only from within.

Dr. Andrew Weil has proven that the best way to maintain optimum physical health is to draw on both conventional and alternative medicine. Now, in Spontaneous Happiness, he gives us the foundation for attaining and sustaining optimum emotional health. Rooted in Dr. Weil’s pioneering work in integrative medicine, the book suggests a reinterpretation of the notion of happiness, discusses the limitations of the biomedical model in treating depression, and elaborates on the inseparability of body and mind.

Dr. Weil offers an array of scientifically proven strategies from Eastern and Western psychology to counteract low mood and enhance contentment, comfort, resilience, serenity, and emotional balance. Drawn from psychotherapy, mindfulness training, Buddhist psychology, nutritional science, and more, these strategies include body-oriented therapies to support emotional wellness, techniques for managing stress and anxiety and changing mental habits that keep us stuck in negative patterns, and advice on developing a spiritual dimension in our lives. Lastly, Dr. Weil presents an eight-week program that can be customized according to specific needs, with short- and long-term advice on nutrition, exercise, supplements, environment, lifestyle, and much more.

Whether you are struggling with depression or simply want to feel happier, Dr. Weil’s revolutionary approach will shift the paradigm of emotional health and help you achieve greater contentment in your life.


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In the early 1970s, I lived in Colombia, studying native uses of medicinal and psychoactive plants. During my stay I made a number of trips to the Vaupés Department of the Amazon basin to visit a tribe of Cubeo Indians. To get there, I had to drive from the capital city of Bogotá at eight thousand feet above sea level to a city in the lower, warmer eastern plains, then take a cargo plane to the tiny frontier town of Mitú in the rain forest. From there it was a half-day trip by motorboat to the Cubeo village. The climate was unrelievedly hot and steamy, and once in the village, I had a very limited range of foods and drinks. When I was not interviewing Cubeos or accompanying them on walks through the rain forest, I spent hours in a hammock under a mosquito net, mostly dreaming about ice-cold drinks.

In particular, I could not stop thinking about my favorite juice bar on Seventh Avenue in downtown Bogotá and the delicious, icy drinks it offered, made from combinations of fresh fruit both familiar and exotic. One that I found irresistible whenever I was in the vicinity was jugo de maracuyá, made from a kind of passion fruit, with just enough sugar to offset its natural tartness and just the right amount of crushed ice. I would have given anything to have one as I lay parched and sweating in my hammock in the jungle with nothing to drink but tepid boiled water or tea or the thick, sour beerlike drink (chicha), also tepid, that the Indians made from a starchy tuber. If only, I imagined, I could have that cold juice right then and there, I would be supremely happy.

When it came time to leave the Cubeo village, I became obsessed with planning my visit to the juice bar. I pictured myself taking a taxi directly there as soon as I got to Bogotá, but what would I have first? Should I go right for the passion fruit drink of my dreams, or should I build my anticipation and pleasure by starting off with a fresh mango frost? Or maybe a pineapple-coconut shake? Throughout my entire journey—on the boat ride downriver, during what seemed like an endless night in a Mitú flophouse, on the cargo plane (missing its door), and on the long ride to Bogotá—all I could do was contemplate the happiness that was in store for me. But as the road began to climb the eastern foothills of the Andes toward the high plateau of the capital, I felt my anticipation wane as reality intruded on my fantasies. It got cooler and cooler as my trip progressed, and by the time I reached the outskirts of Bogotá, I was in the chill, damp fog that often envelops it. When I was in the jungle and couldn't get it, I had wanted my ice-cold drink. Now that I was close to getting it, I was no longer hot and thirsty and didn't want it nearly as much. By the time I arrived, I was more interested in checking into a hotel and changing into warm clothes than in going to the juice bar. And as I felt the possibility of satisfaction evaporate, my disappointment was compounded by seeing the folly of my fantasies and my tendency to allow myself to be happy on condition of getting something not available in the here and now.

The Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert has spent more than a decade studying just how abysmal human beings are at predicting which future events will make them happy. He has found that we tend to overlook how the future context—in my case the climate change I encountered—devalues the happiness potential of the goal we seek, such as the refreshing jugo. Here, science confirms the advice of saints and sages over eons: emotional well-being must come from within, because reaching external goals often disappoints.

Clearly, many people today are unhappy. I hear the words "I'm depressed" very often—from patients, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and strangers—and I've uttered them myself on more than one occasion. But what do people mean when they say they're depressed?

For some, it's nothing more than a way of describing a bad day or being bummed about the weather or about a favorite sports team's loss. Others are admitting they suffer from a chronic mental illness that can be incapacitating. In between is a broad spectrum of negative moods and emotional states, including sadness, pessimism, and the inability to experience pleasure or maintain interest in the potentially joyous and rewarding aspects of life.

The root meaning of the verb depress is to "push down." To be depressed is to have one's mood or spirits lowered. Who or what does the pushing? And how can we define down except as relative to something else? What is the emotional equivalent of sea level, from which point all positions above or below can be measured? Are we better off hovering near that level, or should we strive to stay above it?

These questions interest me greatly, in my ongoing efforts to both come to terms with the changing contours of my own emotions and understand why so many people today are experiencing depression. Also, I'm not sure how to respond to the question "Are you happy?," which I get asked frequently. Happy might mean "content," "joyful," "blissed out," or simply not sad. And how happy am I—or is anyone—supposed to be? There are self-assessment tools designed to help individuals determine their level of happiness, but I find it frustrating to answer the questions and don't find them useful.*

There are a great many books offering ways to attain happiness, and no shortage of books about depression and its treatment (with or without popular drugs like Prozac). This book is different. It is about emotional well-being, and it is informed by the new science of integrative mental health, a field I helped develop.

Integrative mental health works from the general philosophy of integrative medicine (IM), beginning with an emphasis on the human organism's innate capacity for self-regulation and healing. IM views mind and body as inseparable: two poles of one human being. It takes into account all aspects of lifestyle that influence health and risks of disease. It also makes use of all available methods to maintain health and support healing—both conventional therapies and alternative ones for which there is scientific evidence of efficacy.

I understand health as a dynamic condition of wholeness and balance that allows us to move through life and not succumb to malfunctions of our own physiology or suffer harm from all the potentially damaging influences we encounter. If you are healthy, you can interact with germs and not get infections, with allergens and not have allergic reactions, with toxins and not be harmed. Moreover, a healthy person has a reserve of energy that allows for fulfilling engagement with life. The essential qualities of health are resilience and energy.

When I describe health as dynamic, I mean that it is always changing, allowing the organism to find new configurations of balance as external and internal conditions change. Physiologists use the term homeostasis to designate this dynamic self-regulation of living organisms. Thanks to it, our bodies are able to maintain relatively constant temperature, blood sugar, tissue chemistry, and so on, despite great variations in environmental conditions and demands. If, as I believe, mind and body are most usefully viewed as two aspects of the one reality of our being, then homeostasis must also be essential to optimum emotional health. By drawing analogies from the science of physiology and by using the principles of integrative medicine, I will try to answer the questions I raised earlier in this introduction.

Let me start by pointing to some new findings about the function of the human heart. Throughout history, and in many diverse cultures, people have regarded the heart as the seat of emotions. Our language reflects this association (heartwarming, heartbroken, heartaches, and heartthrobs); in written Chinese and Japanese, the same character denotes both heart and mind.* We often feel strong emotions in our chests, probably because continual hormonal and nervous communication between the heart and brain links the activity of these organs.

When I learned to perform physical examinations in medical school, I was taught to first measure a patient's heart rate by timing the pulse in the radial artery at the wrist. I was taught also to determine whether the rate was regular or irregular, and if irregular, whether it was "regularly irregular" (as from benign premature contractions) or "irregularly irregular" (as in atrial fibrillation, a more serious disorder). Most of the patients I examined had regular pulses in the normal range of 70 to 80 beats per minute. I came to regard the healthy heart as a sort of living metronome, ticking away at perfectly regular intervals, and understood that if a heart beat too fast or too slowly or abandoned its regular rhythm, it was not in good shape and could jeopardize general health.

That was back in the late 1960s. Since then, much closer analysis of electrocardiograms has revealed a surprising fact: healthy hearts do not tick like mechanical clocks or metronomes. Rather, the intervals between beats vary slightly in length, and what is more, this heart-rate variability is a fundamental characteristic of cardiac health. Cardiologists now know that loss of heart-rate variability is an early sign of disease; when profound, it is a poor prognostic sign for recovery from a heart attack. We have also discovered ways to maintain and increase heart-rate variability in healthy individuals using combinations of exercise, stress reduction, and mind/body interventions.

You might wonder why the healthy heart beats at varying intervals. I see it as a sign of resilience and flexibility in responding to moment-to-moment changes in the rest of the body. Clearly, extremes of heart rate are abnormal and unhealthy. But normal and healthy do not mean "static." In this core function of the human body, we can see the reality and importance of dynamic change that is characteristic of health.

Human emotional states also vary, from extremely negative to extremely positive. At one end is total despondency, with the pain of daily experience so unbearable that suicide appears to be the only option. At the other is ecstatic bliss so intense that attending to basic bodily needs is impossible. Examples of the despondent abound; you may very well know such unfortunate people. Examples of those who experience ecstatic bliss are not common today, but I have studied historical accounts of some, such as Ramakrishna Paramahansa (1836–1886), a famous Indian saint. He spent much of his life in a state of "God-intoxication," wandering, dancing, and singing in ecstasy,* while totally neglecting his body. Ordinary people thought him insane, and he would not have survived if his followers had not cared for him.

I'm sure we can agree that such extremes of negative and positive moods are neither normal nor desirable if they persist, but might they—by marking the limits of emotional variation—help us discover the neutral midpoint of emotional health?

I will tell you at the start that I do not consider happiness to be that midpoint. Nor do I regard it as a mood that we should be in all or most of the time. I wrote earlier that I'm not sure what it means to be happy, especially when I consider the root meaning of that word. It derives from happ, an Old Norse root meaning "chance" or "luck," and is closely related to the words happenstance and happening. Clearly, our forebears regarded good fortune as the basis of happiness, putting the source of this much-sought-after emotion out of our control and in the realm of circumstance—not, I would argue, a good placement. Happiness that comes from winning a bet or from another stroke of good luck is temporary and does not change the set point of our emotional variability. Besides, as we all discover, fortune is fickle. If we hitch our moods to it, we are signing up for lows as powerful as any highs.

Nonetheless, I observe that many people seek happiness "out there." They imagine it will come to them if they get a raise, a new car, a new lover, a refreshing glass of juice, or something else they want but do not have. My own experience, repeated many times, is that the actual emotional reward of getting and having is usually much less than the one imagined. All of the recommendations in this book will help you create an internal state of well-being that is relatively impervious to life's transient ups and downs and independent of what you have or don't have.

I said above that I do not consider happiness to be our baseline or most normal mood. Before you accuse me of deceiving you into reading this book by means of a seductive title, let me explain my choice of the word spontaneous. I used that same word in the title of a previous book, Spontaneous Healing, intended to build confidence in the human body's innate abilities to maintain and repair, regenerate, and adapt to injury and loss. I call these processes spontaneous to indicate that they are natural and that they arise from internal causes, independent of external agencies. This is an important biological fact, one commonly misunderstood and unappreciated by both medical practitioners and patients. The concept of self-healing is a foundational principle of integrative medicine and has long been a focus of my work. I am certain that if people trusted more in the body's potential for self-healing, and if more doctors honored the healing power of nature, there would be much less need for costly health care services and interventions.

The reality of spontaneous healing does not excuse you from doing everything you can to support it with wise lifestyle choices. Nor does it mean that prudent medical care is unnecessary. The term simply calls attention to the fact that healing is an innate capacity of the organism, rooted in nature. By linking the words spontaneous and happiness I am asking you to question the prevalent habit of making positive emotions dependent on external agencies and to think of happiness as one of many moods available to us if we allow for healthy variability of our emotional life.

My personal opinion is that the neutral position on the mood spectrum—what I called emotional sea level—is not happiness but rather contentment and the calm acceptance that is the goal of many kinds of spiritual practice. From this perspective, it is possible to accept life in its totality, both the good and the bad, and know that everything is all right, just as it should be, including you and your place in the world. Surprisingly, this acceptance does not breed passivity. I have found that I am most effective at creating positive change when I am in this state; energy normally employed to ward off frustration at opposition or fear of failure is instead channeled precisely where it needs to go. Based on the moments I've been able to be there, I am sure that's where I want to be more of the time.

Here are some basic tenets that inform my writing about emotional well-being:

It is normal and healthy to experience a variable range of moods and emotions both positive and negative.
Too many people today are being diagnosed with or are experiencing depression.
It may be normal, healthy, and even productive to experience mild to moderate depression from time to time as part of the variable emotional spectrum, but it is not normal or healthy to get stuck in that mode or to suffer major depression.
The set point of emotional variability in our society has become displaced too far into the negative zone. Too many of us are sad and discontented.
It is unrealistic to want to be happy all the time.
Happiness arises spontaneously from sources within us. Seeking it outside ourselves is counterproductive.
It is desirable to cultivate contentment and calm serenity as the neutral midpoint of emotional variability.
It is desirable and important to develop greater flexibility of emotional responsiveness to both the positive and negative aspects of life and the world.
It is possible to increase emotional resilience and shift one's emotional set point in the direction of greater positivity.
It is possible to prevent and manage the commonest forms of depression using the comprehensive approach of integrative mental health.
Achieving optimum emotional well-being is as important as maintaining optimum physical health.

These tenets are not merely my opinions; each is bolstered by a growing body of rigorous scientific research. If you are comfortable with them, I invite you to read further.

In the first chapter of this book I give you a sense of what emotional well-being means, the goal of your journey, and the role that happiness plays in it.

Chapter 2 is an overview of depression, including my understanding of the causes of the current epidemic of it.

Chapter 3 examines the limitations of the biomedical model now dominant in psychiatry, in particular how it has failed to help us prevent depression, treat it effectively in our population, or improve overall emotional wellness. I also share my excitement about the emerging field of integrative mental health and explain how its view of the causes of depression differs from that of the biomedical model.

Chapter 4 presents evidence for the effectiveness of integrating strategies from Eastern and Western psychology to optimize emotional well-being, drawing on both ancient tradition and contemporary neuroscience.

In the second part of this book I provide specific recommendations.

Chapter 5 presents a comprehensive list of body-oriented therapies aimed at supporting emotional wellness.

Chapter 6 focuses on ways of retraining and caring for the mind in order to change mental habits that undermine emotional resilience and keep us stuck in negative moods.

Chapter 7 concerns the importance of attending to the nonphysical dimension of our experience—what I call secular spirituality—in working toward optimum emotional wellness.

A final chapter gives you a detailed guide to help you use these strategies in order to meet your individual needs. Whether you are prone to depression or not, my suggestions will help you develop greater emotional positivity and resilience and contribute to your general health and wellness.

I have made an effort to present the scientific evidence for my recommendations in terms that nonscientists will understand. Readers who would like more information or details about the science of human emotions will find key references to the medical literature in the notes, beginning on here. An appendix on here will direct you to sources of further information, products, and services to support you on your journey to optimum emotional well-being.

I will end this introduction with some personal reassurance. Whether you or someone you love is struggling with depression, or whether you just want greater happiness in your life or simply to feel better in difficult and troubling times, I know that the suggestions in these pages will help you. They are all based on sound science and on my own forty years of clinical experience. Take your time with them and put them into practice at your own pace. You can feel better—much better—than you do now. I look forward to guiding you on your journey.




What Is Emotional Well-Being?

I do not claim to have attained optimum emotional well-being. Actually, I think that may be a lifetime goal. For me it's an ongoing process that requires awareness, knowledge, and practice. I do know what good emotional health feels like, and that motivates me to keep at the practice. I'd like to share some of my experiences with you.

On occasion, both when things are going well and when they aren't, I have a profound sense that everything is just as it should be, that my opinions about my situation are irrelevant. That realization is freeing. It helps me to stay comfortably in the vicinity of emotional sea level, the zone of contentment and serenity that I mentioned in the introduction.

Let me tell you about two such occasions.

In June 1959, for several weeks before and after my graduation from my public high school in Philadelphia, I was spontaneously happy, not in the usual sense of that word but more from a deep knowing that I was all right, on the right track, doing what I had been put here for. Things were going very well for me that spring. I had great friends, was enjoying good relations with my parents, had the affection and support of excellent teachers, felt ready and excited to leave home, and saw many opportunities opening up before me for travel, adventure, learning, and discovery. I liked myself. I had much to be happy about in the usual sense, much good fortune, but the deeper feeling came from knowing that I was the person I was supposed to be, uniquely equipped to navigate the world and meet any challenges I might confront. I thought I would be able to maintain that feeling always. It did stay with me for many days and it does return. Whenever it comes back, I am grateful.

Forty-seven years later, at the end of July 2006, I was awakened by an unusually early phone call at my summer retreat in British Columbia. My medical associate Dr. Brian Becker told me that a flash flood had devastated my property in the desert outside Tucson. My first question was "Is anyone hurt?" I was much relieved to hear that the two people staying there had escaped unharmed when a fourteen-foot wall of water came through the property in the middle of the night. My office building had taken the worst hit. Over the next few hours and days, I learned that all of my files, most of my personal papers, and many of my books were lost. The flood carried away photographs and memorabilia going back to grade school, furniture and personal effects of my recently deceased mother, and many of my favorite plants. Although these losses made me sad for a time, oddly, I felt at peace with all of it. To the bewilderment of my partner, who said she couldn't imagine being calm in the face of such news, I declined to return to Arizona, feeling no need to oversee the cleanup and assessment of damage. I was able to let go of attachment to my possessions, and once again, this time in circumstances that I might have expected to make me quite unhappy, I was spontaneously embraced by the feeling that all was as it should be, that my opinions didn't matter, and that I was emotionally free.

Experiences like these give me a sense of emotional well-being, especially in its core elements of resilience and balance. I have already mentioned these factors as defining characteristics of health that allow organisms to interact with potentially harmful influences and not suffer injury or harm. In the emotional realm, resilience enables you to bounce back from losses and reversals and not get stuck in moods that you don't want to be stuck in. Think of an elastic band that can be twisted and stretched but always goes back to its more or less original shape. If you cultivate emotional resilience, you don't have to resist feeling appropriate sadness; you learn that your moods are dynamic and flexible and that they soon return to the neutral balance point, the zone of contentment, comfort, and serenity.

When I ask people to give me images of contentment, they usually come up with ones like these:

a child licking an ice-cream cone
a person lying on a couch after a fabulous holiday dinner in the company of family and friends
a dairy cow munching lush grass in a postcard-perfect meadow
a dog lying in front of a fire, being stroked by its human companion

I would call these images of satisfaction rather than of contentment, just a temporary response to fulfilling needs or gratifying desires. Contentment, I think, has more to do with being at peace and feeling good about who you are and what you have without regard to satisfying your desires and needs. Contentment is enduring. You carry it with you. The sixth-century BCE Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu got it right (as usual) in few words: "One who contains content, remains content." A striking aspect of this state of mind is that it does not foster passivity (which Westerners often criticize Eastern philosophies for doing). In both 1959 and 2006 and whenever it has returned, my sense that all is right with the world has actually spurred me on to effective action and improved my efficiency.

I suggest that the ability to feel contentment is a key component of emotional well-being. It is also a goal of many religions and philosophies that recognize that the source of human unhappiness is our habit of comparing our experiences to those of others and finding our reality to be wanting. The choice is ours: we can keep on craving what we don't have, and so perpetuate our unhappiness, or we can adjust our attitude toward what we do have so that our expectations conform to our experience. There is much discourse by philosophers and teachers on this theme, because we all eventually learn that we can't always get what we want. How many of us work at appreciating what we have?

If you are not sure what I mean by work at appreciating what we have, you will be interested to know that techniques exist for just this kind of practice. They include ancient forms of meditation and new forms of psychotherapy, and I will explain them in chapter 6, where I discuss ways of changing destructive mental habits in order to improve emotional wellness.

What about comfort? The word comes from a Latin root meaning "strength" and denotes a state of ease and freedom from pain and anxiety. To be comfortable is to enjoy contentment and security and presumably be stronger as a result. I would argue that, like contentment, comfort is something you can carry with you, a feeling you should be able to access in a great variety of circumstances.

Because I grew up as a city boy and did not live outside an urban environment until my late twenties, I was uncomfortable in nature, unable to enjoy camping or being in the wilderness for more than a few hours. I had to learn how to be at ease in nature, but once I set my mind on doing so, the process was not difficult. It changed me, made me healthier in body and mind, and opened worlds of new experience that have greatly enriched my life. One welcome aspect of the change was that I lost my anxiety around insects, especially bees and wasps, which had made it impossible for me to relax out of doors. I don't know just how this happened, but as it did, I came to understand the behavior of these creatures, appreciate their beauty, and coexist peacefully with them. I've now lived in or near wilderness for most of my adult life and have no problems with insects.


  • "A comprehensive roadmap for the prized path to true happiness...Weil provides sensible, accessible advice...Immensely beneficial information for those seeking a self-galvanized life lift."—Kirkus Reviews

  • "Weil's program aims for 'positive emotionality'-a far better destination than the roller-coaster ride between bliss and despair. This is more than a New Age prescription for contentment. Weil's revelations and insights from his own lifelong battle with depression lift this guide from a hip and clinical 'how to' to a generous and heartfelt 'here's how.'"—Publisher's Weekly

  • "Like all of his books, Spontaneous Happiness is a refreshing combination of clarity, science and practical wisdom. But it's also warm and, indeed, personal: Dr. Weil includes not only anecdotes from people who've written to him over the years, but also his own experience in battling mild depression."—iVillage

On Sale
Nov 8, 2011
Page Count
288 pages
Little Brown Spark

Andrew Weil, MD

About the Author

Andrew Weil, MD, is the author of numerous bestselling books, including Spontaneous Happiness, Spontaneous Healing, Eight Weeks to Optimum Health, and Healthy Aging. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Medical School, he is professor of public health, clinical professor of medicine, and the Lovell-Jones Professor of Integrative Rheumatology at the University of Arizona as well as director of the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. He is also the editorial director of http://www.drweil.com, the leading Web resource for healthy living based on the philosophy of integrative medicine. He authors the popular “Self-Healing” newsletter and columns for Prevention magazine and is a frequent guest on numerous national talk shows. He lives in Arizona.

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