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Weil: Strive for contentment, not happiness

The Philadelphia Inquirer

October 8, 2012

By Art Carey

Over the years, I have read the books and listened to the pronouncements of Andrew Weil, the natural-remedy guru and champion of integrative medicine with the broad grin, bushy beard, and bald pate. Much of what he preaches makes sense to me, and I admire the imaginative and open-minded way he has sought to blend the best practices of modern Western medical science with ancient folk medicine and Eastern philosophy.

One thing I didn’t know about Weil is that he’s a local boy. He grew up in a rowhouse in West Oak Lane, he told me on the phone, and attended Central High. He went on to Harvard College and Harvard Medical School. He now lives in Arizona, where he’s a professor of public health and clinical professor of medicine at the University of Arizona as well as director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine.

Weil, who turned 70 in June, will be returning to Philadelphia for the first time in nearly five years as the featured speaker at Forever Young, an all-day health and wellness fair Oct. 21 at the Sheraton Philadelphia Downtown.

Sponsored by the Raymond and Miriam Klein JCC, Forever Young, an inaugural event, will offer a full day of expert speakers, interactive demonstrations, and classes in such popular exercise modes as Zumba, pole-dancing, Pilates, and yoga.

There will be more than 40 exhibit booths dedicated to health and wellness products and services, healthy food tastings, a bookshop, and many educational resources to help adults achieve health in all four dimensions: physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual.

I asked Weil what he thought about appearing at an event called “Forever Young.”

“I think that’s the dominant attitude in our culture, to be forever young,” he said. “One of my previous books, Healthy Aging, pointed out that being obsessed with stopping aging or reversing aging is folly. Everything ages. The first key to healthy aging is to accept the aging process and work to maintain health as you go through life.”

What I was most interested in discussing with Weil , however, was his new book, Spontaneous Happiness. There are scads of books about how to achieve happiness, but what makes this one distinctive, once again, is Weil’s integrative approach. He uses the word spontaneous to underscore the body’s potential for self-healing. In this book particularly, which is aimed at helping people overcome depression and mood disorders, he is concerned about emotional and mental self-healing.

“By linking the words spontaneous and happiness,” Weil writes, “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.”

Weil believes we function best when we’re able to exist at what he calls “emotional sea level,” which he defines as “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.”

It’s no secret that many people suffer from depression. Weil calls it an epidemic. The World Health Organization predicts that by 2030 more people worldwide will be affected by depression than by any other health condition, Weil says. The number of Americans taking antidepressant drugs doubled in the decade from 1996 to 2005, from 13.3 million to 27 million.

“Today, an astonishing one in ten people in the United States, including millions of children, is on one or more of these medications,” Weil states. And there is abundant evidence that depression is a “disease of affluence,” more common in prosperous nations.

Why has depression become so widespread? Weil offered several explanations. Paramount among them: Our genes were not designed for the disconnect from nature characteristic of the modern postindustrial environment. An increasingly popular term is “nature deficit disorder.”

“More and more of us are sedentary, spending most of our time indoors,” Weil writes. “We eat industrial food much altered from its natural sources, and there is reason for concern about how our changed eating habits are affecting our brain activity and our moods. We are deluged by an unprecedented overload of information and stimulation in this age of the Internet, e-mail, mobile phones and multimedia, all of which favor social isolation and certainly affect our emotional and physical health.”

Social disconnection and isolation are major causes of depression, Weil said, and “there’s very strong evidence that social connectedness protects against depression.”

Weil also points a finger at the “medical-industrial complex.”

“Some of the depression epidemic is manufactured by the pharmaceutical industry,” he said, “which has been very successful in convincing people that ordinary sadness is the result of unbalanced brain chemistry that requires treatment with drugs. We’re not supposed to be happy all the time. Our moods are supposed to vary.

“I think most people don’t have the right conception of what happiness is. They think being happy is to get something they don’t have. The best thing to work for is contentment, which is an inner sense of fulfillment that’s relatively independent of external circumstances.”

Weil’s book offers an eight-week plan for achieving optimum emotional well-being that promotes natural nostrums rather than antidepressant drugs. Among his recommendations: regular physical activity (especially aerobic exercise), plenty of sunlight, more natural food, fish-oil and Vitamin D supplements, meditation, and gratitude.

“There’s good research that shows that your moods are influenced by the moods of the people you associate with,” Weil said. “So it’s a good idea to spend more time with people who are positive and optimistic.”

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