A doctor at Rochester's Mayo Clinic believes that he has the prescription for happiness. He isn't arguing that we can buy happiness, but that we can achieve it.
We can train our brains to feel less stressed and increase our inner bliss, overriding even genetic tendencies toward unhappiness, said Dr. Amit Sood, author of the new book "The Mayo Clinic Handbook for Happiness."
His message: Happiness can be cultivated, but it takes a conscious — and constant — effort.
"Make it a habit," he said.
While genetics account for up to half of our happiness potential, the rest is within our control, studies show. Our thoughts, if left unchecked, will veer toward searching for potential threats and faultfinding, a natural tendency groomed by generations of our ancestors having to worry about protecting themselves.
This bias toward negativity will not lead to a happy ending — much less a happy beginning or middle.
"Clearly our system is biased for safety," Sood said. "It's biased for survival. We want to be safe." Simply put: Our brains are not hard-wired for contentment.
The silver lining, said Sood — who is big on looking for silver linings — is that we can change our minds from operating on automatic mode to an intentional mode, creating new neural pathways that can lead to a happier outlook.
"We're the only species that we know of that can switch to the intentional mode," Sood said. "Then you have tremendous power to change your present moment experience, how you interpret events, what words you speak and what actions you take."
These days, happy talk is everywhere. Once the domain of the self-help industry, it has expanded into the scientific realm as more doctors and researchers recognize the relationship between the mind and body in promoting overall health.
Books are cropping up on the science of happiness, and there's even a magazine called Live Happy devoted to the subject. The "pursuit of happiness" is a right enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, and an eternal quest that inspired a recent award-winning documentary called "Project Happiness."
Becoming the Happy Doc
Sood's own struggles as a child with feeling happy laid the foundation for his interest in the field.
When he was 4 or 5, a playmate told him that he had been picked up from a garbage can and that he was not really born to his parents. He took the message to heart.
"For the first 10 years of my life, I was constantly worried that I would be taken back to that garbage can and I don't belong," he said. "So I struggled with being happy as a child, and I struggled with self-esteem and having a secure sense of self."
On the bright side, he said, that vulnerability spurred him to work hard to prove himself, and at 17, he entered medical school.
In his hometown of Bhopal, India, he saw suffering up close. He treated many patients who were malnourished or had infections because they were living in abject poverty. He concluded that these conditions make a person unhappy, but when he came to the United States in the mid-'90s and found the same or sometimes greater levels of unhappiness in his well-to-do patients, he became curious about the roots of this problem.
"When I came to the U.S. I saw so many resources. I saw a refrigerator full of food. So the amount of stress [from patients] was just disproportionate to what made sense."
Sood had trained in traditional medicine, but his questions about happiness led him to study psychology, spirituality, philosophy and neuroscience. Many of his colleagues were skeptical of his decision to take his career in a different direction. "They thought I was wasting my time," he said.
The turning point came in 2008 after he conducted the first randomized clinical trials at the Mayo Clinic on the effects of mindful strategies to reduce stress. That work led to him writing a book on stress reduction and to his latest endeavors in cultivating happiness.
He discovered that the reason so many people struggle with feeling fulfilled is that it goes against human nature.
"I realized this is happening by design of human brain," he said.
Four steps toward happiness
In his book, Sood outlines a four-step program that can be done in 10 weeks to boost happiness and fulfillment.
The first step is to train your attention. As we grow older, we have seen and experienced so much that we tend to stop noticing or being fascinated by the things and people we encounter in our daily lives. That feeling of wonderment we experienced regularly as a child leaves us, and our brains move quickly from one thing to the next.
Sood recommends an attention-training exercise that will help start the brain off on a joyful note each morning: When you wake up, instead of running through your to-do list for the day or ruminating about your problems, think of five people whom you are grateful to have in your life. Picture each one, and as you do this, thank each one silently. Exhale slowly.
The second happiness step is to cultivate emotional resilience. To do this, focus on what Sood calls the principles of emotional resilience. They are: gratitude, compassion, acceptance, meaning and forgiveness.
Third, start a mind-body practice. By engaging in an activity that will relax your mind and keep it focused on what you're doing, your brain will be happier. Yoga, meditation, reading and Tai Chi all are examples of mind-body practices.
Finally, pick healthy habits. Eat healthy and mindfully, savoring every bite. Exercise regularly and be sure to get enough sleep. Reduce the amount of time you spend in front of screens — computer and TV. Make an effort to read good books and spend more time doing things that are truly fulfilling and focus the mind in a positive direction.
A video created by Sood distills the basics of training your brain to be less brooding and happier and healthier. The animated short, called "A Very Happy Brain," is available on YouTube (tinyurl.com/qj6zaek). In addition to being educational, it's so entertaining that just watching it may boost happiness.
Although Sood acknowledges that he is not promising a nirvana state of being, he insists that achieving greater levels of happiness is possible.
"I think it is completely realistic," he said. "That is the beauty, the power that we have."
Allie Shah • 612-673-4488