By Deepak Chopra, MD, Rudolph E. Tanzi, PhD
Genetics may be on the verge of solving a very complex question in a revolutionary but quite simple way. The question is, What does it take to be happy? The question never goes away. It hangs over our heads every day. The possible answers are many, but they follow two general trends whose results, frankly, have been disappointing. One trend is psychological, holding that happiness is an emotional state. The other trend is philosophical, holding that happiness is a mental state. When someone is unhappy, psychologists aim to improve their mood, largely by addressing anxiety, depression, and various psychological wounds from the past. A philosopher, on the other hand, would examine the underlying idea of happiness itself and why it is or isn’t feasible. In the end, happiness is all about health and wellbeing.
Yet after thousands of years of deep thinking and a hundred years of psychotherapy, the condition that the vast majority of people find themselves in is marked by total confusion. We muddle through on a wobbly combination of wishful thinking, hope, bouts of high and low spirits, denial, family ties, love, distraction, and the constant pursuit of external pleasures, as if happiness can be cobbled together more or less randomly.
For all of our muddling, the key to happiness could be as simple as biology. To a biologist, the wellbeing of an organism consists of healthy cells functioning without falling into dysfunction. Dysfunction is a dry-sounding term, but once the life of the cell starts to go awry, it’s only a matter of time before the whole body is affected, resulting in pain, discomfort, illness, and a general decline from wellbeing. The brain operates through cells like any other organ, and neuroscience now has abundant evidence that psychological states like anxiety and depression have physical correlates in brain cells.
If we equate happiness with wellbeing, which seems only logical, then addressing the optimal functioning of cells is crucial. Cells are constantly sending and receiving messages that impact how you think, act, and feel. There is a never-ending conversation between you and the trillions of cells in your body. This conversation can be described as a feedback loop in which input is sent to and from each cell, which in turn responds with output. These are widely accepted concepts in biology, neuroscience, physiology and medicine.
The upshot is that if you give your body positive input, it will respond with positive output, leading to a state of wellbeing. As you develop habits and routines, the neural circuity in your brain and activity of your gene networks will reflect them, for better or for worse with respect your health, happiness, and wellbeing. Input and output are terms lifted from cybernetics; in human terms the kind of input involved in everyone’s daily life includes:
– Food, air, and water
– Mental activity, including thoughts, feelings, images, and sensations
– Physical activity
– Exposure to outside stresses, including everyday demands and challenges
This list comprises vast areas of understanding that is by no means complete. We are only making a simple point, that in each area, no matter how you mix and match them during a typical day; you are talking to your genes. Because all these ingredients boil down to biochemicals, as far as your cells are concerned, the input and output of your genes turns out to be radically important. Your genes are responsible for regulating the life of the cell. DNA is where the buck stops.
So the age-old question of how to be happy may depend, surprisingly enough, on “talking’ to your genes in a positive way, which means self-directing your own biology. Talking is in quotes because what you say to your genes involves everything on the list, from food, air, and water to relationships and outside stressors. Everything ultimately gets converted into biochemical messages; therefore, the boundary between mind and body is totally artificial, as is the boundary between reality “out there” in the physical world and events occurring “in here” in the mental world.
Geneticists didn’t use to speak in these terms. For three or four decades after the structure of DNA was revealed by Watson and Crick in the early Fifties, the prevailing assumption was that DNA locked away the code of life inside the nucleus of each cell, maintaining itself in isolation. In other words, while the cell was constantly and dynamically changing, genes didn’t. It’s still true that you were born with a unique set of genes, around 23,000 of them, that will be the same genes you carry throughout your life. But the activity and chemical production of your genes is as fluid and dynamic as your daily life, thanks to the feedback that keeps every cell in the loop as you eat, drink, sleep, work, etc.
So how does this translate into being happier? There is much discussion and controversy in the current state of genetics, and many hopeful indicators have so far been validated only in laboratory animals rather than humans. But we believe the trends are pointing strongly toward the following conclusions:
- Positive lifestyle choices lead to optimal health of cells.
- The earlier you start to give cells positive input, the better. Problems like heart disease, obesity, diabetes, even cancer, Alzheimer’s, and mental disorders, now appear to begin with precursors–anomalies in genetic activity–going back as early as childhood.
- A person shouldn’t wait for signs of discomfort or outright medical symptoms. The more you do to maintain your wellbeing, the more protected you are from future difficulties.
- Wellbeing is a daily concern. Or to put it in terms of happiness, if you want to be happy in years to come, make every day happy.
- Wellbeing can be prioritized. When caring for yourself, the areas of life that impact your cells the strongest are diet, exercise, stress, sleep, and emotions. You can slide by for a while, sometimes a long while, with less than ideal diet and exercise, but to maintain wellbeing every day, you can’t slide by with inadequate sleep, chronic stress, and toxic emotions.
Can we prove with rock-solid evidence that all of these points are true? Not yet, which is why we speak of encouraging trends, not absolute truths. Yet there is no doubt that American society suffers–and millions of people experience low states of wellbeing–because our present lifestyle ignores the biology of happiness. In fact, as viewed by the flood of messages from mass media, people completely flout the findings we’ve just listed. For example,
- There is a huge problem of non-compliance with even the most basic prevention measures. The life of the cell is basically ignored.
- Years of careless lifestyle choices go by before someone starts to pay attention.
- People wait for signs of discomfort or outright medical symptoms before paying heed to giving their bodies positive input.
- Stress is allowed to go beyond reasonable bounds.
- Blatant causes of biological dysfunction, such as obesity and lack of good sleep, go unheeded.
- When problems arise, people expect them to be fixed by a doctor, generally through prescription drugs or surgery.
- The mind-body connection isn’t considered important enough to bother with, allowing toxic emotions, bad habits, and old psychology wounds to fester without attention.
Even if our concept of biologically-based happiness isn’t the whole story–we aren’t claiming it is–looking at wellbeing from the level of cells and ultimately of genes would reverse all of these unhealthy trends. The ideal path of cellular and genetic wellbeing consists of what we call self-directed biological transformation (SBT), which will be the next topic in this series.
(To be cont.)
Deepak Chopra MD, FACP, founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation, and is Board Certified in Internal Medicine, Endocrinology and Metabolism. He is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians and a member of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists. Chopra is the author of more than 80 books translated into over 43 languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers. His latest book is Super Genes co-authored with Rudi Tanzi, Ph.D. www.deepakchopra.com
Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D. is the Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard University and Vice Chair of Neurology at Mass. General Hospital. Dr. Tanzi is the co-author with Deepak Chopra of the New York Times bestseller, Super Brain, and an internationally acclaimed expert on Alzheimer disease. He was included in TIME Magazine’s “TIME 100 Most Influential People in the World”.