An Interview with Dr. Andrew Weil
BY TISHIN DONKERSLEY, M.A.
1. Why did you choose the phrase “spontaneous happiness” to describe your book?
Sixteen years ago, I wrote Spontaneous Healing, a book that explored the body’s amazing ability to heal itself. The premise was that if the body is supported by the right diet, exercise and other lifestyle choices, its powerful, innate healing mechanisms that “spontaneously” activate can bring physical systems into health and balance. In Spontaneous Happiness I put forth the idea that something similar can happen at an emotional level. If you give yourself what’s necessary to support health in body, mind and spirit, emotional balance will arise within you as a matter of course. This book is about how to create the necessary conditions to allow positive emotions to manifest spontaneously.
2. What made you decide to write a book about overcoming depression?
When I learned that the number-one search term used on my website, DrWeil.com, was “depression,” I realized that people were seeking my advice about this condition. We had some articles on the site about depression and emotional health, but I felt a deeper exploration was necessary, as this is a complex problem that really should not be treated trivially—with just a pill, for example. Also, I struggled with mild to moderate depression—known technically as dysthymia—for much of my life, emerging from it only in my early fifties, so I had a personal connection to this issue that helped inspire me to write about it.
3. Why do you believe that depression is so prominent in our country?
There are two factors here that need to be teased apart. First, I think much of the modern “depression epidemic” has been manufactured by pharmaceutical companies to drive sales. They’ve made a vigorous effort to persuade the public that even normal, transient sadness is actually depression, depression is always a sign of a chemical imbalance, and the best treatment is a pill—typically, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, or SSRI. But I also believe that real depression is more common than it was in the past. I think this is largely due to the fact that we live in ways that are profoundly at odds with our evolutionary development. Human beings are not “selected,” as the evolutionary biologists say, for sitting indoors, alone, staring at glowing screens, eating processed food, during a day that’s artificially extended for hours by electric lights. This lifestyle undermines our physical and mental health in both profound and subtle ways, and one result is chronically low mood.
4. Do you find that most depression cases are genetically or circumstantially driven?
I believe both factors contribute to most cases. But our circumstances are changing more quickly than our genes, so I think much of the growth in depression rates is largely driven by our changing lifestyles.
5. In what ways do you believe that modern industrial food has contributed to depression?
Modern food is typically highly processed—the worst of it is little more than sugar, salt and synthetic fat. A diet in which such food predominates keeps the body in an inflammatory state. Inflammation is a good thing when it is localized and short-lived —for example, the typical redness and swelling that surrounds an injury represent the body marshalling forces to that spot to facilitate healing. But a diet of processed, modern food can put the whole body into state marked by chronic, inappropriate levels of inflammation. There is a good deal of evidence that such a state can lead to many of the characteristic chronic diseases of the developed world, including Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular conditions and many cancers. But in the course of researching this book, I was surprised to learn that researchers now see very strong connections between chronic inflammation and depression. So it turns out that eating an anti-inflammatory diet, like the one described by my food pyramid, can support both physical and emotional health.
6. Help us understand your concept of “Mental Nutrition,” and discuss its importance.
If you habitually eat bad food, your physical health will suffer. If you habitually take in negative information, your emotional health will suffer. A great deal of the modern news media is given over to negative news. This is because human beings are “wired” to pay close attention to such information. It’s very pro-survival to keep abreast of potential threats, so the media assaults us with “threat-based” information nonstop, knowing we’ll find it hard to turn away. The reality is that almost nothing covered by the media represents a real, imminent threat to the average person’s well-being. And if something does rise to that level—say, a hurricane is approaching your coastal town—you can be sure that someone will let you know. So I have long recommended going on periodic “news fasts” in which you simply unplug from news media. I think it is a wonderful way to support your emotional equilibrium.
7. In what ways was writing the book therapeutic for you?
I began to emerge from my dysthymia in my fifties as a result of doing a lot of the things I recommend in the book, but I learned new information in the course of writing it. I was fascinated by some of the research that’s being done lately in the realm of positive psychology, a relatively new discipline that focuses on optimizing (rather than simply repairing) emotional well-being. One of the most important things that has been discovered in recent years is that consciously cultivating a sense of gratitude is one of the most powerful things you can do to improve your mood-state long-term. Since learning that, I find myself making even more of an effort to focus on all the things in my life for which I can be grateful.
8. Who will benefit from reading this book?
I think we’re at something of an inflection point in American history—even world history. For many people, life had already become an essentially nonstop exercise in stress even before the world economy began to slide in 2008. More and more people tell me that something is profoundly out of balance with their jobs, their lives, their whole culture. I think people from many walks of life will benefit from learning that such feelings are not fantasy—that in many ways, the emotional turmoil we feel is a sensible reaction to certain aspects of modern life, not a personal failing. The book does not suggest that the proper response is a complete withdrawal from contemporary society. Rather, I recommend ways to work within the world that honor what we crave emotionally as human beings. I hope that virtually everyone will find something of value in this work.