Deepak Chopra Offers a Formula for Happiness

John Whyte, MD, MPH; Deepak Chopra, MD, FACP

Disclosures

March 24, 2021

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JOHN WHYTE: Well, welcome everyone. I'm Dr. John Whyte, chief medical officer at WebMD. About a year ago, I had a conversation with Dr. Deepak Chopra where he talked about there actually were three pandemics going on: an infectious disease pandemic, a financial pandemic, and a pandemic of stress, acute and chronic. So I'm delighted to have him back today, a year later, to talk about how we're doing in these three different pandemics. Dr. Chopra, thanks for joining me again. It's great to see you.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: Great to see you, John. How are we doing in these two pandemics?

JOHN WHYTE: I'm hanging in there. And you were the first person that we talked to that talked about this pandemic of chronic and acute stress. So I want to ask you: How are we doing in all these pandemics? In terms of the infectious disease pandemic, would you agree it seems like we're turning a corner and there's a sense of hope?

DEEPAK CHOPRA: Yes, we're turning a corner. I believe that the vaccines are going to be extremely pandemic, notwithstanding the variance. But as you know, the vaccines are shotgunned, so they may also be very effective in the variants. And they'll improve, they're improving by the day. That's one. Number two, I think more people are social distancing and practicing good physical and mental hygiene. So the prognosis is good.

JOHN WHYTE: OK.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: However, what we're seeing across the human landscape is different stages of what you and I as physicians would recognize as grief. So when we see grief frequently in the hospital, patients dying in the emergency room. And there are all kinds of stages of grief, so far as people feel victimized and they get angry, some get even hostility, frustrated, helpless, and go into panic. But once in a while, once in a while, a few patients that I've seen, even in the midst of death, they find acceptance. And once they find acceptance, they find peace. And once they find peace, they find meaning. And once they find meaning, they find opportunity.

So in the last 1 year, we've had Zoom. We've had vaccines. We have all kinds of new information technologies. We have new ways of looking at vagal stimulation through electrosurgicals. On and on, I could go on, but this has been a year where some people have panicked and some people have found opportunity. So I think the prognosis is good on all three fronts.

JOHN WHYTE: On all three fronts, well, that's encouraging. But tell us how we find meaning. It's not that easy for many people.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: Social scientists in the last few years have been working on what they call happiness, happiness formula. And in brief, here is what it is. H stands for happiness. Everything is an algorithm these days. So H stands for happiness is equal to S; S means set point in the brain. Set point in the brain is determined when we're very little through a phenomenon called mirror neurons.

So Baby watches principally its mother, and it looks at her eye movements, her facial expressions, the tone of voice, body language, gestures. And it's looking for things, attention, Baby wants attention from the mother, affection, love, appreciation, wants to be noticed for its uniqueness, and acceptance. Nobody wants to change the baby, the baby does want to change. It doesn't even know. It doesn't even have the concept. But those four A's -- attention, affection, appreciation, and acceptance -- are very crucial to what we call the emotional development of the baby as an adult.

So if the parents or the caretakers, their body language always shows victimization or condemnation or criticism or just hostility or anger, the baby's mirror neurons mirror that. On the other hand, if it's getting attention, affection, appreciation, mirror that. This leads to what we call the set point in the brain, which determines 50% of our happiness experience. Every day, 50% comes from this attitude. Are we feeling victimized or are we finding opportunity, and all depends on our emotional state.

Our mood determines choices, obviously, right. If you're in a bad mood, you overeat, or you get drunk. Or you do something which you regret afterwards, if you're in a bad mood. If you're in a good mood, you make other people happy. So the set point is very important in finding meaning, which happy people find meaning. Unhappy people don't.

The set point can also be influenced through reflective self-inquiry: Who am I? What do I want? What's my purpose? What am I grateful for? What are my dreams? These people who have a high set point for happiness, they dream a lot. And they actually look to a greater future.

So that's 50% of our happiness experience. Plus, S plus C; C is conditions of living, financial conditions. So of course, financial conditions are important in very poor people looking for survival. Unfortunately, many rich people are also unhappy, even though they are billionaires, because they confuse their net worth with their self-worth. So they're building their net worth in order to prove their self-worth, which, of course, has to do with their set point. So financial conditions add only 10% to your daily happiness experience.

The third part of the happiness formula is what we call voluntary choices. So there are two kinds of voluntary choices we make every day. One is for personal pleasure: your alcohol, entertainment, sex, food, shopping. Shopping is the number one cause, by the way, of pleasure in our society. We call our, we call people consumers. Very ugly word for a stardust being with self-awareness, but that's how it is. Do these choices make you happy? Yes, they make you happy, but only temporarily for a few days. Then you have to go repeat the choice, shopping, by the next --

JOHN WHYTE: Amazon's going to like hearing that, shopping.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: They make us happy, but transiently. There are other choices which we make which actually give us a more deeper happiness, and they're called choices for fulfillment. Choices for fulfillment are made when we ask the question: What's my purpose? What is my calling? How do I find meaning, and how do I make other people happy? That's the formula. And that's what's happening across the human landscape.

People have shown all kinds of stages in this spectrum. It's a bell-shaped curve. There are some people in the middle of the bell-shaped curve who are extremely happy, like me. No, honestly. So I took this year to reinvent my body and resurrect my soul.

JOHN WHYTE: And we all certainly want to move to that middle section of that bell curve that you describe. You mentioned about self-reflection. That can be hard for a lot of people to do. And I want to ask you about the role of mindfulness, the role of meditation. Because many times, Dr. Chopra, if I ask a patient, what do you dislike about yourself, they'll rattle off 10 things easily.

But if I ask them, what do you like about yourself, what do you do well, they may struggle to find one thing. So how do we flip that and help people do, in some ways, an inventory, and able to do that reflection that you mention is so important?

DEEPAK CHOPRA: It can be part of our mindfulness practice. So if you want, we can do a practice right now for your --

JOHN WHYTE: OK.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: OK?

JOHN WHYTE: Sure.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: That's better than me explaining it, right? OK, so mindfulness includes self-reflection, but also awareness of breath, awareness of body, or awareness of any experience, any experience. When we have awareness of experience and we are conscious of having the presence of being in that experience, that's called metacognition, to be aware of the choices you're making in every moment based on self-reflection, metacognition.

So self-reflection, metacognition, mindfulness, go together, and also something called transcendence, when we let go of everything and just settle in our own being. So I'll do a combination. Maybe that would be more helpful than my explaining it.

JOHN WHYTE: Sure.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: So to all your audience, wherever you are, sit comfortably. Keep your feet firmly on the ground, uncross your legs. And keep your hands open. And use a backrest, nice chair so you're comfortable. And now close your eyes.

And we'll start with the first -- an original mindfulness practice, which is called awareness of breath. But it was also originally called insight meditation by the Buddha. He was sitting under the tree, and he started to observe his breath.

As you observe your breath, it automatically slows down. As it slows down, your mind slows down, because the breath mirrors the movement of thought. If you're anxious, you're stressed, then you're agitated, your breath becomes irregular and shallow. So right now as you're observing the breath, see, it's automatically slowing down.

JOHN WHYTE: If I looked at my Fitbit, I think my heart rate is decreasing as well.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: Correct, correct. Its heart rate is decreasing, heart rate variability is increasing, electrodermal activity is changing. Galvanic skin response is changing. Everything is changing.

JOHN WHYTE: So it can be simple. It doesn't have to be complicated.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: It is simple. So the first insight that the Buddha had when he was observing his breath is exactly what you said. He found everything slowing down in the body. But then he had another insight, and the other insight was breath is a sensation. And it arises by itself. Then we experience it. It subsides by itself. So he said, to himself, whatever arises also subsides.

And he said to himself, you can't hold on to your breath. If you do, you'll suffocate. Then he came to another experience. He said, if you hold on to any experience, you'll suffocate, because it's impossible to hold on to experience. Experience changes every time. Brilliant, right there. OK. So now let's observe the breath. Let's do it, actually.

JOHN WHYTE: OK. All right.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: And now bring your awareness to your heart, to the middle of your chest. Keep it there. And we'll go through a little reflection, mentally. So mentally, ask the question: Who am I? What am I? Don't try to answer it.

JOHN WHYTE: No, I'm not going to answer them on our show. But, yes.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: Don't try to answer it, but go a little deeper. Am I the changing experience of the body, or am I the observer of the body? Am I the changing experience of the mind, or am I the observer? Don't try to answer. The insight will come spontaneously. Who am I? What am I?

Now, go a little deeper and ask yourself, what is my deepest desire? What do I want for myself, for my family, for my friends, for my community, for the world? What is my deepest desire right now? And don't try to answer it. Just be aware of any sensations, any images, any feelings, any thoughts that may spontaneously come in this moment.

Third question: What is my purpose? What is my calling, right now? How can I make a difference? How can I serve? Again, don't answer it. Just observe any sensations, feelings, thoughts. This is mindfulness but also reflection.

And fourth question: What am I grateful for? This is the best question, because when you feel grateful, you can't have hostility at the same time. You can't have anxiety at the same time. And we've done some studies where we looked at inflammatory markers by people who keep gratitude journals. The inflammatory markers go down. Gene activity changes, inflammation goes. So this is self-reflection.

JOHN WHYTE: We've seen that in terms of gratitude, you mentioned, in terms of perhaps decreased incidence of cancer directly because of that anti-inflammatory process.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: Yeah, gratitude indirectly influences almost every chronic disease. Because chronic disease is associated with anxiety, depression, and inflammation. Now a lot of people don't even know that they are anxious and depressed. So we call it free-floating anxiety. And it could be the pandemic, it could be financial, or it could be just getting old and confronting death.

JOHN WHYTE: And they make other people anxious.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: They make other people anxious. So gratitude, gratitude is big. And then after that, if you just rest in the presence of your own being, in awareness, suddenly everything starts to become clear. Meaning, purpose becomes clear, because we are a species that is totally entangled with others of our kind. Doctors hang out with doctors, mostly. They shouldn't, but they do. So we all hang out. We're like birds of a feather that hang together.

But right now, in this moment of crisis, the best thing that could happen is what social scientists are calling emergence, which is collective in shared vision for more peace, for more health, for more justice, sustainability, joy, shared vision complementing each other's strengths, and having some kind of a relationship, emotional and spiritual. That's a healthy community, whether it's a business community or a cultural community.

Three things make the biggest difference. One is community, second is service, and third is complementing strengths and bonding with each other. I think every problem is solvable. In the past, when I had a difficult patient, and let's say a cancer patient or heart disease patient, I would know that the heart cardiologist is the best person for the heart patient. Oncologist is the best person for the cancer patient. But if we got together generalists and specialists, we had a shared vision for this person. We all came from our area of expertise, and our only concern was the patient. We would collectively come out with the best treatments.

JOHN WHYTE: What's the role of artificial intelligence? Can AI help us?

DEEPAK CHOPRA: John, it's the next frontier. So during this pandemic, there was a mental health crisis.

JOHN WHYTE: Absolutely. There still is. Let's put that out there, and will be for a while.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: Yes. So our foundation, which is a nonprofit, we created a website called neveralone.love. You can check it out. Neveralone.love. Nonprofit, and we put an AI bot there. Her name was Piwi. She was named after a well-known singer who unfortunately had died of suicide. And we knew her, so we called our AI bot Piwi. Piwi has now engaged in millions of conversations, millions. And she has prevented, I believe, over 600 suicide events. People are more comfortable talking to this AI than to another human being, because they don't get judged.

JOHN WHYTE: Well, Dr. Chopra, you mentioned AI. There is an AI of Dr. Deepak Chopra. Tell us about digital Deepak.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: So digital Deepak is a personalized health coach in seven areas of well-being. And if you have a handheld device, it can speak to you one-to-one and become your personal coach for life. Because it also understands your habits, your idiosyncrasies, your eccentricities, your health habits, and so on. The coach is in seven areas: sleep; stress management and meditation; yoga, breathing, and exercise; emotional resilience and relationships; nutrition; and helping balance your circadian and seasonal rhythms; and finally, self-exploration, self-inquiry. And as it learns about you, it gets better. And it becomes your personal coach. That's what it is. And it can talk to you one-to-one.

JOHN WHYTE: Well, if I talk to your AI, I hope I can still talk to you one-on-one live, as well.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: I hope so, but the day may come when you won't know the difference.

JOHN WHYTE: Wow, wow. Well, I want to thank you, Dr. Chopra, for coming back a year later and helping us through this pandemic, as well as giving us tools, actual tools today, that listeners can use on their journey to better health, physical health, mental health, spiritual health. Thank you.

DEEPAK CHOPRA: Thank you, John. It's been a pleasure.

This interview originally appeared on WebMD on March 24, 2021

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