“Happy” is a challenging word. To some, it suggests spiritual bliss. To others, it indicates sensual pleasure. To me, it means a fundamental, persistent state of contentment and serenity. From that place, a person can still experience a variety of emotional highs and lows, knowing that these are fleeting by nature and that contentment will return.
How can you secure this pleasant condition as your default mood state, one that I sometimes call “emotional sea level?” The modern depression epidemic shows us that spending most of your life in this place is by no means guaranteed. Millions are mired in persistently low and painful emotions, sometimes so intractably that pharmaceuticals are the only option.
But I believe that the simple, natural suggestions below can help many people reside at emotional sea level most of the time. Since most of them also bring improved physical health, there’s no risk in giving them a try.
Human bodies are designed for regular physical activity. The sedentary nature of much of modern life probably plays a significant role in the epidemic incidence of depression today. Many studies show that depressed patients who stick to a regimen of aerobic exercise improve as much as those treated with medication. Exercise also appears to prevent depression and improve mood in healthy people. Many exercise forms—aerobic, yoga, weights, walking, and more—have been shown to benefit mood.
Typical therapeutic exercise programs last for 8 to 14 weeks. I recommend 3 to 4 sessions per week for at least 20 minutes each. For treatment of depression and anxiety disorders, activities of moderate intensity, like brisk walking, are more successful than vigorous activity.
Follow an Anti-Inflammatory Diet
Normally, inflammation occurs in response to injury and attack by germs. It’s marked by local heat, redness, swelling, and pain, and is the body's way of getting more nourishment and more immune activity to the affected area. But inflammation also has destructive potential. We see this when the immune system mistakenly attacks normal tissues in such autoimmune diseases as type-1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus. Excessive inflammation also plays a causative role in heart disease, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's diseases, as well as other age-related disorders, including some cancers. More recent research indicates that inappropriate inflammation may also underlie depression. Controlling it is key to both physical and mental health.
Perhaps the most powerful way to control inflammation is via diet. My anti-inflammatory diet consists of whole, unprocessed foods that are especially selected to reduce inappropriate inflammation, as well as provide abundant vitamins, minerals, and fiber. It consists of fruits and vegetables, fatty cold-water fish, healthy whole grains, olive oil, and other foods that have been shown to help keep inflammation in check. For details, see the anti-inflammatory food pyramid.
Take Fish Oil and Vitamin D
Adequate blood levels of these nutrients have been strongly tied to emotional health. They are so necessary, and deficiencies are so common in the developed world, that I believe everyone, depressed or not, should take them. Take up to three grams of a quality, molecularly distilled fish oil supplement daily. Look for one that provides both EPA and DHA in a ratio of about 3 or 4 to 1. I also recommend 2,000 IU of vitamin D each day.
Take Depression-Specific Herbs
For those with mild to moderate depression, I suggest trying the following:
- St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum): This European plant appears to work well for those affected by low mood. Look for tablets or capsules standardized to 0.3 percent hypericin that also list content of hyperforin. The usual dose is 300 milligrams three times a day. You may have to wait two months to get the full benefit of this treatment.
- SAMe (S-adenosyl-L-methionine): A naturally occurring molecule found throughout the body, SAMe (pronounced "sammy") has been extensively studied as an antidepressant and treatment for the pain of osteoarthritis. Look for products that provide the butanedisulfonate form in enteric-coated tablets. The usual dosage is 400 to 1,600 milligrams a day, taken on an empty stomach. Take lower doses (less than 800 milligrams) once a day, a half hour before the morning meal. Split higher doses, taking the second a half-hour before lunch.
- Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea): A relative of the jade plant native to the high northern latitudes, it appears to improve mood and memory. Look for 100-milligram tablets or capsules containing extracts standardized to three percent rosavin and one percent salidroside. The dosage is 1 or 2 tablets or capsules a day, one in the morning or one in the morning and another in early afternoon. This can be increased to 200 milligrams up to three times a day if needed.
One powerful method for increasing your ability to feel and express gratitude is keeping a gratitude journal. Spending a specific time each day or week recording things for which you’re grateful has been shown to boost subjective happiness levels in as little as three weeks. A less formal practice—and one that I follow—is to devote a few moments of your morning meditation session to feel and silently give thanks for all of the good things in your life. As a result of doing this for several years, I find myself often making mental notes throughout the day of blessings such as rain here in my desert home, flowers that are opening in my garden, or a glorious sunset.
Of all of the practices listed in this article, learning to feel and express gratitude may be the most important in achieving and maintaining a happy life.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.