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10 Ways to Have a Happier Life

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In my new book, "Spontaneous Happiness," I write about lifestyle practices that can help people achieve and maintain happy lives. Bear in mind that by "happy," I am not referring to endless bliss. Despite what many in the media proclaim these days, such a state is neither achievable nor desirable. Instead, these practices are designed to help most people reach and maintain a state of contentment and serenity. From there, a person can still experience appropriate emotional highs and lows, but knows that he or she will soon return to a pleasant state that might be termed emotional sea level.

I've summarized information about 10 of those practices. These will, I believe, be of particular benefit for those who struggle with mild to moderate depression, but can also potentially benefit nearly anyone who follows them:

1. Exercise: 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 eight to 14 weeks. You should have 3 to 4 sessions per week, of at least 20 minutes each. For treatment of depression and anxiety disorders, activities of moderate intensity, like brisk walking, are more successful than very vigorous activity.

I am a particular fan of integrative exercise -- that is, exercise that occurs in the course of doing some productive activity such as gardening, bicycling to work, doing home improvement projects and so on. Many people find it far easier to stick to activities like this than to lifting weights or running on a treadmill.

2. Follow an Anti-Inflammatory Diet: Normally, inflammation occurs in response to injury and attack by germs. It is 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 cancer. More recent research indicates that inappropriate inflammation may also underlie depression -- so 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 at my website.

3. Take Fish Oil and Vitamin D: Adequate blood levels of these nutrients has 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 three or four to one. I also recommend 2,000 IU of vitamin D each day.

4. Take Depression-Specific Herbs: Specifically for those with mild to moderate depression, I suggest trying:

  • 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-adenosy-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 (under 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 rosavins and one percent salidroside.  The dosage is one or two 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.

5. Do Breathing Exercises:  Conscious breath control a useful tool for achieving a relaxed, clear state of mind. One of my favorite breathing exercises is the 4-7-8 (or Relaxing) Breath. Although you can do the exercise in any position, sit with your back straight while learning the exercise. Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise. You will be exhaling through your mouth around your tongue; try pursing your lips slightly if this seems awkward. Then:

  • Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
  • Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
  • Hold your breath for a count of seven.
  • Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
  • This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.

Note that you always inhale quietly through your nose and exhale audibly through your mouth. The tip of your tongue stays in position the whole time. Exhalation takes twice as long as inhalation. The absolute time you spend on each phase is not important; the ratio of 4:7:8 is important. If you have trouble holding your breath, speed the exercise up but keep to the ratio of 4:7:8 for the three phases. With practice you can slow it all down and get used to inhaling and exhaling more and more deeply. This exercise is a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system.

Click for more in 10 Ways to Have a Happier Life, Part Two.

Andrew Weil, M.D., is the founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine and the editorial director of www.DrWeil.com. Become a fan on Facebook, follow Dr. Weil on Twitter, and check out his Daily Health Tips Blog.

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