Bestselling author Dr Rangan Chatterjee is regarded as one of the most influential medical doctors in the UK… and he’s running late.
He arrives on our Skype call apologetic, in a rumpled T-shirt, and with a big smile – and goes on to generously give me half an hour more than our allotted time.
Humble, honest and inspiring, pausing intently after each question I ask, Chatterjee is passionate about his healthy living message. I can see why his podcast Feel Better, Live More has received 50 million downloads to date and is consumed by over 6million people every month.
In his last four best-selling books, his focus was firmly on the health arena – from losing weight to creating healthy habits – but in his new book, Happy Mind, Happy Life (Penguin Life, £16.99), he has turned his attention to happiness. Why?
‘Stress is implicated in about 90% of what a doctor like me sees on any given day,’ he tells Metro.co.uk. ‘But when we feel calm, content and in control of our lives, we become healthier.
‘Time and time again I’ve seen this to be true: when we feel truly and deeply happy in our lives and with our lives, the knock-on consequences for our health are profound.’
The old tropes of ‘if we want to get healthy badly enough, we’ll find the inner strength to do so’ are not true, he says.
‘It is wrong to say that success comes from mental strength, and failure comes from mental weakness. Our day-to-day habits are not a reflection of our strength or weakness of mind. They’re a reflection of how we feel about ourselves and the world around us.’
Feel happier and we have a much better chance of creating a healthy life, Rangan says. The good news? ‘Happiness isn’t some impossibly distant destination, or a state of mind reserved for the privileged,’ he notes. ‘It’s trainable and accessible to everyone.
‘If you practice happiness a little bit, you’ll become a little bit happier. If you practice a lot, you’ll become transformed. You’ll find you have a brand-new relationship with yourself. You’ll understand yourself in a way that’s fresh and freeing and beautiful.’
Hey, Dr Rangan! What is happiness?
I have a phrase for it. I call it Core Happiness and think of it like a three-legged stool. Each of the legs is separate, but essential. If one of them is knocked away, your feelings of happiness will probably collapse.
The first leg of the stool is contentment. Feeling content means being at peace with your life and your decisions.
The second leg is control. Being in control means that you feel able to make meaningful decisions and that nothing, within reason, has the power to overwhelm you.
The third leg is alignment. Feeling aligned means that the person you want to be, and the person you are actually being out there in the world, are one and the same. You’re aligned when your inner values and your day-to-day actions match up.
Why do many people report feeling stressed and unhappy?
We mistake success for happiness. I believe that for most people the single biggest reason they’re walking around with a hole in their heart – which they try unsuccessfully to fill with a whole host of compensatory behaviours, such as alcohol, junk food, sugar and overwork – is because they’ve made this fundamental error.
So what does make us happy?
True happiness comes from within. When we define success, we also define failure.
If we decide that a properly lived life is one in which all our material desires are met – like having the perfect sofa for our living room, planning the ‘perfect’ birthday party for our kids, eating at the latest restaurant and subsequently posting about it on social media, etc. – we’ve also decided that when we don’t manage to constantly ‘win’, we’re a failure. This is a recipe for misery.
What’s the first step to feeling happier?
Redefine success. Decide what is enough and use that to define what a successful week and life really looks like.
This is not about earning more money, getting a promotion at work or buying a new toy. This is about things that truly bring you happiness and bypass the ‘want brain’, that part of you that is utterly convinced that a slab of chocolate, a bigger television or a promotion at work will make you happy.
The consistent but surprising result is that activities the want brain sells us as ‘fun’, such as eating chocolate, watching television or moseying around the shops, actually leave us feeling less motivated, less confident and more depressed.
Instead, develop happiness habits. Write down three things that give you an intense feeling of wellbeing. See if you can do them all each week. For example, a successful week for you might include a walk in nature, an Epsom Salt bath and three meals at the table with your family. Or it might be spending time with one of your close friends, time to play your guitar and going out for lunch with your mum. Your happiness habits will be unique to you.
The voice in your head is more powerful than you think
But what can we do about our terribly unhealthy habits?
Learn to love yourself. A person who truly loves themselves are is unlikely to engage in self-sabotaging behaviours such as devouring a whole packet of chocolate biscuits or drinking alcohol to excess.
The latest scientific research makes this clear. It’s been found that people who are self-compassionate are more likely to look after themselves and adopt healthy lifestyle habits. People who write themselves a self-compassionate letter every day for seven days are happier even three months later.
It’s been an awful couple of years. The daily news feed is grim. How can we improve our happiness even in dark times?
Try talking to yourself differently. Research by the psychologist Ethan Kross finds that when we’re in the midst of a high-pressure situation, we should speak to ourselves as we would our child, our best friend, or a work colleague we admire. He even recommends that we refer to ourselves using our own names. When we do this, we create a distance between ourselves and the problem, and this makes us feel more in control.
The voice in your head is more powerful than you think.
Who inspires you?
One of my most inspiring guests on my podcast was psychologist Dr Edith Eger, one of the last remaining Holocaust survivors. Edith was a trained ballet dancer and gymnast and was sent to Auschwitz.
Hours after her parents were sent to the gas chamber, the Angel of Death, Nazi officer Dr Josef Mengele, forced Edie to dance for his amusement — and her survival. She used her imagination to believe that she wasn’t dancing in Auschwitz but in Budapest Opera House. There was a full orchestra and a big crowd.
I thought it was incredible how she had reframed her experience. She told me that the greatest prison you or anyone will ever live in, is the prison you create inside your own mind. It had a huge impact on me.
Reframing your inner story is a very powerful thing that will have a huge impact on your happiness. Try asking questions such as: Is the way I feel about that other person really true? Why is this situation really bothering me? How would it feel if I chose a different perspective? What’s stopping me from choosing a story that empowers me rather than enslaves me?
There are infinite situations we will face in the world that we cannot change. But we can change our reaction. We create our own reality.
Dr Rangan’s three ways to be happy today:
A 2021 study by psychologists Paul van Lange and Simon Columbus found that positive interactions with strangers ‘help us serve basic needs such as feeling connected, appreciated, along perhaps with the realization of personal growth in ourselves’. They advised people ‘to initiate brief interactions, even a smile, to strangers’ because doing so supplies us with a critically important social nutrient they call Vitamin S.
Beware mindless phone use
The psychologist Professor Laurie Santos, of Yale University in Connecticut, finds that ‘just deciding to stay off social media will have a bigger effect on your happiness than earning $100,000 or marrying the love of your life’.
Other research has found we smile 30% less when our phone is present – so put your phone away.
Redefine who you are
Your personal identity comes from your values. What do you truly value in life? For example, curiosity or family or creativity or solitude or nature?
Choose three values and commit to live them. Every week, take a moment to assess how you’re doing in becoming that person. Write down your values to help you set your intention and to help keep you accountable.
Happy Mind, Happy Life: 10 Simple Ways to Feel Great Every Day by Dr Rangan Chatterjee is published by Penguin Life on March 31, at £16.99
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