By Marilynn Preston- Dr. Amit Sood, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, grew up and went to medical school in Bhopal, India. Throughout his medical training, he writes, he experienced “the scourge of poverty, malnutrition and disease” that created tremendous suffering in his country.
In 1995, Sood came to America. He did a two-year residency in New York, followed by six years in rural Washington, all the while practicing a different kind of medicine than he had in India. In America, his patients were, on the whole, healthier, wealthier, better nourished, with many more resources.
Here’s the shocker. “To my surprise,” he writes, “the suffering was the same. It’s nature, intensity, pervasiveness … I had naively assumed that everyone (in America) would be happy and having a good time. The extent of stress made no sense to me.”
And that led Sood to his lifelong quest to understand the scientific basis of human suffering, and to come up with practical things that ordinary humans can to do to live extraordinary lives of peace and calm, with better relationships and greater happiness.
He describes his methods and philosophy in his playful and profound book called “The Mayo Clinic Handbook for Happiness” (Da Capo Press). It features detailed step-by-step practices to help you decrease negative stress and intentionally choose happiness.
“Happiness is a habit,” says Sood, now chair of the Mayo Mind Body Initiative and director of research at the Mayo Clinic Complementary and Integrative Medicine program. (Just knowing this place exists makes me happy.) “Some of us are born with it; others have to choose it. This book will help readers ‘choose’ happiness.”
HIS BIG DISCOVERY: IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT. “After years of studying and learning from patients, students, spiritual luminaries, scientists and philosophers,” Sood writes, “I realized that human suffering is often not caused by our conscious thoughts and actions.”
Our minds are hard-wired to attach to the negative, to see the world as a dark and threatening place because that gave us a survival advantage in days gone by. These days, that evolutionary tendency keeps many of us stressed and anxious.
“The brain and mind work very hard to keep us dissatisfied and stressed,” he writes, and that pretty much bypasses any hope for happiness, unless we intentionally redirect its focus.
“Our suffering is nobody’s fault,” writes Sood. “We can all do something about it.”
Sood prescribes a four-step 10-week program in the “Handbook for Happiness”:
1) TRAIN YOUR ATTENTION. Neuroscientists have proven that the human mind is instinctively restless and wandering. That’s the default mode, and to counteract it, you want to develop deep and sustained attention — intentional attention — so that you can command your thoughts, shift your perspective, detach from the negative and embrace the positive. Joyful attention practices include waking up with gratitude, being in nature, resisting judgment and expressing kindness. “Your attention is like a muscle,” he writes, “Training makes it stronger.”
2) CULTIVATE EMOTIONAL RESILIENCE. Emotional resilience is crucial to happiness, Sood says, because it helps you focus on positive actions and uplifting emotions. He asks his happiness seekers to actively pursue five principles: gratitude, compassion, acceptance, meaning and forgiveness. “When things go wrong,” he advises, “try to focus on what went right within what went wrong.”
3) START A MIND-BODY PRACTICE. Sood encourages people to develop a relaxed mind, using a wide range of activities including reading, exercise, music, art, prayer, meditation, yoga and deep breathing. “A relaxed mind is a humble mind that isn’t struggling with fear, greed or selfishness.”
4) PICK HEALTHY HABITS. Decrease your dose of daily news. Get up and get moving. Simplify your life. Pick your battles. Lighten up. “We often take life more seriously that we need to. Humor brings you into intentional presence.”
You can read more about Sood’s SMART program (Stress Management and Resiliency Training) on his website, www.stressfree.org. He developed it after 20 years of research and practice, and it’s been used to train 150,000 people at Mayo with “consistently positive” results. Now, according to his website, Sood intends to set up franchises in cities throughout the country, teaching people how to choose happiness and improve their health.
“Understanding the scientific basis of human suffering and its solutions for the modern world became my daily obsession.” — Dr. Amit Sood
Marilynn Preston — healthy lifestyle expert, well-being coach and Emmy-winning producer — is the creator of Energy Express, the longest-running syndicated fitness column in the country.