Monday, January 16, 2012

Spontaneous Happiness, by Andrew Weil, M.D.

Dr. Andrew Weil presents information on the newest theory in health, integrative health care, in Spontaneous Happiness, published this past November 2011. I became interested in reading this book when Dr. Weil’s article on his belief that people suffer from “nature deprivation”, taken from Spontaneous Happiness (Newsweek, October 30, 2011), prompted our family to take a hike in the trails near our home. We found that we loved hiking! (See our blog post, “Trail Hiking—Family Activity”, November 2011). Dr. Weil’s recent book not only contains useful information for creating a healthy lifestyle to a wide audience, but also presents it in an accessible three-part format. Highlights of the book include an eight-week program for personal integrative health and the Anti-Inflammatory Diet. The book’s contents are also featured online at

Happiness, according to Weil in Part I of the book, is not “ceaseless bliss” but more like the Swedish term, lagom, which translated loosely “means something like ‘just right’ or ‘exactly enough’-- basically a balance point of “resilience, contentment, comfort, and serenity…your emotional safe harbor which you can leave but to which you should be able to return easily and naturally”. I don’t mind telling you that, as a “keeper of the family”, this also struck me as part of a definition of home. Part I continues on with Weil’s theory that an epidemic of depression abounds, that a new integrative approach is needed which addresses a person’s “physical, psychological, and spiritual needs” (which reminds me as more of an extension of the “mind-body” connection, so often quoted, to a “mind-body-soul” connection…and the “health triangle” approach of personal-physical-social realms), and that integrative health can benefit from the practices of both eastern and western health theories. As a reader looking to this book for further information on helping families, Part I of the book seems less intriguing than Parts II and III, but I do see the importance in Weil’s definition of happiness, and the background of health as well as the introduction of integrative health.

Part II and Part III include concrete suggestions for creating “happiness”…once again defined as “a balance point of resilience, contentment, comfort, and serenity”. Part II focuses on three areas: Body, Mind, and Secular Spirituality. For the body, Weil suggests adopting an anti-inflammatory diet (outlined in the appendix), exercising more, getting adequate sleep in darkness and quiet at night, as well as adequate light exposure during the day. For the mind, Weil focuses on “ruminating negative thought patterns” that he states are the “root of unhappiness”. He makes several suggestions for a healthy mind including interventions of the positive psychology movement, mindfulness training, meditation, reducing attachment to those items which are often associated with addictions in people, and practicing visualization and daily “breath work”. Weil is quick to define and explain the difference and the overlaps between spirituality and religion in the chapter on secular spirituality and its importance. Its here that Weil suggests that people need to be more aware of their connection, not only to the natural world, but also to animals, art, beauty, and communities of people in order to bring more fulfillment into their lives. 
Part III, the final section of the book, consists of an eight-week step-by-step program to improve an individual’s happiness and two appendicies which include a general outline of the Anti-Inflammatory Diet and a list of further books to read as well as several online resources for readers on many of the Weil’s suggestions in the book. As well, he gives two of his own web sites, and , where readers can access even more information on integrative health.

It is important to note that throughout the book, Dr. Weil is careful to suggest and explain that for individuals with depressive disorders, his suggestions should be used in conjunction with their current therapies. 
FINAL REVIEW: As a person first attracted to this book by Dr. Andrew Weil’s researched belief that we, as a people (especially kids), suffer from “nature deprivation” and his concrete suggestions on connecting more with nature in his Newsweek article, I read this book as a mom looking for more suggestions for my family. Though I didn’t need the extensive background on health theories or the treatment of depression at this reading, I did find several activities that I can do, teach, and adapt for my own family to improve their overall health in general. However, his suggestion to quit coffee and caffeine drinks (for overly dependent people) “cold turkey”, though well-intentioned, won’t “fly” in my family! I definitely don’t want to be any where near a person who is trying to cut a dependence on caffeine in that manner; I don’t think it will increase the family’s happiness quotient one bit (initially anyhow!). Otherwise, I found the concrete suggestions and resources to be a highly positive factor of the book, and very easily to adapt and implement. In fact, for the next two weeks, I’m Counting To Three…Okay, Four will be highlighting several of these suggestions, adapted for families, as our “Weekly Tips”. As well, our family will try these tips ourselves and give a full “Family Review” at the end of three weeks. Enjoy!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Book Review--The Thinking Life by P.M. Forni

P.M. Forni’s The Thinking Life, How To Thrive In The Age of Distraction, asks the highly valuable family question, “How do we turn off the noise of daily life, turn on our brains, and begin, once again, to engage in that fundamental human activity known as thinking?”.  Published just this past September 2011, it is a relevant book for our time.  As a parent, I was attracted to words such as, “Maybe the family still feels like a sanctuary to chronically overworked Americans.  The erosion of true leisure, however, has not spared the realm of the personal.  Two-earner and one-parent households are forever pressed for time…. “Overscheduled” is a recurring definition of today’s family life, when fourth-graders need appointment calendars and unstructured child play is becoming a thing of the past.”  Families can gain much from Forni’s work, however, the audience for much of this book seems to be the academic student.  It reads like a small textbook of life lessons with specific questions and exercises to engage the reader more. 
The main premise of the book is to practice paying attention.  Take stock of your life, decide on priorities, eliminate distractions and pay more attention to priorities.  Most of all, a person should practice thinking.  An example sticks in my mind from this book is the person waiting in line.  Forni proposes that, while waiting, a person is better off to stop grumbling and start thinking in line—thinking about something important, something that is going on in the world, a hobby, or how something works.  Choosing to grumble less and think more, can make life happier.  
            From a parent’s point of view, the best part of this book is the information on “Embracing the Positive”, putting worrying into perspective, and facing adversity by being proactive.  Forni makes a strong argument for allowing time in family life to promote being more aware of the present moment, listening more, and just thinking, even thinking by talking with one another, and cutting out distractions that eat up valuable family time—all topics that are just starting to become relevant to today’s time-strapped, money-strapped families. 

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Book Review--Building Family Communication

      Building Family Communication (Family Matters) by J. Denis Mercier and Waln K. Brown for the William Gladden Foundation is a quick read. It is a small book of approximately 45 pages which gives a succinct overview as to why communication is such an important tool for families--and the best way to begin strengthening your family. As they state in their forward, “Despite all its power and strength, the family unit remains one of the most vulnerable human connections….Building family communication is the classic ‘win/win’ situation: every member of the family is more secure with one another and ready to deal with the world outside.” The book answers such questions as “How Does A Family Build Communication?” in short, one or two paragraph responses that give a quick overview and perhaps a few examples. The main focus of the book is on positive and negative verbal and nonverbal messages and how they can affect all the members of a family, either strengthening or destroying family relationships and unity.