Radical Well-Being: Where We Need to Go

Feb 19, 2014 | Updated Apr 21, 2014

By Deepak Chopra, M.D. and Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D.

As far as our health goes, America is about a little of this and a lot of that. The little is self-care, the lot is drugs and surgery. Thirty years after a mind-body revolution took place in medicine and 50 years after the Surgeon General launched a prevention campaign against smoking, the public hasn't fully embraced the simple, unalterable fact that doctors aren't responsible for the well-being of their patients. Self-care is the one need no one can afford to ignore.

Self-care is a better term than prevention. First of all, it's positive -- you take steps to ensure a better lifestyle, not simply to ward off disease. Second, self-care proceeds on every front that creates well-being: physical, emotional, spiritual, and environmental. If you attend to your own well-being by taking advantage of the latest medical findings, a leap is possible into a higher state of health that can be termed radical well-being.

Radical well-being is founded on burgeoning evidence that the mind is the key to health. Let me sketch in the main points. They make a long list, but each point is a single piece of the puzzle. When all are fitted together, the picture that emerges is of radical well-being, not as a new label for prevention but as a reinvention of the human body.

• Gene activities are responsive to lifestyle choices. Improving your diet, exercise, and sleep creates positive changes in genetic output.

• Genes respond to meditation, and the changes involved can be incredibly fast acting.

• The brain responds to new habits by creating pathways that support them. This alteration occurs not just at the level of brain chemistry and neural activity, but runs as deep as the genetic level.

• Meditation and other contemplative practices seem to influence the biological aging process in cells. Signs of this benefit are optimal with long-term practice, but changes can occur even when someone meditates for the first time.

• The cell membrane of all 50 trillion cells in the body is a vast communication center that eavesdrops on every thought you have as well as to your intake of food, air, and water.

• Although the brain has traditionally been considered the seat of mind, there is intelligence in every cell, with an equal complexity and ability to respond to the environment.

• Increasingly the critical factor in chronic illness (including diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, and cancer) seems to be inflammation. Recent trends in cancer suggest that between two-thirds and 95 percent of cancers are probably preventable.

• A growing number of chronic illnesses are linked to obesity, the treatment of which is almost entirely up to each individual. Another large swath of diseases is linked to smoking.

• To date, one of the best methods for reversing the buildup of fatty plaque in the coronary arteries is through lifestyle changes. One of the most powerful forms of psychotherapy is cognitive therapy, which goes directly to the patient's mistaken beliefs and mental habits.

We've offered these points in the broadest, most general terms to bring out the one thing they all have in common: Mind is the key. Moment by moment, second by second, you can't make a single choice or decision, except though the mind. And every thought, it turns out, is actually a decision. Each mental event gets translated into a bodily change, via the brain as the mind's physical processor, and each message is either positive or negative.

Through the everyday operation of the mind, a system of feedback loops is reinforced, taking a term from computer science that says, essentially, "Input and output are self-reinforcing. The better the input, the stronger the feedback loop."

Since every cell operates through feedback loops, there can be only one conclusion. Mental activity creates our personal reality. Thoughts, feelings, sensations, and images -- the content of your mind every moment of your life -- gets translated into the structure and activities of your cells. It has taken decades for "hard" science to support this conclusion, but by it is now becoming incontrovertible. Right down to the genetic level, your mind is telling your body how to live.

The reason for calling this new model radical well-being is that unlike conventional well-being, making choices isn't optional. Every thought invisibly encodes a biological choice, pointing to a positive outcome (well-being) or a negative one (imbalance, physical decline, disease, or death). That our cells change by the instant holds the key to a higher state of health. (If you want to see what your thoughts were like yesterday, look at your body today. If you want to see what your body will be like tomorrow, look at your thoughts and feelings today. Pay attention to how you are reacting to your world.)

The medical technicalities are still being worked out, but the good news is that we now have a new model for the good life. The path is open to enjoy an energetic body, a restful and alert mind, and lightness of being at all times. Recent data from the Gallup Organization shows that our physical and mental well-being is spread out into the most critical areas -- career, finance, community -- that can be quantified. In other words, the barriers between "in here" and "out there" are artificial. To thrive in your outer life is a state of well-being that begins with your inner life.

For a new model to replace the old, there has to be a strong challenge to conventional wisdom. In the next part of this post we'll outline the rapid decline of conventional medical thinking, giving us a second argument for adopting radical well-being, centered on self-care, as the best way forward. Health isn't static. It evolves, like life itself. The seed of an evolutionary leap is already ours if only we pay attention.

(To be cont.)

Deepak Chopra, M.D. is the author of more than 75 books with twenty-two New York Times bestsellers including "What Are You Hungry For?"

Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School Vice-Chair of Neurology and Director of Genetics and Aging Research at Massachusetts General Hospital