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The Odd Secret to Living Your Best Life (They Did Not Teach Me This in Medical School)

For too long, we have made it complicated. We mistakenly have looked at it in the wrong way. In my early years as a doctor, I heard it so often. People half-jokingly would explain to me what it takes to be healthy. With a chuckle in their voice, they would say it is doing all the things that they do not like doing. That’s why a lot of people think being healthy is so hard. In other words, there’s no joy as they go about it. It is just stuff they need to do. It is work. If this is the path, then they would be right. We already have enough to do.


So, let’s flip the script. Let’s move into our best health and the life that we want to live. To do this, we need to start with the end in mind.


We need to have JOY.


Without joy, it will not work. We will only do it for so long. Think of diets and feeling deprived. Think of boot camps and feeling beaten up. We will only do it for so long. At some point, we would wish we had kept pushing ourselves. We may get labeled as non-compliant, that we’re not committed or disciplined. We will think we failed. We will beat ourselves. This will only make things worse. This tough love that we give ourselves is not the path. It gets old. Bluntly, it does not give results.


When I see someone for an annual check up, I would hear it nearly every time. “Doctor, you have been proud of me but… I was good for a few weeks, and then… I went back to the way that I used to do things.” With a deflated voice, they would tell they were back in my office to get it right this time around. I would essentially hear the same thing year after year.


It is not common to talk about joy. When I was at Johns Hopkins, I was among serious academics. I did not talk about joy unless I was behind closed doors with a patient. The professors would have looked down on “joy” as a way of being healthy. The old guard would scoff at joy. To them, it would not be for those who are serious about health. I understand the tradition and why they would say this. But I absolutely disagree.


If you are unsure or not yet convinced, then allow me to share with you a few scenarios…


FOOD. What is food or eating without joy? It’s called a diet. And how long do diets last? They don’t. In fact, only 1% of people continue on their diet after 6 months. This is an awful return on the investment of time, being starved, and missing out on the foods that you enjoy. Simply put, food needs to taste good.


EXERCISE. What is exercise without joy? It’s called drudgery, work, torture. It is a bootcamp and no soldier has been permanently put in there.


SLEEP. How do you sleep without joy? Can you simply put your head on a pillow, get to sleep, and stay asleep while countless thoughts haunt your mind? No, not really.


You see, joy has a chemistry of its own. It helps the body in terms of pain, in terms of connection, and in terms of energy. So, let’s honor all of these. What I wish for us to do is appreciate that joy is the key, the secret, and the way that we can move towards living our best lives.


What is the way to do this? How do we bring this into our lives? To answer this question, let’s first talk about the components of joy.


Joy as The Essential Principle of Health


Joy is all about you living the life you want to be living. This is the key to better and best health. It may not be typical for a physician or any other medical expert to talk about joy, especially when talking to patients in their clinics, but based on my personal experience, this is absolutely the path, perhaps the master key, towards true health.


Joy is one of the 5 keys of High Yield Health alongside modern medicine, nutrition, exercise, and sleep. But for today, let’s focus on the concept of joy. I like to break this down into 3 parts: (1) Stress, (2) Sensuality, and (3) Spirit.


What is the difference between stress and distress? Many of us see the word “stress” to mean something that is negative. Please know that stress by itself is neither good nor bad. There are times when we experience or respond to stress in a positive way. But when we experience or react negatively, we move into a place called “distress.” This is what we typically mean when we say “stress.” What we call stress is the distress that we experience. We’ll discuss this a bit more later in the article.


As for sensuality, please know that our five senses make us human – sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. So when should we be human? This is odd to even ask. The obvious answer is all the time. The two greatest ways that we experience our 5 senses are food and sex. While these are essential parts of our lives, we can and ought to honor where our 5 senses are throughout the day. As there are countless ways to connect to our senses, I would be remiss if I did not mention being in nature. The data shows great benefits. It reduces heart disease and blood pressure. Time in nature lowers cortisol, stress, and pain. It improves attention, clarity, and creativity. So in addition to food and sex, let us honor our senses as this will help us elevate into that level of joy and truly live our best life and health.


As for spirit, this speaks to the human need for connection. Let me explain. What does a newborn need on the first day of life? Beyond mother’s milk and oxygen, a child needs to be held. They need to feel connected. When this does not happen, the consequences are dire and disheartening. There is more heart disease, mental health issues, and pain throughout one's life. This need for connection is not only vital for the first day of life, it is throughout our lives. For some people, this connection is with a higher power. For others, it is nature. And for others, it is their family, friends, or their community. Over the years, I have witnessed that spirituality is also about what gives people meaning and purpose. I refer to this as the North Star—what gets you out of bed and puts your feet on the floor every morning, each day.


All these 3—stress, sensuality, and spirit—work together to help us truly live a life of joy. But how can we further center ourselves into this? We already know that we must, but we must make this straightforward. Whereas both mindfulness and meditation are wonderful practices, I actually don’t use these words because some people picture it as doing perfect yoga poses or being forced into a religion. To others, these words can be intimidating as they think that it means being perfectly still and not having wandering thoughts. Instead, let’s simply speak about being fully present or being in the moment.


The Importance of Being In the Moment


About 20 years ago, I started to speak about being in the moment in talks to corporations and executives. With each passing year, the data and results about the benefits of being fully present became more impressive. Whether it was personal, professional, or somewhere in between, this practice took people from good to great. In both the medical literature and performance datasets, being fully present is the master key to health, performance, and living the life we want.


I need to disclose that this is a topic that I’ve avoided for many years. As my parents immigrated from the Indian subcontinent, I was born and raised in mid-Michigan. With noble intentions, my parents wanted to make sure that I was exposed to culture. They would take my brother and I down to Detroit on the weekends to attend Indian gatherings. When a yogi or priest was visiting from India, all the children were rounded up into a classroom or lecture hall. It was very awkward for me. When I was told to sit still, I wanted to move. When I was told to close my eyes and clear my mind, I would peek with one eye open to see what everyone else was doing. All I knew about mindfulness and meditation was that I sucked at it. This was my story for years.


Things changed for me very slowly over the past 20 to 30 years. Throughout this time, I had many nudges. Many of you may relate. Life events such as being diagnosed with autoimmune disease, losing my brother to a mysterious illness, sustaining a knee injury that got worse with surgery, going through a failed marriage and divorce, and being a caregiver to frail parents had progressively humbled me.


Yet with all that transpired, I am more grateful and more optimistic than any other time in my life. I truly believe that I am the luckiest guy I know. Some have rolled their eyes whenever. Regardless, it is simply true. The patients and clients who have known me for a long time will tell you the same.


When people joined me in the practice of being present, they became healthier and happier than they ever were. While being in the moment may sound like a new age suggestion or something from pop psychology, I’d like you to know that it gives results.


While being present sounds beautiful and all, it can be quite challenging to achieve and remain in that mental state. We need to understand the mind. The trick is to have it work for you rather than against you. To do this, we need to understand the three rules of the brain:


  1. Neuroplasticity (Hebb’s Axiom)

  2. Negative Bias

  3. Responsive or Reactive


1. Neuroplasticity


This is summarized by the late and great Canadian neuropsychologist Donald Hebb from McGill University. He noted that “neurons (brain cells) that fire together wire together.” If a phone rings, we instantly pick it up and talk. We do not need to process the ringing sound followed by the thought of picking up the phone, and then speaking into the receiver. All of this is processed immediately. This is an example of neuroplasticity.


The brain gets into patterns. This is very efficient. Whereas it can be helpful, at times, it is the opposite. The opportunity is to honor the helpful patterns and become aware of patterns that are no longer helpful.


2. Negative Bias


Whereas many people speak about being positive, I first encourage us to be present. While being positive is wonderful and helpful, I will share that this is against our hardwiring. As humans, we have a negative bias. We have a tendency to pay more attention to the negative than to the positive and as a result, we tend to hold onto the negative.


For example: If I tell you 50 nice things and 1 negative comment about you, what are you likely to remember? The negative. Even if I say 500 positive statements and one negative, you still are likely to remember the negative. We are wired for the negative.


You may ask, “why?” To understand this, imagine if I took you on a tour. It would be a place with many different rooms. Behind one door is a room full of playful puppies. Through another awaits fluffy bunny rabbits that are happy to be petted. Then a different door that opens into a room filled with colorful butterflies fluttering in all directions. As we continue to other rooms, I let you know that we just got word that there is a hungry tiger that got into one of the rooms. Then, I invite us to continue to take the tour as I promise of exotic plants, hummingbirds, and sparkling crystals. Where is our mind? What are we on the lookout for? Yes, the hungry tiger. It would be beyond silliness for someone to say, “Come on, just focus on the positives and all the cool things that you will see.” This would be nuts. There is a hungry tiger out there waiting for us. Wisely, we are focused on this. The negative bias serves us when we need to focus on survival. It can be helpful in some situations. But it also is often not helpful as it can hijack us from the other opportunities in our lives.


Please know being positive and journaling about gratitude are wonderful. They are helpful. As we get into understanding stress, we will see that being present allows us to move toward being positive. Again, the first step is being present.


3. Responsive versus Reactive


It is important here to pause and to understand how stress and distress are related to insight. Again, when stress is unhelpful and negative in our life, this is what we call distress. We will also refer to this as having a high amount of stress.


When we speak of insight, we are talking about our ability to pause and have awareness. This also is the extent to which we can tap into our IQ, experience, and talent. This is also how much we are able to work with the situation or information that has been put before us.


With high stress, we have low insight. With this, we are REACTIVE. We are unable to sufficiently pause and be aware. It is difficult to have our IQ, experience, and talent be of help. We will likely react to the situation or information with emotion, frustration, and anger. This is not where we are at our best. Although it is human to have emotions and being angry is part of the human experience, we wish to minimize the frequency and the extent to which we live in this space.


With low stress, have high insight. With this, we are RESPONSIVE. We are able to pause and more likely be aware. It is more likely to access our IQ, experience, and talent to be of help. We are likely to respond to the situation or information that has been put before us. We are more likely to be effective and productive. This is where we are at our best. We wish to be here with low stress and high insight– and not with high stress and low insight.




Please know that we wish to be responsive and helpful as opposed to reactive and not helpful. To do this, we need not be stuck in the past or fearful of the future. We need to be in the present moment.


It is in this present moment that we can tap into our IQ, experience, and talent. In light of that, let me tell you a few things:


Can our IQ, experience, and talent change whatever happened yesterday? No.


Can our IQ, experience, and talent make tomorrow happen any sooner than it will? No.


So where is our IQ, experience, and talent fully accessible and capable of helping us? In the present moment.


As we mentioned, with our neuroplasticity, we create patterns and loops. Without needing to try, we get hooked on the negative. So it is important to ask, “Where do most of our stress and suffering reside?” It is natural for the brain to wander into the past and say the dreaded “should have” or “could have.” It is also common to wander into the future and worry about “what if.” It is when our minds are in the past or in the future that we have greater stress and suffering,


So, my friends, let’s practice being in the present moment.


How do we do this?


There are many ways to be present. I have spent years seeking ways to do this for myself and the people that I serve. For all of us, I wish to make it simple, available, and actionable. Therefore, I simply recommend breathing. Let me quickly clarify. I wish to recommend being fully aware of your breath. I mean absolutely and fully aware. I am not asking us to do anything special as related to inhaling and exhaling. For our purposes at this moment, we do not need to focus on speed, depth, or details of the breath. Whereas there are many phenomenal breathing techniques, we can cover them later. For now, we are using the breath as a tool, as an anchor to be in the present moment. More specifically, please be fully aware of your breath for the next minute.


For now, we simply need to be fully aware of the breath. So… when we do this, where are we? We are in the present. Please see that we cannot breathe into yesterday and we cannot breathe into tomorrow. We can only breathe here in the present moment. When present, we are able to access our IQ, experience, and talent to work with whatever is front of us.


Our negative bias will take us into the past or into the future. Do not fight this. Whatever we resist tends to persist. Simply be aware that it is happening. With a pause, simply take a breath and be fully aware of this.


Over a series of breaths, you will move toward the present and be less and less in the past and future. Please know that your mind will wander. This is what it does. It will happen. Just smile as much as you can and go back to breathing. You will come back to the present moment. There is no need to think about being present while breathing. Just breathe and keep bringing your full awareness to your breath.


With breathing practice, we will create the patterns for the brain and the body to be more present. If we do not, then negative bias will pull us quickly into living in the past or living in the future. Remember, practice makes progress. This is not about perfection. This is the path to being present. Here, we can make our best choices, deal with the issues in front of us, and move forward.


Going back to neuroplasticity, please remember that whatever we repeat, we become. It is therefore important to practice breathing. I have friends who breathe for 60 minutes each day. Let me tell you, this is not necessary. I marvel at this and I know that this is not me at this time in my life. Instead, what I do is I breathe for a minute at least 5 times a day. This is at the beginning and the end of each day. It is often before meals. I also do this when I am shifting from one consultation to the next, or from one meeting to the next. The more I do it, the more that I remember to do it. Whatever we practice, we become.


You may be thinking a minute may not do much and I’m inclined to agree that more is always welcome. However, our goal is to routinely do this each day. Our negative biases will always be ready to put us into the past or future with heightened stress and distress. To be more present, we need to practice breathing multiple times each day.


Is the practice achievable?


Yes!


Think of the commercials you’ve seen multiple times when you were watching TV. After a few times of seeing the advertisement, you were very likely able to recite the catchphrase or sing along with the jingle or whatever was said in those ad placements. Simply said, repetition is the hallmark of adult learning.


The same concept of repetition applies to breathing and being in the present. So just breathe, again and again. Repeat this activity, because whatever we repeat, we become. Let’s be present.



My friends, by imparting to you the knowledge and techniques we just shared, we aim to help you stay in the present, to be in the moment.


By achieving this, we can honor the topics we will talk about in the future such as the lessons medicine can teach us, how to eat, how to move, and the opportunity to get to sleep and stay asleep. Remember: Being in the present moment is the essential key to health, performance, and living the life we want. We like to call this the “practice.” I invite you to make a practice of breathing. Start with 1 minute, five times daily, and every day. This will bring you into the present moment. Whatever you repeat, you will become.


Intentionally, we wanted to review breathing and being present before our next article. By being present and with less stress, we will be able to start one of the most important steps towards better sleep. Please stay tuned for the next article of High Yield Health. We’ll honor one of the MOST important topics we’ll ever talk about: SLEEP.


Cheers,

Param


Param Dedhia, MD



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