Bestselling author and physician Deepak Chopra on mastering your brain, making happiness a habit, and why he loves Twitter.
Spry: In your new book, Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness and Spiritual Well-Being, you and your co-author, Dr. Rudolph Tanzi, talk about becoming the “master of your brain.” What exactly does that mean?
Deepak Chopra: Most of us think the mind is what the brain does, when in fact it’s the other way around: the brain is what the mind does. Your brain is a record of your feelings, thoughts, emotions, insights, intuition and creativity. So you are able to rewire your networks by the way you think, feel, reflect, speak and act. Your brain is not a noun, it’s a verb—in that it responds to the activity in your mind.
Spry: So how does the idea of mastering your brain relate to happiness?
DC: People who are happy find opportunities where there are problems, and they know how to change the conditions of their lives. They find meaning and purpose in their existence, and they know how to make other people happy. That’s the happiness formula in a nutshell. But it doesn’t address the kind of existential unhappiness only human beings experience, which comes with the fear of old age and death. I think having a spiritual practice helps you find an identity which is larger than your ego and personality and also has consequences on how the brain experiences life.
Spry: In the book, you discuss how habits can hold us back from happiness, and I think that’s especially true at the holidays, when we tend to put a lot of stock in traditions. How can we keep our habits from holding us back?
DC: Habits are created by social conditioning. Everybody does the same thing: Drink egg nog, get drunk, wake up with a hangover and then start all over again. It’s all very mundane. Your brain gets lazy if you don’t use it in unpredictable ways. So I tell people who are locked into habits, “Just do one thing today that’s different from yesterday.” Drive to work along a different route, or take the subway instead of the taxi. Get into the habit of breaking habits. The more you do that, the more novelty there is for the brain, and the healthier it is.
Spry: What about good habits, like exercise?
DC: At the same time, you have to develop healthy habits like exercise and meditation. Making somebody else happy by giving them attention, affection, appreciation—that’s a good habit. You have to have a delicate balance between habits that are so automatic, nourishing and nurturing that you don’t have to think about them, while still creating novel ways of doing things so that you keep your brain healthy for creativity.
Spry: Besides doing something different every day, what are some other practical changes people can make to start becoming the master of their brains?
DC: Take some time to be quiet every day. Be mindful of your body. Practice self-awareness: awareness of your perception, experience, body, mental state and relationships. Ask yourself who you are, what’s your purpose, what do you want, what makes life joyful for you? When you start to do this, you literally change the way you experience life.
Spry: How quickly do you see results after you start making these changes?
DC: I think it’s very empowering to do anything that’s different on a daily basis. You’ll be on your way. There are studies that show if you do anything for 21 days, you start to enjoy it. If you do it for over 60, you don’t even have to think about it.
Spry: You have more than a million followers on Twitter. What do you like about Tweeting?
DC: I think Twitter is like a neuro network for our planet. You can use it to make people happy, or you can aggravate them. I do both actually! I try to make people happy most of the time, but once in a while if I see something too self-righteous, I get into aggravating them. I’ve been aggravating people over Obamacare this morning. (laughs)
Spry: It’s refreshing to know you do that, too! Some people say that social networks like Twitter keep us from truly connecting with people, though. Do you think it’s an authentic and healthy way to socialize with people?
DC: Socializing is neutral. What we do with it is up to us. I do believe that this is an unstoppable part of our evolution, so we might as well use these tools to create a more peaceful, happier, healthier world.