Dr. Deepak Chopra on promoting wellness Featured

4:35pm EDT March 2, 2011
Dr. Deepak Chopra, founder, Chopra Center for Wellbeing Dr. Deepak Chopra, founder, Chopra Center for Wellbeing

Wellness is everywhere these days. It’s in the home. It’s in the workplace. And it’s a topic of national conversation. But wellness means more than just staying healthy and eating right.

“When you look at wellness, you have to examine everything — your career well-being, your financial well-being, physical well-being, social well-being, community well-being and, ultimately, your spiritual well-being,” says Dr. Deepak Chopra, wellness guru and founder of the Chopra Center for Wellbeing.

Smart Business sat down with Chopra, who works with individuals, executives and companies to foster wellness in numerous forms and discussed the impact health and well-being can have on individuals and organizations.

Dr. Chopra, how important is wellness and can you put an actual economic number on that importance?

There is a lot of good data that shows how well-being correlates with economics, and there are huge implications of how one’s well-being affects the bottom line of a company.

It is currently estimated that 15 percent of the work force in the United States is ‘actively disengaged.’ These are unhappy people who go to work each day and make it their business to make other people unhappy. The cost of actively disengaged workers in the American work force is about $350 billion a year. There are another 57 percent of people who are not actively disengaged, but they’re disengaged, which means they’re just punching the clock. That leaves only about 28 percent of workers who are actively engaged.

I’m on the advisory board of the Gallup Organization, and we’ve studied this issue. What we’ve begun to find is that the economic implications of this are not only in the billions but probably in the trillions. What’s more, we don’t understand the relationship between physical and mental well-being and economics very well because medicine has not focused on this. But the fact is that new information shows that your physical well-being is linked to all these other things and there’s an enormous economic impact tied to wellness.

Can you give me an example of how this works?

If you are having an unhappy time at work, for example, such as if you’re not only disengaged but your supervisor ignores you, your likelihood of getting disengaged and ultimately becoming sick goes up by 44 percent. If, on the other hand, your supervisor doesn’t ignore you but criticizes you, your disengagement falls to 20 percent because you’d rather be criticized than ignored. That is because, when you’re ignored, you don’t exist. Finally, if your strengths are noticed by your supervisor or by your colleagues, your disengagement falls to less than 1 percent. That has huge economic implications, not just for a person’s well-being but also for their family.

Likewise, there is data on social well-being, community well-being and financial well-being. If you work for a firm that makes sure there is some safeguard for you not to get into debt, if you have a certain amount of savings taken care of through automated plans and if you can afford to pay your taxes comfortably, those have direct implications on your health and, therefore, on your productivity.

When you actually sit down and analyze it, you can come to the conclusion that, for companies, wellness and well-being may just be your biggest investment because it has huge returns for you economically. Think about it from this perspective: If you have happy employees and you’re happy yourself, you’re going to have happy customers. And if you have happy customers, you’re going to have a healthy company and happy investors.

So you’re saying that there’s a correlation between happiness, health and wellness, and prosperity?

Absolutely. We now know so much about happiness and workplace happiness and how that has direct effects on your neurophysiology, on your biology, on things like immunomodulators (the things that modulate the activity of your immune system), so no longer is the connection between emotions and wellness and well-being disputed.

If you’re a business leader, you need to consider whether you engage emotionally with your employees and even your customers, in order to improve and increase your business. This emotional engagement requires immense amounts of knowledge about what makes people emotionally intelligent.

For 40 years, we focused, as a medical profession, on the deleterious effects of stress. We now know that with people who are stressed, there is a direct correlation with addictive behavior, cardiovascular disease, infections and some types of cancer. But we hadn’t looked at the opposite: If stress could make you sick, could happiness make you better? And the evidence shows it can.

What can someone do to spark that happiness and, in turn, become healthier?

There is a lot of good data on happiness. Happy people see opportunities where others see problems. Happy people have ways of getting over the limiting beliefs that hold them back. Happy people have meaning and purpose in what they do. Happy people make other people happy. And they know the fastest way to be happy is to make someone else happy.

Here’s something worth thinking about: If you have a happy friend, your happiness level goes up 15 times. If your happy friend has a happy friend, it goes up another 10 percent. And if your happy friend has a happy friend who has a happy friend that you don’t even know, it goes up another 10 percent. Here’s why: Because when two people meet, it’s not just those two people meeting, it’s all the relationships and factors in that person’s life that influences their behavior.

These days, we are doing a lot of research on social networks and how they not only improve the quality of life but also the quality of well-being, economics, productivity in the workplace, engagement and even biochemical responses, such as your blood pressure level. It is all tied to wellness and well-being.

Wellness seems to be something everybody should be interested in pursuing, but it goes well beyond just eating healthy, exercising and trying to be happy. You’re talking about a complete behavioral change, correct?

That’s true. I work directly with companies and executives to provide training on leadership skills in this area. True leadership requires several strategies. It requires the ability to listen, but the ability to listen not only as a good observer but as an analytical listener, emotional listener and spiritual listener. Leadership also requires the ability to create a vision, the ability to engage emotionally with people and the ability to enhance your awareness to understand what people need — whether it is your customers, employees or investors.

Finally, leadership requires the ability to strategize and take action.

There is a whole section I call responsibility. When you talk about corporate or leadership responsibility, you talk about initiative, investing the right resources, risk management, values and establishing corporate missions. But what is missing for corporate leaders and leadership training is that as leaders we need to be healthy ourselves, physically and emotionally, and we need to make sure the people we work with we have at least some tools to ensure their health, wellness and happiness. That does require a different way of thinking, and yes, it is a behavioral change.

How do you get to that point? It’s a lot harder than simply waking up a little earlier and working out before going to work or eating that salad for lunch instead of a double cheeseburger.

If you motivate people through fear it usually doesn’t work. There’s a high dropoff rate, and furthermore, fear has its own consequences, such as stress. So many times, when people are motivated by fear, they end up worse than they were before. Instead, people have to be inspired and feel some type of joy in this transformative process. They also have to understand that if they take on this transformative process and take responsibility for their well-being, they’ll be much more productive. They’ll be able to accomplish more by doing less.

Take stress for example. When people are stressed out, they do things they shouldn’t, like drink to excess. If somebody has a hangover because they were stressed out and sought refuge by drinking too much, half the day is wasted just recovering from the hangover. And by the time you’ve recovered, then you’re ready to create another hangover.

So it’s very important for people to recognize that their energy level, their creativity, their ability to motivate others and their ability to produce more is directly related to how they’re feeling inside and their health.

What are some ways people can take to increase their wellness?

There are a few simple things that will help create well-being.

Get good sleep. The importance of sleep has been underestimated. There is an overwhelming percentage of the population of the United States that take sleeping pills to sleep. That doesn’t produce normal, rejuvenative sleep, which is necessary.

Engage in a minimum amount of exercise each day.

Be a little careful about your diet. Don’t be compulsive, but try not to eat anything that comes in a can or has a label.

Have healthy relationships.

Use some technique for stress management, even if it is 10 minutes for meditation, reflection or thinking about how you want your day to go, sitting quietly or strategizing around your priorities.

Build up on your relationships — both at home and in business.

You mentioned relationships. What’s the importance of personal relationships in wellness and well-being, and how can those directly impact one’s mood?

Emotions are contagious. If you’re feeling stressed, even if you don’t say or do anything that’s inappropriate, there’s a phenomenon called limbic resonance. People around you will start to feel stress, their blood pressure will go up and their heart rate will speed up even though they are not aware of it. All of this means that, as a social species, we are constantly monitoring, regulating and being regulated by the emotional state of others around us.

This emotional state not only affects our emotions but our physical state — blood pressure, heart rate, adrenaline levels. If you are emotionally fulfilled, happy, you affect other people not only by what you say or do but by your very presence.

And the opposite is true. If you’re stressed out, you affect people in a negative way, not only emotionally but physically, just by your presence.

So what can you do to keep this from negatively impacting your wellness along with the well-being of others?

There are techniques to change this. You can acknowledge other people’s strengths, help build teams and foster teamwork, and actually make sure that people work only in those areas where they can utilize their strengths.

We have identified 35 strengths where people fall into and found that even if people are really good and productive, if you put them in the wrong seat on the bus with regard to their strengths, they’re not going to be happy, and that’s going to affect their productivity. Therefore, team-building and putting together the right set of talents based on people’s strengths is imperative in the workplace. And, you must acknowledge people’s strengths. We don’t always do this.

We asked people in over 150 countries the same question: Do you like what you do every day?

Only 20 percent of people said yes. We also found out that more people die in the United States on Monday morning at 9 a.m. of a heart attack than any other time because they hate their jobs. These are facts that are immediate and alterable, and they all correspond to wellness.

How important is getting the right amount of sleep each night?

Sleep is very important. Restful sleep is the time when your body rejuvenates. There is a period during sleep, dream sleep, which is when you have some sort of detox activity, where the stress is removed. For many people, between six and eight hours of sleep makes sense.

So what should be the first thing people do to take responsibility in their own wellness and well-being?

Sit for five minutes with your eyes closed. Put your attention in your heart every morning and ask yourself, ‘Who am I? What do I want? And how do I want my day to go?’ If you start living that question, you will spontaneously know what your priorities are. And that will ultimately lead to a healthier, more productive and happier life.

How to reach: Chopra Center for Wellbeing, www.chopra.com