Happy mind, happy life, with Dr Rangan Chatterjee
What really is the key to a happy life? The esteemed Dr Rangan Chatterjee joins us in our latest episode.
General practitioner, host of BBC’s Doctor in the House, and best-selling mental wellness author, he has enlightened thousands with his 3 principles of core happiness: alignment, contentment, and control.
Sensing a disconnect between the modern medical system and the root cause of health problems, Dr Chatterjee set out to learn about holistic living.
There’s a difference between meaning and happiness, he explains to our host Dr Gemma Newman.
In this episode, we find out: how can we stop pursuing “junk happiness” and focus on what’s truly meaningful?
These days, Rangan has a holistic approach to health – and he says, with the benefit of hindsight, he can see how much his upbringing has shaped his path.
'My parents were Indian immigrants who came to the UK in the 60s and 70s. The idea of food as medicine was ingrained in me due to my culture. If I had a sore throat, my mum would make a ginger and honey concoction on the stove.'
Like, he says, so many children of Indian immigrants, he ended up at medical school. ‘But I always felt a disconnect in medicine. I knew my practice as a doctor wasn’t fully aligned to who I am as a person.’
The turning point came when his young son became ill, aged six months old. ‘He had a very serious convulsion. We weren’t sure he’d make it through the night.’
It turned out he had hypocalcaemia, extremely low blood calcium levels, due to a vitamin D deficiency. ‘Modern medicine saved his life, no question,’ says Rangan. But he realised it had also taught him nothing about how his son had ended up there. Guilt set in – ‘I felt I had let my son down’ – but also an obsession. ‘I started to study vitamin D, nutrition, gut immunology – I’d actually done an immunology degree, but never applied it in my medical practice.’
What he’s learned on the way, says Dr Rangan, has helped him and his family – his son is now a thriving 12-year-old, and ‘I’ve never felt this good in terms of energy or cognition’. But it’s also helped his patients. ‘I can help them regain a level of health and vitality in a way I never could before. I believe 80-90% of what we see as medical doctors is in some way related to our collective modern lifestyles.’
He stresses: ‘I’m not blaming people, I understand life can be tough.’ His goal instead is to ‘empower people to believe they can be the architects of their own health and happiness’, rather than doctors simply handing out pills, which don’t get to the root causes (but often just ‘kick the can down the road’).
In his work, Rangan identifies four pillars of wellbeing – food, movement, sleep and relaxation. ‘These can have profound effects, not just obvious things like type 2 diabetes or obesity, but anxiety, depression, migraines, hormone problems, gut issues, low libido… If you make small changes, you may find these symptoms start to get better.’
Rangan isn’t scared to use the H word, either. ‘Modern medics don’t talk about healing. We tend to associate it with spirituality. But it’s the process of becoming whole again or helping someone recover. I proudly say I want to heal my patients.’
For Rangan’s latest book, Happy Mind, Happy Life, he dug down into what really makes the difference to our happiness – and came up with a formula to help.
He identifies three key components to what he terms ‘core happiness’, which form the ‘three-legged stool of happiness’, each part ‘separate but essential’.
This is where our inner values and external actions match up. ‘For much of my life there’s been a big gap. I got my self-worth from external validation. That’s a very lonely place to be,’ he says. ‘As I’ve repaired that gap, I’m much more aligned.’
Rangan says when people’s lives are unauthentic, the gap between the person inside and the one we show to the world ‘is where discontentment lies’. We often plug this gap with what he terms ‘junk happiness habits’: ‘behaviours like consuming sugar, gambling, alcohol, or online scrolling on social media.’
‘These are the things that give you a sense of peace,’ says Rangan, with your life and your decisions, and it’s about giving time to them.
This is a word Rangan thought long and hard about using in his book. ‘It’s not about controlling the world or people around us. It’s what you can do on a daily basis that gives a sense of control over your life. Research shows people with this have higher levels of willpower, motivation and academic success, they are happier and healthier.’
For Rangan personally, his morning routine is essential to his sense of control. ‘No matter what’s going on in the world, or in my life, I prioritise those 30-40 minutes each morning, because it grounds me and insulates me. Then I’m better able to face everything else.’
It’s built around his framework of the ‘3 Ms: Mindfulness, movement and mind-set. And it could just take you 5 minutes, it doesn’t have to take 30.’
Rangan rises at 5am, ‘always without an alarm’ (he’s quick to point out his wife prefers to lie in). He then goes into his living room and practises mindfulness for 10 minutes. ‘At the moment it’s a kind of breathwork meditation called Natural Movement devised by Erwan Le Corre. It’s quite complex, but anything simple like the Headspace or Calm apps or just deep breathing for 2 minutes can work too.’
‘Next, I come into my kitchen and make coffee. I weigh it out, put it in the French press, and set a timer for 5 minutes. While it’s brewing, I do the second M: movement. I literally have a strength workout in my pyjamas! My strategy is ‘make it easy’: the number one rule for turning a new behaviour into a long-term habit. If you don’t, on days when motivation is low, you simply won’t do it.
‘Some days I’ll do bodyweight exercises for 5 minutes. I’ve also now got kettlebells and dumbbells in my kitchen, other days it’s a few press-ups. I don’t put too much pressure on myself. Then I have the beautiful reward of a nice hot cup of organic coffee just the way I like it!’
‘For the 3rd M, I’ll do something that puts me in a positive frame of mind for the day ahead. I used to do affirmations. but at the moment I’ll read a few pages from a book that uplifts me or helps me look at life differently. [Rangan reads a couple of books weekly, usually linked to his podcast guests.]
One of the biggest problems Rangan sees is how ‘we confuse happiness with success’. But time and time again, when people achieve that car or job promotion ‘they still have that feeling of discontentment’.
He recommends trying the following exercise:
As with all things, balance is also key: happiness isn’t just a sense of meaning either, says Rangan, despite this being an essential part of a happy life. ‘It’s possible to have a job that gives you purpose and meaning, but still overwork, not spend time with your partner or kids, or have time to pursue your passions.’
Rangan says: ‘At this stage in my life, aged 44, it means one thing: presence. It’s not about physical health, though that can be a component. It’s: can I be present in every moment of my life, with my children, my family, my patients? That’s what wellness means to me today.’
A doctor for over 17 years, Gemma Newman has worked in many specialities as a doctor including elderly care, endocrinology, paediatrics, obstetrics and gynaecology, psychiatry, general surgery, urology, vascular surgery, rehabilitation medicine and General Practice.
Dr Newman's specialist interests are in holistic health and plant-based nutrition as well as lifestyle medicine. In her practice she has come to understand that body, mind and soul are not separate, and that it is only in addressing the root causes of stress and disconnection that we can truly heal, from the inside out.