He’s been a circus acrobat and set a world record in high diving – plunging more than 100 feet off a bridge. He’s an accomplished author; the Dalai Lama himself wrote the foreword to his book Essential Spirituality. At UC Irvine, he’s a professor of psychiatry & human behavior and holds joint appointments in philosophy and anthropology. He’s even tried his hand at stand-up comedy – “rather unsuccessfully,” he says. In short, Dr. Roger Walsh lives life to the fullest, and he’s helping others do the same.

For his latest endeavor, Walsh is working on a new PBS documentary called “Eight Ways to Wellbeing” (8waystowellbeing.com), which encourages people to realize their potential and lead healthier, happier lives. And the way to do this, he says, is by making therapeutic lifestyle changes – or TLCs – that his research has shown can sometimes be as effective as medication or psychotherapy at alleviating depression, lowering stress levels, and improving physical and mental health.

Walsh’s belief in the healing power of TLCs stems from his own personal and professional experiences. He’s studied, taught and written extensively about Asian philosophies, Western religions, meditation, yoga and other contemplative practices, which have become integral parts of his own daily regimen. More on his background can be found on his website, drrogerwalsh.com.

Walsh recently shared his ideas on what people can start doing today to cultivate happiness and, perhaps, change their lives.

Why should we study happiness?

Because it’s the source of so much of our striving and efforts, it’s important to ask what makes us happy. Philosophers, religious leaders, and great thinkers from Aristotle to the Buddha to William James have all pondered this question. In general, they emphasize the importance of deeper satisfactions – family, friends, service and spirituality – rather than material acquisitions such as money, possessions and power.

Happiness is a fundamental human desire and need. As human beings, we’re deeply concerned not just with our happiness, but also with our broader well-being … and the happiness and well-being of others.

Americans enjoy a high standard of living, yet some studies suggest we’re not that happy. Why?

According to a recent study on world happiness, people in Scandinavian countries are happiest, Canadians rank sixth, and Americans are 17th. Of course, there are many reasons that may account for this, but with regard to standard of living, there are several issues. One is the growing inequality. We inevitably compare ourselves with others, and when so many people have less compared to others, that creates dissatisfaction.

There’s also a fundamental misunderstanding in our society of what makes for happiness. The widespread assumption, assiduously promoted by media and advertising, is that money and possessions equal happiness, and they don’t.

Yes, poverty creates suffering, sometimes enormous suffering. It’s really hard to be happy if you’re deprived and your family’s basic needs are not being met. But once people have enough money for the necessities, having more money has surprisingly little effect.

In the U.S., the average income has increased, but happiness has barely budged. [U.S. gross national product per capita is now three times higher than in 1960, while measures of average happiness have remained essentially unchanged, according to the 2012 World Happiness Report.]

After we have the basics, having more possessions – a newer car, more expensive clothes, etc. – produces only short-term “bumps” in our mood. There’s an initial rush, but we quickly fall back to our usual level of contentment. That’s one reason, among many, why money isn’t a very effective way of increasing long-term happiness and well-being.

Yet advertisers spend billions of dollars trying to convince us otherwise, and we’re continuously barraged by psychologically sophisticated advertising for unhealthy things like fast food, alcohol and nicotine. Our culture sells us pseudo-solutions for fulfillment, but you can never get enough of what you don’t really need.

What are some things people can do that lead to lasting happiness?

A number of lifestyle changes can be helpful. They’re usually inexpensive, enjoyable, free of side effects, and beneficial both physically and mentally.

  • We can nurture and enjoy our relationships by taking more time to be with the people we like and who like us. The research is crystal clear: Relationships are central and essential for well-being. Yet Americans are becoming increasingly isolated. They’re spending less time with their family and friends and more time in front of their computers and televisions.
  • We can practice some kind of stress management technique, such as meditation. There’s now a remarkable amount of research showing that meditation produces significant physical and psychological benefits. It increases well-being in multiple ways, such as enhancing calm, concentration and clarity, and it also improves empathy and the quality of relationships. No wonder people who meditate tend to be happier.
  • We can spend more time in nature. In modern society, we increasingly live in urban settings, indoors with artificial lighting. Nature is a source of healing. It’s relaxing, it’s good for our psychological health, and it improves our intellectual functioning.
  •  We can get more exercise. We all know exercise is good for the body, but it’s also good for the brain, and it’s effective at reducing stress and depression.
  •  We can take time for recreation and play. When we do this, we re-create – or revitalize – ourselves. We foster feelings of joy.
  •  Good food is good for you. Excess sugar, fat and calories take their toll on our brains as well as our bodies. A diet rich in fish, fruits and vegetables improves mental functioning across the lifespan, enhancing school performance in children, mood in adults and intellectual functions in the elderly.
  •  Religious or spiritual involvement that focuses on love and forgiveness can promote well-being and lessen anxiety, depression and substance abuse.
  • Service to others, or altruism, can give an enormous sense of purpose, satisfaction and well-being, which is sometimes called a “helper’s high.”
  • People who volunteer to help others tend to be happier, healthier and even live longer.

You’ve written that these lifestyle changes require sustained effort. Any tips for making changes that last?

  • Yes, several. Before you begin, ask yourself what you would like to do. If you like it, you’re much more likely to stick to it.
  • Start gently. If you take up an exercise program, maybe you begin by walking around the block three times a week. Make sure you start off at a level you’ll succeed at. Set impossibly idealistic goals, and you’ll find that they’re, well, impossible. Set modest, realistic goals, and you’ll succeed.
  • Find a partner or group to be with and to lend support. That way, you can go for a walk in a beautiful place and combine exercise, nature, relationships and recreation.
  • If you choose to meditate, be patient. Meditation is a wonderfully simple but profound practice, but learning how to train one’s mind is an art, and like all arts, it takes time. Start with perhaps 15 or 20 minutes a day, most days of the week, and stick with it for at least a month. Gradually, it becomes more rewarding, and you’ll find yourself feeling calmer, clearer, more in touch with yourself, and more attuned to others. In short, you’ll feel and function better.

Fortunately, with technology, we have ready access to meditation instruction; there are plenty of audio/video downloads. [Walsh’s guided meditations are available at drrogerwalsh.com/audio.] It’s also helpful to have a teacher or a group that can provide reinforcement and support.

Of course, how happy we are isn’t entirely up to us. Life circumstances vary and challenges occur. But we can certainly increase our overall, long-term happiness by making more enlightened choices and living our lives as consciously as we can.