Paul Pearsall doesn't just give a good lecture on the mind-body connection, he puts on a one-man show. In his aloha shirt and with a lei from his adopted home, Hawaii, around his neck, he'll demonstrate the hula as he shows slides of the latest psychoneuroimmunology research and punctuates scholarly refutations of conventional scientific wisdom with earthy one-liners and even an occasional Hawaiian song. Yet as entertaining as the intellectual luau he offers can be, Pearsall is dead serious about getting out his message. He wants the audience not only to hear it, but to feel it in their bones.
Our world, he informs a hotel ballroom filled with mental health professionals that he has led through two hours of laughter and tears, singing and dancing, has gone insane and any therapy designed to make us fit into a mad culture of breathless daily schedules, technostress and 200 e-mail messages a week is perpetuating pathology.
At the podium, Pearsall is irresistibly genial, the master of using wise-cracking banter to help his audience absorb an otherwise hard-to-swallow point, but he can also talk in the dark, prophetic voice of a millennial R.D. Laing. "A new plague has struck the world," he has said. "It is the cause of more than one of every four health complaints in the U.S." At the root of this plague is the folly of worshiping what he calls "Nowism"--the addiction to technology and the instantaneous response, the disconnection from the natural world, the final triumph of consumerism and the desperate longing for more and more and more. In our headlong rush to keep afloat amid the dizzying pseudo-emergencies of our lives, notes Pearsall, we have lost any idea of what it means to live wisely.
Unfortunately, the media-anointed experts on self-improvement presumably offering an alternative to the culture's toxicity have gotten us even further off the track, according to Pearsall. "We are working too hard to be healthy," he says, "suffering too much undeserved guilt about what we eat, weigh, do and look like, and taking the fun out of life just to make life longer."
Pearsall was once the director of a mental health clinic, but he doesn't practice therapy anymore. What he does do, in his nine books, including The Pleasure Prescription and The Heart's Code , and in public lectures, is blend disparate and sometimes arcane research findings with his own firsthand experience of the Polynesian culture he has embraced unreservedly since moving to Hawaii 20 years ago. He offers a down-to-earth and eminently sensible vision of how to lead the Good Life in this depersonalizing age. Both Pearsall's message and his style have been received with extraordinary enthusiasm. Not only has he given more than 5,000 presentations before every conceivable professional, business and civic organization, from scholarly scientific conferences to Fortune 500 companies to local churches, but he has been invited to speak again by every group he has ever addressed.
What makes Pearsall such an effective critic of the souped-up lives more and more of us are leading, dominated by work and consumption, is that there is a considerable streak of the overachiever in him: "I was the kind of kid who was always waiting for the school year to end so I could get on with the next. When I got to college, the same thing. I just wanted to go, go, go, go." At age 6, he skipped from kindergarten to the second grade. He graduated college in two and a half years and it took him only a year to receive his master's degree. While studying for his Ph.D. in neuropsychology, he supported himself by working as a studio musician for Motown Records, playing back-up sax for groups like the Temptations and the Four Tops.
After he got his doctorate at age 26, he joined the psychology staff of Sinai Hospital of Detroit. Just two years later, Pearsall, who had trained with Masters and Johnson, was asked to set up a sex clinic at the hospital. Pearsall refused, saying, "I won't do it because I don't believe people have a separate sex life apart from their whole life that includes sexuality. …