Dan Harris: 10% Happier
Although I read a lot of books, I tend to avoid recommending specific books for fear of boring others with my obsessions and personal preferences. However, I’ve gone out of my way this year to recommend Dan Harris’s book, 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works—A True Story, on social media and at our own book-tour stops. I’ve even gifted a few copies to friends who have been interested in mindfulness but haven’t been able to get past the woo woo often associated with meditating.
For the uninformed, Dan Harris is a co-anchor of Nightline and the weekend edition of Good Morning America on ABC. Covering wars in Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine, and Iraq, he has reported from all over the world and has produced investigative reports in Haiti, Cambodia, and the Congo. Dan also spent many years covering religion in America for ABC World News with Peter Jennings, despite the fact that he doesn’t practice a particular faith.
Like me, Dan used to scoff at meditation, assuming it was “for people who lived in yurts or collected crystals or had too many Cat Stevens records.” But then, after suffering an on-air panic attack, he discovered considerable benefits from meditating. Described as a “deeply skeptical odyssey through the strange worlds of spirituality and self-help … a way to get happier that is truly achievable,” 10% Happier, which reached #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, chronicles one man’s chaotic journey toward mindful living.
Dan was kind enough to discuss 10% Happier and the practice of meditation with me for our readers. If you get a moment, please thank Dan on Twitter for taking the time to share his insight at The Minimalists.
Joshua’s Conversation with Dan Harris
JFM: What you’ve done with this book—at least for me—is make meditation accessible to the average person. The message is simple: anyone—be it a pant-suited businesswoman, a soccer dad, or Joe Sixpack—can benefit from meditation. Was that the reason you wrote 10% Happier?
Dan: 100%! (Sorry. Lame math joke.) Meditation has a huge PR issue. I’d always been under the impression that it was only for freaks, weirdoes, robed gurus, and people who are deeply into aromatherapy and Ultimate Frisbee. What changed my mind was learning that there’s an enormous amount of science suggesting meditation is really good for you, and can do everything from lowering your blood pressure to boosting your immune system to literally rewiring key parts of your brain. I was also reassured to learn that meditating doesn’t require lighting incense, chanting, sitting in a funny position, joining a cult, believing in anything, or wearing special outfits. The problem is, the way meditation has been traditionally presented in this country is too often syrupy and annoying—and leaves too many of us out of the conversation. I’m hoping to play a small role in changing that.
Yes you are, particularly by providing people a story with which they can relate. Although your publisher doesn’t promote 10% Happier as a memoir, its well-crafted prose and narrative structure is certainly memetic of that genre. Was the storytelling aspect of this book—compared to the self-help genre’s standard prescriptive format—an important aspect for effectively communicating your message?
In my day job in television, I’ve learned time and again that the most powerful way to make a point is to illustrate it through the people’s personal stories. (I’ve also read about studies showing that public health messages tend to be more effective when woven into narratives as opposed to delivered in a straight, informational way.) So I decided to take that approach with the book. Mind you, it wasn’t easy. In order to illustrate how meditation changed my internal life, I really had to pull back the curtain and reveal some embarrassing stuff. I struggled mightily with that. In the end, though, I’m glad I did it, because it seems like the book has been useful to some people.
The book’s central thesis is captured in its subtitle: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works—A True Story. Besides taming the inner voice and reducing stress, how else has meditation benefited your life?
The big thing that the subtitle leaves out is that meditation can make you a nicer person. It shows up on the brain scans: meditation literally grows the gray matter in the area of the brain associated with compassion. I can feel this happening with me a little bit. Mind you, I am far from perfect. If you were interviewing my wife, she’d be giving you her “he’s 90% still a moron” spiel.
Haa! Let’s talk about the title you originally proposed for the book: The Voice in My Head Is an Asshole. This resonated with me because it seems like we’re all walking around with overwhelming amounts of mental clutter—that ADD-riddled inner voice who just won’t shut up. Do you think it’s always been this way—as humans we’ve always struggled with mental clutter? Has the suffusive nature of technology made our inner voices louder and more Tourettic?
I suspect that if you went back in time and interviewed people at various points in history, they’d all tell you that their era was the most stressful ever. And while there are plenty of reasons why today’s world is uniquely anxiogenic, I am loath to argue that it’s worse than, say, during World War II or, for that matter, the Civil War. Having issued that caveat, though, I do think that living in the age of “info-overload” can make us extremely frazzled. In particular, I have become a huge critic of multitasking—which is really a short way of saying “doing many things poorly.” Neurologically, it is impossible for us to focus on more than one thing at a time. But trying to focus these days, in the age of tweets, texts, and status updates, can be extremely tricky. Meditation—in which you repeatedly try to bring your attention to your breath in the face of your fizzing, looping mind—can really help with this.
Let’s discuss meditation. Specifically, meditation as an act. I like to say that I don’t write how-to books; I write why-to books. And you seem to have done the same thing with 10% Happier. Because you shine a spotlight on the benefits, it is easy to understand why we should meditate. Meditation itself, however, isn’t easy. It is simple, but not easy. In the book, this fact becomes excruciatingly apparent during your 10-day silent retreat.
So, why do you think meditation is so difficult, especially for beginners? And, once someone knows that they want to meditate—once they understand the benefits—what’s a good way to get started?
Meditation is difficult for most of us because we’re fighting a lifetime of habit. We’ve let the voice in our head—our thoughts, urges, and impulses—run amok. In meditation, you’re attempting to rein that voice in, through the simple yet radical act of just focusing on your breath. But the fact that it’s hard doesn’t need to be a big problem. The whole game is to get lost in thought and start again … and again … and again. And every time you do that, it’s a bicep curl for your brain. Seriously. The results even show up on MRI scans.
How to Start Meditating: Dan’s Tips
2. Five minutes. Start with just five minutes a day. Even if you have 23 children and 14 jobs, you definitely have five minutes. Right when you wake up, right before you go to bed, or when you pull your car into the driveway before heading into your home for the night. Set an alarm on your phone and let rip.
3. Give yourself a break. Don’t fall for the misconception that you have to “clear the mind.” The only way you’ll ever be able to stop thinking is if you’re dead—or enlightened. And don’t worry if you’re finding yourself getting lost a lot. The whole game is finding the grit to start over.
Joshua: Thanks for your time, Dan. Any final words of wisdom?
Dan: Meditation presents a radical notion: that our happiness doesn’t have to depend on external factors. Happiness, it turns out, is a skill—one that you can train, just like you train your body in the gym. This is the next big public health revolution. Get on board.
Additional reading: Dan discusses mindfulness with Sam Harris.