‘10% Happier’: Dan Harris’s book on mindfulness meditation

by September 7, 20140 comments

Right off the bat, I had two misconceptions about 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.

One was that a book written by a Good Morning America guy would necessarily be slick and superficial. The other was that it would offer some just-add-water method for reaching a passable state of relaxation — much the way some modern “yoga” classes will lead a roomful of customers out into the mystical realm and back in 30 minutes or less.

Happily, both of my assumptions were wrong.

I first heard of author Dan Harris back in June, when my friend Gregory Berg mentioned in a Facebook post that he’d interviewed Harris on WGTD’s Morning Show. The “10% Happier” soft sell was appealing, and “stopping the internal dialog” has intrigued me going back to my teenage days of reading Carlos Castaneda and taking the official Transcendental Meditation course. So, after searching for Harris’s Good Morning America panic attack on YouTube, I added the book to my Amazon Wish List. Before I knew it, my sister and brother-in-law had gifted me with it for my birthday.

Amy and I read it aloud together on my Kindle, taking turns.

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, by Dan Harris
10% Happier is Harris’s memoir of his path into Buddhist meditation (a.k.a. “mindfulness”). After first recounting the work-related stresses which culminated in his on-air Good Morning America panic attack, he traces his quest for relief between pop culture gurus, psychiatrists, psychologists, teachers of Buddhism, and Buddhist retreats.

This odyssey unfolds over a span of five years, and it develops concurrently with the career endeavors of Dan Harris, TV journalist. Since these various journeys are still ongoing, the book is a kind of progress report with no dramatic conclusion.

The backstory to Harris’s televised crisis is his rapid ascent from local to network TV news at ABC. There, after being assigned to a special religion beat that was a pet project of World News Tonight anchor Peter Jennings, the September 11 attacks soon had him reporting from Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan — then Pakistan, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for months and months at a time. Back at home and suffering from adrenaline withdrawal, he began occasionally self-medicating with cocaine.

Harris’s writing is crisp and intelligent, devoid of the simplification and clichés that tenderize so much of TV news. It crackles with the sort of skeptical wit often found in newsrooms. He also seems fairly open and honest. As resistant to hippy-dippy New Age babble as Harris admittedly is, he readily concedes points that do make sense, or methods that produce results.

Throughout his story, Harris intrepidly quotes “the voice in my head” as it offers an endless cascade of judgements about his career trajectory, stokes insecurity about his receding hairline, and sounds alarms for his every unscratched itch. Initially justifying such hypervigilance as a requisite for success (his father’s maxim was, “The price of security is insecurity”), he comes to see how that guardian can become a jailer.

Beginning with the books of Eckhart Tolle, the peculiar, Oprah Winfrey-blessed guru from Germany, Harris sets off on an exploration of how to periodically hush this inner voice through meditation.

His search weaves from the self-help empire of Deepak Chopra to the significant insights of Jewish-raised Buddhists (“Jew-Bus”) like psychotherapist Mark Epstein and Insight Meditation Society co-founder Joseph Goldstein. He details both the excruciating concentration and profound bliss he experienced at one of Goldstein’s retreats.


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Of course, one downside of blissful peace can be the absence of any drive or motivation, which could quickly kill a career. With the help of his wife and his boss, Harris bravely navigates this passage, and finishes the book by passing along a Top Ten list of the lessons he’s learned so far, with a thoughtful summary of each ponderable item.

10% Happier is fascinating testimony; it’s not a manual. Simply reading it will most likely not give you mastery over the voice in your head. You will probably need to meditate regularly — perhaps for months or years — and practice things like Mettā, a kind of Buddhist benevolence exercise that builds compassion by wishing well to others.

Also, you probably won’t have the same access to meditation experts that Dan Harris has had. Few of us can sit down with Dr. Mark Epstein, Deepak Chopra, or the Dalai Lama whenever we are stuck on a particular problem. A 10-day retreat near San Francisco is not something most Americans can squeeze into the family calendar.

Still, meditating only really requires quiet sitting. You can meditate in an ordinary chair, and millions of people do it every day.

Update: On Facebook, Dan Harris recommended this page at Mindful Magazine as helpful for those with questions about how to start meditating:

Mindfulness: Getting Started

He has also launched a 10% Happier course on the web and as an iPhone app. The course is free to try for 7 days, and $9.99 per month after that.

Dan Harris says meditation has benefitted him in a whole range of ways that boil down to his being “10 percent happier,” and he reckons this may be only the beginning. His book is an intriguing account without any preachiness and with a lot of behind-the-scenes flavor of his career in TV news. It’s worth reading.