How to be 10 percent happier
When “Nightline” coanchor Dan Harris suggested calling his memoir “10% Happier,” his publisher told him it didn’t promise readers enough. Readers want the recipe for 100 percent fulfillment, such as the No. 1 best-selling “The Happiness Project” or “The Art of Happiness,” by the Dalai Lama, who we’re told on the book jacket is always happy, or at least always smiling.
Harris is far from always happy, but he’s doing better than he was a decade ago when he had a panic attack while reading the national news live on “Good Morning America.” And the pushy, competitive voice in his head that led him to use cocaine has been calmed — at least a bit. Harris, who grew up in Newton (his parents are both physicians at Boston hospitals), kept the title and feels vindicated because it’s been in Amazon.com’s top 100 books over the past two months.
His secret to feeling a tad more content? Learning to meditate, which he now does for 30 minutes each day. “It is exercise for the brain,” he told me in an interview. “I was shocked to see what a zoo my mind was the first time I did it. I struggled with learning how to focus when my mind started wandering.”
After conquering his depression and cocaine use with the help of a psychiatrist, Harris still sought “the antidote to mindlessness” that led him down a self-destructive path in the first place — and nearly cost him his career as a TV journalist at ABC News. He’s also weekend anchor of “Good Morning America.”
In an effort to master the vulnerabilities of his mind, he decided to embark on a meditation odyssey, interviewing spiritual gurus, church leaders, and psychologists. They were all well-versed in the art of letting go and accepting what cannot be changed — such as getting passed over for a plum assignment to cover the presidential inauguration.
Harris also became convinced by the latest science. “Your ability to concentrate and be mindful builds the equivalent of muscle in your brain. It shows up in brain scans, these changes that take place,” he said, referring to a 2011 Massachusetts General Hospital study that found people who practiced mindfulness meditation for eight weeks experienced a one- to three-percent increase in brain gray matter in particular areas responsible for learning, memory, and emotional regulation.
Like many eager to learn meditation — myself included — Harris had a difficult time at first. “The cliché is that it’s simple but not easy,” he said.
But he was determined to keep at it, employing acronyms he learned along the way such as RAIN — recognize, allow, investigate, and non-identification — to apply mindfulness techniques when the big wave of a bad day was about to hit. “After I’ve acknowledged my feelings and let them be,” Harris wrote, “the next move would be to check how they’re affecting my body. Is it making my face hot, my chest buzzy, my head throb?” He also needed to remind himself that feeling this way did not render him an angry or irrational person.
The technique helped Harris get over the disappointment of being passed over for a promotion, but he still struggled with working daily meditation practice into his routine. His solution? Head to a meditation boot-camp — a 10-day retreat involving 10 hours a day of meditation with no talking, reading, or sex.
Sitting on cushions and dealing with back and neck pain, Harris wrote he felt “like a rookie who’s been called up to the big leagues and just can’t cut it.” Of course, that type of negative self-talk was exactly what he was trying to overcome through meditation.
Day by day, he learned to build his concentration skills until on day five, the world became magical, if only for a fleeting few hours, before he started counting the days until he could leave.
Was it worth it? Harris told me it helped hone his meditation skills and enabled him to incorporate it into his daily routine. He also no longer multi-tasks. “I’m not checking my Blackberry when I’m speaking to you because I know we’ll have a better conversation,” he tells me. I thank him for that.
Any advice for those still failing to live up to their promises to meditate? “I think five minutes a day is enough, no matter how busy you are,” Harris said. “I think you will very quickly see results.”