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Kevin Cullen

After you have a panic attack on live TV, being 10 percent happier is a good start to a changed life

“I don’t view Buddhism as a religion,” Dan Harris said. “There’s an expression I like: It’s not something to believe in, it’s something to do.”
“I don’t view Buddhism as a religion,” Dan Harris said. “There’s an expression I like: It’s not something to believe in, it’s something to do.”Jonathan Wiggs/ Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff

Some of us need a new year to resolve to become a better, more enlightened person.

Dan Harris needed a panic attack on live television.

Harris, an ABC news anchor, was doing an update on “Good Morning America” in 2004 when he, as he puts it, freaked out in front of 5 million people.

His heart was beating as if it would burst through his chest. He had trouble breathing.

“It felt like the world was ending,” he said.

Harris grew up in Newton. His mother was a pathologist at Mass. General. His father was the chief of radiation oncology at the Brigham. Harris’s first stop was a doctor, who concluded the panic attack was the result of his using cocaine and ecstasy, sporadic self-medication that began after spending several years covering war in the Middle East.

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He had a disturbing realization. He liked the adrenaline rush he got from war reporting. He was using drugs to re-create it.

“I knew I had to change things,” he said.

By coincidence, Peter Jennings, his boss and mentor at ABC, put him on the faith and spirituality beat. Just by doing his job, he got interested in meditation.

A lifelong agnostic, he brought along a healthy sense of skepticism, wary of the gurus in flowing robes and New Age sloganeering.

One of his ABC colleagues, Felicia Biberica, recommended a book by Eckhart Tolle, a German-born spiritual author. At first, Harris dismissed it as hippy codswallop. But Tolle triggered something, if only the realization that we all have a voice in our head, a voice that often tells us to do the things we regret.

Harris interviewed Tolle, finding him “correct, but not useful. He tells us how our minds work, but not what we can do about it.”

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Harris’s wife, a physician, responded to that complaint by giving him a book by Mark Epstein, a psychiatrist who writes about the overlap of psychology and Buddhism.

“The Buddha had something you can do: meditation,” Harris said. “I had two thoughts: I should start doing this, and it’s a good story.”

Harris read a lot. The books helped, but they also left him thinking he could make all the flowery language and emerging science more accessible, less intimidating to a much wider audience.

“I spent five years writing a book,” he said.

He got the title for it when another colleague, Chris Sebastian, expressed astonishment that he went on a meditation retreat in Barre, in central Massachusetts.

“It makes me 10 percent happier,” Harris told her.

Harris’s 2014 book, “10% Happier,” was a New York Times bestseller. He resisted a publisher’s suggestion to up the percentage in the title.

“There are no silver bullets,” he said, meaning you have to do the work, which for him was meditating up to two hours a day. Joseph Goldstein, the teacher who had the biggest impact on Harris, still lives at the Buddhist center in Barre.

Harris acknowledges that as a natural skeptic, he is the most unlikely meditation evangelist. But the science, and even his wife, tells him meditation can make him happier and, as he likes to put it, less of a jerk. He’s wary of calling himself a Buddhist.

“I don’t view Buddhism as a religion,” he said. “There’s an expression I like: It’s not something to believe in, it’s something to do.”

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He created a free “Ten Percent Happier” podcast with ABC, which produced its 220th episode this week, and a paid subscription app that he runs himself with a staff that works out of a nondescript office in downtown Boston.

“I wonder, would I keep going on retreats and practice and read if it wasn’t my job?” he says. “My sense is I would. It’s something I’m deeply drawn to. It’s useful that I get paid to do this. But at the end of the day, I’m a storyteller and this is constantly fueling the content.”


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.