10% Happier | Dan Harris

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Published in: 2014

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In June 2004, on the set of Good Morning America, 5 million people saw news anchor Dan Harris having a televised panic attack. After the incident, Harris knew he had to make some changes. He started his search, deeply suspicious of self-help solutions, until he stumbled upon an effective way to manage the relentless, impossible-to-satisfy voice in his head: meditation. Harris recommends disregarding the fancy books and the famous gurus promising immediate enlightenment. In his experience, meditation makes you 10% happier.

SEARCH FOR ACTION. Harris work-related insecurities and battles were a way to replace drugs and the thrill of combat (Harris was a previous reporter in Iraq). He was instead inflating drama on the office war zone. If somebody else got the reporting: that meant that X or Y executive disliked him -> his career is doomed -> he would end up in a flophouse in Duluth. Or, baldness -> unemployment -> flophouse in Duluth.

MEETING ECKHART TOLLE. Tolle argued that our entire lives are governed by a voice in our heads. This voice is engaged in a ceaseless stream of thinking – most of it negative, repetitive, and self-referential. It squawks away at us from the minute we open our eyes in the morning until the minute we fall asleep. The voice is constantly judging and labeling everything. Its targets aren’t just external: it often viciously taunts us. According to Tolle, the ego is our inner narrator, our sense of “I”. The ego is obsessed with the past and the future, at the expense of the present.

MONEY MIND. Harris realized that he had been sleepwalking – swept along a tide of automatic, habitual behavior. Many things could be explained through the ego: chasing the thrill of war without contemplating the consequences, replacing the combat high with coke and ecstasy, reflexively and unfairly judging people, getting carried away with anxiety about work, neglecting his partner to tryst with the BlackBerry or obsessing about his hair.

HAPPINESS, INC. Harris launched series of stories on self-help called Happiness Inc. The idea was to delve into an unregulated $10 billion industry that had attracted a growing number of followers as Americans moved away from organized religion. He met Deepak Chopra six weeks after the interview with Eckhart Tolle. Chopra proclaimed that he had no regrets about the past, and don’t anticipate the future. “I live in the moment”. But he also said that without passion, you’d be a walking dead person. Even though you are dynamically engaged, you’re not stressed. Deepak was at this point 63 years old and Time had dubbed him “the poet-prophet of alternative medicine. Harris also met Joe Vitale behind the viral success “The Secret” and other psychoanalysts / authors.

INTRODUCTION TO BUDDHISM. Psychoanalyst Dr. Mark Epstein gave a quick brief on Buddhism. It became clear that the best part of Tolle was largely unattributed Buddhism. According to Epstein, the Buddha may well have been the “original psychoanalyst” and he argued that Buddhism was better than seeing a shrink. Therapy often leads to “understanding without relief”. Walking up to the reality of our situation allows you to, as the Buddhist say, “let go”, to trop or attachments. The key is to recognize the “wisdom of insecurity” – moments flee.

MISMATCH. One doctor’s theory was that, in modern life, our ancient fight-or-flight mechanism was being triggered too frequently – in traffic jams, meetings with our bosses, etc. – and that this was contributing to the epidemic of heart disease. Even if the confrontations were themselves minor, our bodies didn’t know that; they reacted as if they were in kill-or-be-killed scenarios, releasing toxic stress chemicals into the bloodstream. But studies showed that meditation could reverse the effects of stress and lower blood pressure.

MINDFULLNESS. According to the Buddha, we have three habitual responses to everything we experience. We want it, reject it, or we zone out. Mindfulness is a fourth option, a way to view the contents of our mind with nonjudgmental remove. Mindfulness is the ability to recognize what is happening in our minds right now – anger, jealousy, sadness, the pain of a stubbed toe, whatever – without getting carried away by it. Harries realized how blindly impelled he was by his ego, as one Buddhist writer put it “drifting unaware on a surge of habitual impulses”.  

LOSING YOUR EDGE? The more Harris meditated, the more he looked around and appreciated that we all have monkey minds. But he was worried that looking at a problem from all angles and searching for the right move gave him an edge. A comedy friend was worried that meditation would make him less judgmental, and therefore less funny. However, acceptance is not being passive. What mindfulness does is to create some space in your head so you can, as the Buddhist say, “respond” rather than simply “react”. The only thing you can control is how you handle it. It’s also okay to worry, plot and plan, but until it’s not useful anymore. If anything, mindfulness brought you closer to your neuroses mapping your mental microclimates, making you more insightful, not less.

“It’s okay to be ambitious, but don’t be attached to the results”  

MEDITATION. Studies indicate that mediation reduced levels of stress hormones, boosts the immune system, make office workers more focused, and improved test scores on the GRE. Scientists found that meditators released significantly lower doses of a stress hormone called cortisol. Overall, compassionate people tended to be healthier, happier, more popular and more successful at work.

NOTHING LASTS. The Buddha’s signature pronouncement is “life is suffering”. What he probably meant was something like “everything in the world is ultimately unsatisfying and unreliable because if won’t last”. We can enjoy pleasant things in life. But if we can achieve a deeper understanding of “suffering”, of the unreliability of everything we experience, it will help us appreciate the inherent poignancy of everything in the world. To be more aligned with what is true brings us much greater happiness.

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