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Philosophy and pop culture

How to Be 10% Happier

A Revolution in Mental Hygiene

 

Dan Harris’s new book is titled 10% Happier. That’s it. It’s not a grand promise, but it is an honest one: Meditation won’t solve all your problems but it will make you about 10% happier. At least that’s what Harris found in his own experience. As an ABC news correspondent, Harris came at meditation as a skeptic. In comic honesty, the book details Harris’s petty behind the scenes struggles to make it in the network news business. After success as a war correspondent, Harris found himself stateside chasing the high and battling depression by abusing cocaine. A panic attack on air led Harris to the psychiatrist’s office where he was able to face facts and stop using drugs.  

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At the insistence of Peter Jennings, Harris took on the role of religion correspondent for ABC news and began reporting primarily on Evangelicals. Although he developed respect for Evangelicals, Harris didn’t find answers to his own problems in their churches. The subtitle of Harris’s book is “How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works—A True Story.” In fact, he says that he wanted to title the book “The Voice in My Head is an Asshole,” but the publisher wouldn’t let him. That voice in the head was Harris’s problem, and in fact it’s the universal human problem. The voice in my head does a play-by-play analysis of the world along with unkind color commentary, and it makes me unhappy.

The first step on Harris’s journey of self-discovery began with an unlikely and unfortunate source, Eckhart Tolle, the author of The Power of Now and other books. In reading Tolle’s books and interviewing him, Harris was baffled by Tolle’s ability to offer profound insight about human nature in one sentence and then the worst kind of pseudo-scientific mysticism in the next sentence. Frustration with Tolle led Harris to Deepak Chopra, who was a little better, but not much. The need for 10% Happier is evinced by Harris’s honesty in the book. Ironically he was the religion correspondent for ABC News and yet he knew virtually nothing about Buddhism, certainly not enough to realize that the only valuable parts of Tolle and Chopra were straight out of Buddhism. This, in a way, was the motivation for 10% Happier—to make everyone aware of the benefits of meditation and the insights of Buddhism that Harris eventually discovered.

After much hesitation and resistance, Harris tried meditation and even went on a ten-day silent meditation retreat. During a lecture near the end of the retreat, the instructor told the group not to start worrying about the problems or issues that await them. Harris raised his hand and objected that there are real problems that may await, saying that if he missed his flight home that would be a real problem. The instructor admitted that would be a problem, but pointed out that worrying about it seventeen times was pretty pointless. You have to ask yourself “Is it useful?” Sure, it makes sense to plan, but at a certain point the planning and worrying isn’t useful; it’s counterproductive.

This was a breakthrough moment for Harris, and it nicely illustrates the value of meditation in cultivating mindfulness. In meditation we focus our attention on our breath or a mantra. This doesn’t mean that thoughts won’t intrude. They definitely will, but the trick is to let them pass rather than indulge them. As we get better at doing this “on the mat” in meditation we get better in doing it “off the mat” in the world. We can learn to tame the monkey mind, the voice in our head that flits from one subject to the next, all the while supplying counterproductive commentary. It’s not easy, though. It’s like building muscle through lifting weights. In fact that’s how Harris came to see meditation—like lifting weights, it’s “badass.” Even the marines were doing it, he found, and for good reason, scientific studies show that meditation can actually alter the structure of the brain.

Essentially what meditation delivers is the ability to respond rather than react. It provides a fraction of a second delay, just enough time to reconsider whether I really want to do or say what the voice in my head is urging. It’s the mental equivalent of the seven-second delay that awards shows use to guard against profanity-laced rants by Kanye West and his ilk. This is mindfulness, being present in the moment, observing and responding appropriately.   

The natural concern though is that we can’t survive and thrive that way. It may be fine for Buddhist monks in a monastery, but not for the rest of us in the real world. Harris, working in the cutthroat world of network news was rightly concerned that meditation would make him ineffective in lobbying the executives and producers for the assignments he wanted. “The price of security is insecurity.” Harris had long ago adopted this mantra from his father and it seemed to justify his former way of worrying and reacting.

In fact, Harris did experience a decline in his career after he fully embraced mindfulness and meditation. He found himself sitting at home watching major world events unfold rather than covering them on location. He had become what he feared he might, a bit of a marshmallow. On the advice of one of his Buddhist confidants, Harris decided to “hide the Zen.” Rather than mindfully accepting what assignments came his way, Harris began to advocate for himself again. He did not climb to the top of the news ladder over night, but he did see his assignments improve.

Now the question was how to balance striving and acceptance. The answer came from one of his Buddhist advisors, “don’t be attached to outcomes.” To explain this approach Harris gives the example of writing a book. You want the book to be a success and so you work hard to write the best book you can and you hire the best publicist to help you promote the book, but at a certain point the outcome is beyond your control. You just have to accept it. Ironically, 10% Happier is number one on The New York Times bestsellers list as I write this. Reading the book, though, you get the sense that Harris would have been able to accept the outcome even if the book was a flop.

This is not to say that Harris would have given up. His mission is to spread the practice of mindfulness and meditation. He is not a zealot, and he bears few of the marks of the hippy-dippy, airy-fairy types usually associated with meditation—the types that cause the public relations problem. Harris is a skeptic who has found something that works. It may seem grand and overly ambitious to imagine a world in which everyone meditates. But, as Harris points out, before World War II, most people didn’t brush their teeth. If we could have a revolution in dental hygiene, then why not a revolution in mental hygiene?  Why not a world in which everyone is 10% happier?   

Copyright William Irwin 2014

 

William Irwin, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at King’s College in Pennsylvania.

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