Could Meditation Make Us All At Least 10 Percent Happier?

In his new book, ABC "Nightline" co-anchor Dan Harris describes what it felt like to have a panic attack in front of millions of viewers on live TV. He describes lots of other stuff in this interview.
Publish date:
March 16, 2014
books, authors, interviews, meditation, dan harris, mindfulness

In the '90s, a friend gave me a toy Buddha that held a phone in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. Today that Buddha would be holding a smartphone, be signed up for multiple social media networks, and keep a blog. ABC "Nightline" co-anchor Dan Harris is an unlikely ambassador for mindfulness, but his new book, out this week, might be just the thing that gets people to unplug and recognize that all this multitasking is making us miserable and unhealthy. On the surface, he has it all: a solid marriage, a coveted job, good looks, and charm. Underneath, though, was a tormented soul -- one he candidly depicts in 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works.

After rising to the top at ABC News, Harris experienced a sort of post-traumatic stress disorder after covering war-torn areas. He was addicted to adrenaline and couldn’t deal with the depression. He developed a taste for drugs, particularly cocaine and ecstasy. His world almost came crashing down when he had a panic attack on national television live in front of millions of viewers.Despite being an atheist, Harris had been increasingly assigned to the religion beat. This reporting brought him into contact with heavyweights in the spiritual movement, like Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra, but while intrigued, Harris wasn’t wholly convinced. Then he met Dr. Mark Epstein, a Buddhist therapist and teacher, and got turned on to meditation. His journey of self-discovery has resulted in his being, as the book title claims, 10% happier.

I've dabbled in meditation over the years; I even led guided meditation sessions in high school, but it was more of a joke. I was sending up my South Asian-ness (I was born in Sri Lanka). A few years ago, a friend turned me onto the free 21-day meditation challenges at the Chopra Center. At the time, I was going through a real rumble strip -- a time when everything falls apart. I had had three miscarriages, was in the process of pursuing fertility treatment, was about to be diagnosed with cancer and have my marriage fall apart.

Meditating for 15 minutes a day helped me keep it together. It wasn’t a cure-all; I also credit my friends and love of what I do. But meditation helped me steer away from self-destructive behavior, which I might have not been able to do in the past. I still meditate every day. Aside from the personal narrative, Dan’s book has lots of tips -- read some of them here. But you should also read the book!10% Happier provoked many questions for me, and Harris was kind enough to answer them.xoJane: In writing about your conversion to mindfulness, what inspired you to share your mistakes and painful experiences—like the drug abuse and nationally televised panic attack?

Dan Harris: I decided to share it for three reasons: 1. It’s a case study in the kind of mindlessness that meditation can help you avoid. 2. It’s the truth; it’s what helped lead me to meditation. (Although there were other factors, too.) Leaving it out –- as I considered many times –- felt dishonest. 3. Meditation is such a naturally boring (and, for many people, annoying) subject that I wanted to make the story as vivid and candid as possible. I was aware that telling this story was risky for my career, but I figured that if I could get skeptics interested in the subject, I’d be doing something constructive. Not to be grandiose, but meditation (something I always considered ridiculous) has truly changed my life, and I would love to play a small part in helping push it further into the mainstream. You mention that even Diane Sawyer didn’t know about the drugs and how they might have contributed to your panic attacks. Were you worried that your colleagues would judge or dismiss you?As is my wont, I engaged in marathon handwringing over this decision -– along with the help of my wife and our closest friends –- for nearly four years. I also discussed it at length with people at ABC News. Most notably, it was Diane Sawyer and also the president of the news division, Ben Sherwood, who were my staunchest allies. It was their feeling that the mistakes I made were both short-lived and far enough in the past that it was worth disclosing them, especially given the possibility that it might be of service to other people.You recount a visit to the General Mills headquarters in Minneapolis, where there are meditation rooms. A friend at the UN told me there’s a meditation room there, too. Could meditation have a real impact on corporate and political culture? There is a huge debate right now in the Buddhist world about whether one-percenters are hijacking the dharma. I think the critics make some fair points, but my general view is that the injection of meditation into the corporate world is a great thing. I think it’s a sign that we’re at the beginning of a public health revolution here. (Mind you, my predictions are not often right. In the early 2000s, I bought a lot of stock in the company that made the Palm Pilot. That didn’t work out so well.) What might the end result be? I’d love to say that mindfulness will make all corporations more ethical, but I think a more realistic prognostication is that the practice will make employees healthier, happier, and nicer to one another (and their children and their neighbors). Hard to argue against that. As you explain, Janice Marturano, the corporate attorney who brought mindfulness to General Mills, recommends that we do only one thing at a time. Has our world culturally evolved to a point of no return with regard to multiple simultaneous stimuli?I don’t know if we can correct this as a culture, but I do know that it’s possible for you, Tanya, or one of your readers to make individual changes that you will find immediately satisfying. Some examples: When you’re really trying to get work done, turn off your email and all of your social networking sites, so that you don’t get pulled away by distractions. (Each time you do, you lose an enormous amount of productivity time ramping your brain back up to re-focus on the task at hand.)

When you’re on the phone, turn off your computer monitor, so you can actually pay attention to whomever you’re talking to. Do the same thing when someone walks into your office. This is not only a good way to have quicker, more productive conversations, but it’s also less rude. Janice also recommends “purposeful pauses” (sorry, but I do hate that term -– so Hallmark-esque) throughout the day. E.g.: when booting up your computer monitor, instead of tapping your fingers and fidgeting in your chair, just close your eyes and watch your breath.There have been so many studies showing that multitasking is: a. impossible, and b. a huge waste of time. But for me the most convincing study was done out of Harvard, where they pinged people on their iPhones at random times and asked, “What are you doing?” and “How happy are you right now?” What they found was that people who were focused on what they were doing were significantly happier... I am not a zealot about this stuff. There are many, many occasions when my job forces me to multitask. Also, I caught myself the other day walking down the hall, with a glass of water hanging precariously out of my mouth while I typed on my Blackberry. Especially in this era of hyperconnectivity, many people struggle with feeling alone or unloved. How can meditation help that?I feel a bit out of my depth on this (not being a touchy-feely sort myself), so I will lean on something my dear friend, the meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg, has said. Meditation can help free you from deriving your happiness (or unhappiness) from exogenous factors such as the circumstances of your birth, the quality of your romantic decisions, or whether you’ve recently won the lottery. It creates a happiness that is more, to use her term, “self-generated.”It’s a radical notion. Meditation, where you systematically yank yourself out of the fog of memory and fantasy and into the present moment, is a way to train your brain for happiness. In other words, happiness is not some magical thing we have to sit around and hope for -– it’s a skill. Should meditation be taught in schools? Do you have plans for a 10% Happier educational outreach campaign?Yes, it should be taught in schools, but not by me. I am not a qualified teacher. I am a beginner who is trying to get skeptics to take a fresh look at something they may have dismissed but could be a huge value-add in their lives. To be a qualified teacher takes years of study. While the practice is simple on one level (sit, watch your breath, and when your mind wanders, return to the breath), it is also difficult and subtle on many, many important levels. Be wary of teachers without experience. But studies have shown it can really help with things like attention and behavior [in schools]. My friend Richard Davidson at UWisc found that compassion meditation made preschoolers more likely to give stickers away to strangers. So yes, I’m all for it.Your wife Bianca introduced you to the books of Mark Epstein, a Buddhist therapist. She had discovered his work when she was going through “a quarter-life crisis." For those of us near the mid-life crisis point, how do you think meditation can help navigate this? When you are unaware of the voice in your head, the mental clatter that dominates your field of consciousness, your life can be a constant, low-grade crisis, no matter what age you are. Meditation can be helpful to anyone. I would love for it to be seen not as something you only reach for when you’re in trouble ... but something that well people do as a form of mental hygiene. It should join exercise, tooth-brushing, and healthy eating in the pantheon of no-brainers. One of the superpowers of meditation is that it allows you to see what’s going on in your head in any given moment without being carried away by it. So while it won’t fix whatever problems are causing your midlife crisis, it may allow you to see them more clearly, and prevent you from reacting in a blind, habitual and automatic way to the stuff that’s bothering you.As a correspondent on the religion beat, you encountered many figures, like Eckhart Tolle, who influenced your pursuit of what it means to go within. Then you sought out other spiritual thinkers, like Mark Epstein and Joseph Goldstein. What do you think your life would look like now if you hadn’t met these people?I think I would still have the same amazing life I have right now -– fantastic wife, dream job, etc. However, I think I’d still be letting the natural stress of work make me more miserable than necessary. I want to be clear about something: I still heartily believe in the necessity of what I call “constructive anguish.” If you love and believe in your job, a certain amount of gnashing of teeth is absolutely required. In my case, however, I was taking it too far, and allowing it to make me less happy and less congenial than I could have been. Another caveat: I am far from perfect. My younger brother suggested an alternate title to my book: From Deeply Flawed to Merely Flawed.Do you ever worry about regressing to your pre-mindful state?Here’s the annoying Buddhist-y answer to that: Yes, every minute of every day. A synonym for “mindfulness” is “remembering.” The act of meditation is one where you constantly catch yourself failing, and then bring yourself back to whatever’s happening right now. So I constantly find my mind wandering, and I do my best to yank it back into line. But here’s the answer I think you were really trying to elicit: Yes, I am still a distracted shithead sometimes. (Ask my wife.) I am now at least 10% better at avoiding bad behavior and dumb habits. And my apologies come quicker. If everyone meditated, do you think we would have a more fair and peaceful world?I’m no utopian, but yes: If everyone was just 10% happier and less reactive, imagine the impact on politics, road rage, parenting, even TV news.