After suffering a humiliating panic attack in front of millions on Good Morning America in 2004, TV anchor Dan Harris began practicing meditation to ease his anxiety and save his career. He recounted his experience in the best-seller 10 Percent Happier: How I Tamed The Voice In My Head, Reduced Stress And Found Self-Help That Actually Works—A True Story, which was just released in paperback. Writer John Searles sat down with Dan for Yahoo Health to get his advice on how even the least spiritual skeptic can benefit from living a more mindful life, too.
1. You say in your book that the 10% figure is “an absurdly unscientific estimate.” How did you arrived at that number?
“When I first started meditating, I was having trouble taking about it to people without sounding like a weirdo or a zealot. One day, a friend asked, “Why do you meditate? Is something the matter with you?” I thought about it and said, “I do it because it makes me ten percent happier.” In that moment, the skeptical look on her face changed to one of genuine interest, and I realized I had found a way to talk about it. And it’s true: What I’m writing about in this book won’t solve every problem in your life, but it will improve a part of your life.”
2. Speaking of skeptics, you say that the concept of meditation “suffers from a towering PR problem,” in part, because of all the spiritual preening and hokey jargon surrounding the practice, like “sacred spaces” to name just one. If you were a publicist pitching meditation, how would you reframe it?
“Think of meditation as exercise for your brain. We spend so much time tending to our stock portfolio or our interior design choices or our wardrobe or our bodies. And yet, most of us fail to spend any time working on the one filter through which we experience everything in our world. This is a simple, secular, and scientifically validated way to work out your mind that gives you increased focus, increased sense of calm, and mindfulness.”
3. Tell us about that word “mindfulness.”
“Mindfulness is simply being aware of what’s going on in your mind without taking the bait and acting on it. It can keep you from giving into self-defeating thoughts or useless anger. It comes down to not being yanked around by the voice in our heads, and in my view that’s a super power.”
4. So mindfulness helps us silence the self-critical voice in our heads?
“I don’t know that you can silence it. But you can create a different relationship with it. Let’s say one night you eat that eighteenth cookie, which leads you to worrying that you won’t look good on your next date and that leads you to worrying that you won’t ever get married and that you’ll end up living in a box on the streets—well, that sort of senseless shame spiral can be dealt with by simply being aware that it is happening at the start. It’s not about shutting off your thinking, but recognizing your thoughts and reacting differently to them.”
5. Another assault on our happiness comes in the form of multi-tasking— our brains are not hard-wired to multi-task, and our constant bouncing between e-mails and texts and tweets is terribly counter-productive. Why should Yahoo Health readers challenge themselves to do one thing at a time?
“Computers have several processors so they can multi-task. Humans have just one, so we really aren’t meant to do multiple things simultaneously. If you think you’re multi-tasking, you are lying to yourself and really just doing a bunch of things poorly. You’re far better off doing one thing at a time. Not only will you do it well, but you will also feel happier too.”
6. This quote in your book holds so much promise: “It’s possible to sculpt your brain through meditation just as you would build and tone your body through exercise.” Is it really that similar?
“There has been an enormous amount of neuroscience that shows that key areas of the brain are effectively rewired through meditation. In 2011, for example, Harvard University put together a group of people who had never meditated. Over the course of eight weeks, they were all asked to engage in short doses of meditation every day. At the end of those two months, scientists found that the areas in their brains associated with self-awareness and compassion literally grew while the areas associated with stress literally shrank. So evidence like that strongly suggests that meditation can have a significant impact.”
7. If we want to try it, what’s the first step?
“Just do it. You don’t need some to build an altar in your apartment or buy a fancy outfit. It doesn’t even require an hour a day. I think five to ten minutes is completely enough. I can teach you right now.”
8. You can? Okay, go for it.
"It’s disappointingly simple, but here goes: First, sit upright with your eyes closed, though you can also do it laying down or walking. Next, notice the feeling of your breath coming in and going out of your body. Choose one area to focus on while this is happening—usually it’s the nose, chest, or belly. Finally, notice when your focus has shifted away from your breath and gotten lost in thought, then start over and bring it back your breath again. That’s it. Now you know how to meditate."
9. You call meditation “the new caffeine.” Can you tell our readers what you mean by that?
“Well, that phrase comes from WIRED magazine, which describes it as the new caffeine for the Silicon Valley set, since so many people in that field are now embracing it. What I think it means is that this is a new daily ritual for some of the most effective and successful people in our society. Just like coffee gives us a little energy to boost focus, mediation can do that too.”