An original skeptic, Dan Harris has learned how to "tame the voice in his head and reduce stress without losing his edge" by meditating. After suffering a panic attack on air, the ABC news reporter began his journey into the self-help arena and found something that has made him 10% Happier, the title of his best-selling memoir. He graciously agreed to share some thoughts here.
As a journalist having witnessed the horrors of war, what were some of your PTSD symptoms, and how have you turned them into post-traumatic growth?
I don't think I had PTSD. This isn't talked about much. But what messed me up in going to war zones was the adrenaline; I became addicted to the rush of it. That's not to say that I didn't witness things that people could describe as traumatic -- I lost friends, I saw people in great distress, and I was shot at -- but I just don't think that created my problem. I think it really was the adrenaline. In my book I describe it as journalistic heroin -- the rush of being somewhere you're not supposed to be and not only getting away with it but getting on television. It's a high. When I came home the world seemed gray and uninteresting. I got depressed, and I did a really dumb thing -- I self-medicated, and that led me to having a panic attack. How did that lead to post-traumatic growth? It was a winding road. It wasn't a direct line from panic attack to finding meditation. It was one event in the chain of events that got me to this place where I found something that I always thought was ridiculous, but it turns out to be very useful.
How have you taken control of your life beyond the standard treatment of therapy and medication?
Meditation, which is something I always reflexively rejected and thought was only for weirdos and gurus, turns out to have an enormous amount of science that strongly suggest it has a wide range of health benefits, everything from lower release of stress hormones to lower blood pressure to higher functioning of the immune system to literally rewiring key parts of the brain. When I learned about the science and when I learned that meditation did not involve wearing robes and lighting incense or chanting or joining any group or believing in anything, but that it's actually a very simple brain exercise, I decided to give it a shot. And I started five minutes a day, and that's what I recommend others do. I think it can have a significant impact. You can ignore all the self-help gurus who promise that you can solve all your problems through one simple technique. That is not what meditation will do for you. But it will give you a different relationship to those problems and that's transformational.
In terms of being a happy person, I think you use every arrow in the quiver, and that includes getting enough sleep, exercise, eating right and having good relationships in your life. All the studies show that relationships are often the most important variable. I happened to have married very well and we have really good friends; and I love my colleagues. There's another thing -- gratitude is also very important. I think we have to pull every lever we can to make sure we're as happy as possible. For too long meditation has been left out of the equation because thought it either ridiculous or impossible. My argument is that we spend a lot of time and money taking care of our bodies, our cars and homes and pets, but we don't spend a lot of time taking care of the one filter through which we experience literally everything in our life, and that's our mind. And that's what meditation can help with.
As a type A person, what has meditation been able to do for you?
I'm definitely type A, and I'm still type A and high-stressed even after starting meditation. I don't think meditation is designed to make you a lifeless blob. It does a couple of key things: It teaches you how to respond wisely instead of blindly reacting to the things in your life. So if somebody cuts you off on the road, rather than just automatically flying into a rage, you might be able to notice, "Oh I'm getting angry," and you can let it pass. That doesn't mean squashing it; it just means recognizing what's happening and making a decision: "Am I going to let my emotions yank me around or not?" This doesn't work 100 percent of the time. There's a reason why I called the book 10% Happier; some percentage of time this tool will work. The other thing is, I still believe that strain, stress, striving, plotting, planning is all required if you're striving for excellence in any endeavor, be it professional, grandparenting, volunteering, stay-at-home "momming" (even though that's not a verb), all of those things require a lot of angst. What meditation can help you do is figure out when you cross the line between what I call constructive anguish and useless rumination. And so on the 17th time that I'm worrying about all the awful consequences of whether I'm going to make a flight, I've learned to ask myself: "Is it useful?" And often I'm able to cut myself off before I go down the rat hole of rumination and resentment. That means I spend less time miserable and also that I'm not taking out my stress as much on my wife.
What advice would you give others to bring in more happiness and well-being into their lives?
One of my regrets about the book is that I fear inadvertently I sent a message that meditation is for people who've got some sort of major problem, like I had a panic attack and therefore I meditate. In fact, meditation is for everybody. Specifically, it's good for well people -- for high-achieving people who would never otherwise consider it. My argument is, you should give meditation a shot, and all it takes is five minutes a day. It doesn't need to be another thing you add to your list of things to do that are stressing you out. Everybody has five minutes, even if you have 47 children and 17 part-time jobs. You've got five minutes, right when you wake up, right before you go to bed, when you pull car into the driveway, before you go into the house; you can set your alarm on your phone and do five minutes. You can get instructions on the Web. Just Google mindful mediation; you'll find instructions that are incredibly simple. It also helps to go to a class and read books, but if you don't want to do that, you can learn the basics and go for it.
There are enough gurus for relationships and exercise and all that. I'm pro all of that, but I'm largely focused on meditation.