What is happiness? For Charlie Brown, happiness is a warm blanket. For Pharrell Williams, "happiness is the truth." And for ABC News anchor Dan Harris, becoming what he calls "10 percent happier" has transformed his life physically, emotionally and spiritually. Dan took time out for an exclusive interview with us about his best-selling new book: "10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works--A True Story" (click for details).
In the book, Dan describes his successes in the demanding, competitive world of TV news. His journey to finding real happiness, however, came only after he experienced a nationally televised panic attack. That episode revealed that Dan's biggest challenge was what he described as "the voice in my head." We asked him to elaborate.
"When I talk about the voice in the head I am not talking about schizophrenia, or "hearing voices." I'm talking about the inner narrator, the ceaseless mental yakking that is the central feature of most of our lives. The voice has us constantly casting forward into the future or remembering the past instead of focusing on what's happening right now," he explained.
"It spends enormous amounts of time judging, wanting, or rejecting stuff. It compels us to eat when we're not hungry, lose our tempers when it's strategically unwise, and derive our self-worth from compulsive comparisons to other people. Yes, the voice is capable of generosity, humor, and insight - but too often it's negative, repetitive, and self-referential," he adds.
And although you might assume that some people blithely go around without the self-talk, Dan feels that "we all deal with it; it's just that some of us are so entranced by the nonstop conversation we're having with ourselves that we don't even know it's going on," he says. He feels that describes his own situation before he discovered meditation.
"And when you're unaware of the voice, it can yank you around," adds Dan, referencing his former use of drugs and nationally-televised panic attack.
Although Dan's a believer in the benefits of meditation, he doesn't feel it constitutes a "miracle cure" or magical solution for addictions, whether to drugs, alcohol, food or nicotine. However, he does advocate using meditation as a tool.
"Clearly, given the fact that I named my book 10% Happier, I am not a believer in miracle cures. I don't think meditation is going to magically erase your addiction(s). That said, I firmly believe it should be added to our arsenal," Dan declares.
"For too long, we've written off meditation as mystical nonsense employed only by hippies and robed gurus. This is largely a result of the fact that too many of meditation's most prominent proponents speak as if they have a perpetual pan flute accompaniment," he notes.
Dan cites numerous scientific studies that indicate "meditation can have a vast array of physical and psychological benefits, including mitigating the effects of addiction. For example, a friend of mine, a brilliant neuroscientist named Dr. Jud Brewer, has used meditation to help people quit smoking. How exactly does sitting with your eyes closed help? Meditation gives you a different relationship with the voice in your head - so that when you feel the urge to eat, smoke, drink, or use cocaine, you might take it less seriously and not blindly act on it. It puts an extremely helpful buffer between stimulus and response."
We live in a world where multi-tasking is applauded. People who are constantly busy are viewed as achievers. What role can meditation play in terms of providing peace and happiness?
Dan calls multi-tasking "a huge lie we tell ourselves. As a friend of mine - Janice Marturano, a former corporate exec who is now a mindfulness teacher - once explained to me, multitasking is a computer-derived term, but we humans only have one processor. We simply cannot focus on more than one thing at a time. So "multitasking" is essentially shorthand for "doing many things poorly." To be clear, I'm not a fundamentalist on this score. Sometimes, in our busy lives, we have to do (or attempt to do) many things at once. Just the other day, I caught myself walking down the hall, with a glass of water hanging out of my mouth, while I furiously typed on my Blackberry. (For the record, I also have an iPhone. Belts and suspenders.)"
The other common excuse for not even trying meditation: I can't sit still long enough.
"It won't surprise you to hear that I get this comment a lot. I refer to it as the "fallacy of uniqueness" argument. People say to me, "You don't understand, my mind is too busy, I could never meditate." The good news and the bad news here is: you're not special. Welcome to the human condition," asserts Dan.
"Meditation is hard. So is going to the gym - if you're not cheating. Meditating is exercise for your brain. If you're struggling, you're probably doing it right," he says. (And by the way, if you're not struggling, Dan says you're either enlightened - or not actually meditating.)
In "10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works--A True Story," Dan explains how you can experience meditation for yourself, offering resources and tutorials. It's deceptively simple - and wonderfully powerful. It's a very personal story, from surviving near-catastrophe to adopting ASPCA cats (and yes, Dan remains a rescue cat advocate and adopter).
And beyond telling his own journey and unveiling how to incorporate the benefits of meditation in your own life, Dan also offers an exploration of the role that competition plays in our nation. His book illuminates the way in which insecurity can feel like security for those who feel it helps them push themselves, while "envy" is often translated into motivation.
"In my view, competition absolutely is a necessary tool for success. But competition is not, as many of us assume, incompatible with compassion. In fact, studies show that people who are compassionate are happier, healthier - and more successful. It's a major strategic advantage to have people liking and trusting you. It's also very useful, in heated situations, to be able to take other people's perspectives," Dan reflects.
"That is not to say that we don't sometimes have to try to beat people at things (scoring a client, winning a promotion, getting assigned to competitive story in my newsroom), or to argue our case to the detriment of others. But I've found that it's helpful - both strategically and emotionally - not to go through this process while blinded by hate," he says.
And thus, in the end, Dan's journey is a story of love as well as happiness. You'll discover how to feel "sympathetic joy" rather than envy, for example, and learn how to evaluate the difference between obsession and useful focus. Our take on it: We're calling this the best book of 2014 for its humor, wit, warmth and wisdom. You can learn more about "10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works--A True Story" by clicking here.