10% Happier: I Found Self-Help That Actually Works--A True Story

I initially wanted to call this book The Voice in My Head Is an Asshole. However, that title was deemed inappropriate for a man whose day job requires him to abide by FCC decency standards.

It’s true, though. The voice in my head can be a total pill. I’d venture to guess yours can, too. Most of us are so entranced by the nonstop conversation we’re having with ourselves that we aren’t even aware we have a voice in our head.

I certainly wasn’t—at least not before I embarked on the weird little odyssey described in this book. To be clear, I’m not talking about “hearing voices,” I’m talking about the internal narrator, the most intimate part of our lives. The voice comes braying in as soon as we open our eyes in the morning, and then heckles us all day long with an air horn. It’s a fever swamp of urges, desires, and judgments. It’s fixated on the past and the future, to the detriment of the here and now.

It’s what has us reaching into the fridge when we’re not hungry, losing our temper when we know it’s not really in our best interest, and pruning our inboxes when we’re ostensibly engaged in conversation with other human beings. Our inner chatter isn’t all bad, of course. Sometimes it’s creative, generous, or funny. But if we don’t pay close attention—which very few of us are taught how to do—it can be a malevolent puppeteer.

If you’d told me when I first arrived in New York City, to start working in network news, that I’d be using meditation to defang the voice in my head—or that I’d ever write a whole book about it—I would have laughed at you. Until recently, I thought of meditation as the exclusive province of bearded swamis, unwashed hippies, and fans of John Tesh music. Moreover, since I have the attention span of a six-month-old yellow Lab, I figured it was something I could never do anyway.

I assumed, given the constant looping, buzzing, and fizzing of my thoughts, that “clearing my mind” wasn’t an option. But then came a strange and unplanned series of events, involving war zones, megachurches, self-help gurus, Paris Hilton, the Dalai Lama, and ten days of silence that, in a flash, went from the most annoying to the most profound experience of my life. As a result of all of this, I came to realize that my preconceptions about meditation were, in fact, misconceptions. Meditation suffers from a towering PR problem, largely because its most prominent proponents talk as if they have a perpetual pan flute accompaniment.

If you can get past the cultural baggage, though, what you’ll find is that meditation is simply exercise for your brain. It’s a proven technique for preventing the voice in your head from leading you around by the nose. To be clear, it’s not a miracle cure. It won’t make you taller or better-looking, nor will
it magically solve all of your problems. You should disregard the fancy books and the famous gurus promising immediate enlightenment. In my experience, meditation makes you 10% happier. That’s an absurdly unscientific estimate, of course. But still, not a bad return on investment.

Once you get the hang of it, the practice can create just enough space in your head so that when you get angry or annoyed, you are less likely to take the bait and act on it. There’s even science to back this up—an explosion of new research, complete with colorful MRI scans, demonstrating that meditation can essentially rewire your brain.

This science challenges the common assumption that our levels of happiness, resilience, and kindness are set from birth. Many of us labor under the delusion that we’re permanently stuck with all of the difficult parts of our personalities— that we are “hot-tempered,” or “shy,” or “sad”—and that these are fixed, immutable traits. We now know that many of the attributes we value most are, in fact, skills, which can be trained the same way you build your body in the gym.

This is radical, hopeful stuff. In fact, as I discovered, this new neuroscience has led to the flowering of an elite subculture of executives, athletes, and marines who are using meditation to improve their focus, curb their addiction to technology, and stop being yanked around by their emotions. Meditation has even been called the “new caffeine.” I suspect that if the practice could be denuded of all the spiritual preening and straight-out-of-a-fortune-cookie lingo such as “sacred spaces,” “divine mother,” and “holding your emotions with love and tenderness,” it would be attractive to many more millions of smart, skeptical, and ambitious people who would never otherwise go near it.

One of the questions I hear most often from skeptics is:

If I quiet the voice in my head, will I lose my edge? Some think they need depression to be creative or compulsive worry to be successful. For the past four years, I’ve been road testing meditation in the crucible of one of the most competitive environments imaginable, television news. I’m here to tell you, it’s totally doable.

More than that, it can give you a real advantage—and, not for nothing, it might even make you nicer in the process. Yes, as you will see, I did stumble into a few embarrassing pitfalls along the way. However, with the benefit of my experience, you should be able to avoid them. What I’m attempting to do in this book is demystify meditation, and show that if it can work for me, it can probably work for you, too. The best way to illustrate this is to give you, as we say in the business, “exclusive access” to the voice in my head.

All of us struggle to strike a balance between the image we present to the world and the reality of our inner landscape. This is particularly tricky for a news anchor, whose job is to project calm, confidence, and (when appropriate) good cheer. Most of the time, my external presentation is authentic; at baseline, I’m a happy guy who is keenly aware of his good fortune. But there are, of course, moments when my interior reality is a bit more complicated.

And  for the purposes of this book, I am going to put a magnifying lens directly on the knotty stuff. The story begins during a period of time when I let the voice in my head run amok. It was during the early part of my career; I was an eager, curious, and ambitious cub reporter who got swept up, and swept away—and it all culminated in the single most humiliating moment of my life.

According to the Nielsen ratings data, 5.019 million people saw me lose my mind.

It happened on June 7, 2004, on the set of Good Morning America. I was wearing my favorite new tie and a thick coating of makeup. My hair was overly coiffed and puffy. The bosses had asked me to fill in for my colleague Robin Roberts as the News Reader. The job basically entailed coming on and anchoring brief news updates at the top of each hour. I was sitting in Robin’s spot, at a small, satellite anchor desk inside the second story of ABC’s glass-encased studio in New York’s Times Square.

On the other side of the room was the main anchor desk, home to the show’s cohosts, the avuncular Charles Gibson and the elegant Diane Sawyer. Charlie tossed it over to me: “We’re gonna go now to Dan Harris, who’s at the news desk. Dan?” At this point, I was supposed to read a series of six “voiceovers”—short news items, about twenty seconds apiece, over which the control room would roll video clips. It started out fine. “Good morning, Charlie and Diane. Thank you,” I said in my best morning-anchor voice, chipper, yet authoritative. But then, right in the middle of the second voice-over, it hit. Out of nowhere, I felt like I was being stabbed in the brain with raw animal fear.

A paralytic wave of panic rolled up through my shoulders, over the top of my head, then melted down the front of my face. The universe was collapsing in on me. My heart started to gallop. My mouth dried up. My palms oozed sweat. I knew I had four more stories to read, an eternity, with no break and no place to hide—no sound bites or pretaped stories or field correspondents to toss to which would have allowed me to regroup and catch my breath.

As I began the third story, about cholesterol drugs, I was starting to lose my ability to speak, gasping as I waged an internal battle against the wave of howling terror, all of it compounded by the knowledge that the whole debacle was being beamed out live.
You’re on national television.
This is happening now. Right now.
Everyone is seeing this, dude.
Do something. DO something.

I tried to fight through it, with mixed results. The official transcript of the broadcast reflects my descent into incoherence:

“Researchers report people who take cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins for at least five years may also lower their risk for cancer, but it’s too early to . . .

to prescribe statins slowly for cancer production.” It was at this point, shortly after my reference to “cancer production,” with my face drained of blood and contorted with tics, that I knew I had to come up with something drastic to get myself out of the situation.

My on-air meltdown was the direct result of an extended run of mindlessness, a period of time during which I was focused on advancement and adventure, to the detriment of pretty much everything else in my life. It began on March 13, 2000:

my first day at ABC News. I was twenty-eight years old, terrified, and wearing an unfortunate doublebreasted suit as I walked through the high-ceilinged entryway lined with pictures of such luminaries as Peter Jennings, Diane Sawyer, and Barbara Walters (all now my colleagues, apparently), then took the steep, stately escalator up into the mouth of the building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

They made me go to the basement that day, to some fluorescent-lit security office to have my picture taken for my new identification card. In the photo, I looked so young that a colleague would later joke that a wider shot might reveal me to be holding a balloon. That I had made it to ABC at all seemed like a big misunderstanding, or maybe a cruel joke. During the preceding seven years, as I toiled in local news, my dream had always been to “get to the network”—which was how people in the farm leagues referred to it—but I had assumed it wouldn’t happen until I was maybe forty and looked old enough to operate a motor vehicle.

I had started in TV news straight out of college, with the vague goal of pursuing a career that had a modicum of glitz and also did not require me to do any math. My parents were doctors, but I didn’t have the aptitude or the attention span for med school. So, despite some initial misgivings on the part of my folks, I took a job at an NBC station in Bangor, Maine (one of the smallest television markets in the country—number 154 out of 210). The gig was part-time, paid $5.50 an hour, and involved writing scripts for the anchorwoman, then operating the studio camera during a broadcast called Alive at 5:30.

On my first day, the producer who was assigned to train me wheeled around from his electric typewriter and matter-of-factly announced, “This is not a glamorous job.” He was right. Covering tire fires and snowstorms in rural Maine—not to mention living in a tiny apartment on the first floor of an elderly woman’s house and eating mac and cheese nearly every night—was profoundly unsexy. Nevertheless, I loved it immediately.

After a few months of badgering my bosses to put me on camera, they relented, and I became a reporter and an anchor, even though I was barely twenty-two and only had one blue blazer, a hand-me-down from my dad. It didn’t take long for me to know that this job was what I would be doing for the rest of my life. I found the craft itself fascinating—especially the challenge of writing stories that were meant to be spoken aloud and matched to pictures.

I delighted in the opportunity to get intrigued by an obscure but important subject, and then devise ways to teach viewers something that might be useful or illuminating. Most of all, I took enormous pleasure in the fact that my new position gave me license to march up to important people and ask impertinent questions.

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