While your introduction to Dan Harris might not have been the one he’d prefer – an on-air panic attack while running the news desk on Good Morning America – these days his name is associated with a drastically more positive subject matter. Meditation. Dan turned his personal struggles with stress and anxiety into a daily 2-hour mindfulness practice, and a #1 New York Times Best Seller on the topic, “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”.
Over the past nine years, he’s added husband, father, podcast host, co-anchor, app collaborator and business owner to his list of daily obligations. His second book, “Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics: A 10% Happier How-To Book”, in which he examines why the desire to adopt a meditation routine doesn’t always translate to a practice, just hit shelves.
One can only conclude that there must be something to this whole meditation thing if a man with a history of work-related stress can manage wearing so many different hats so successfully with this habit in his arsenal. But 2 hours … That seems a little unrealistic for most people.
On one of his recent podcasts, Dan said, “The good news is, 5-10 minutes a day is a great habit, and that should be enough to derive some of the advertised benefits. But I think 1 minute counts, and you can shoot for daily-ish. Wake up from whatever trance you’re walking around in. Engineer a collision with the voice in your head and you’re well onto something. Then scale up and try going to 5-10-20 minutes … whatever’s best for you. It is an individual thing.”
Dan touched on these concepts and more as the keynote speaker for DeKalb Health’s inaugural bloom event, February 9, in support of the DeKalb Health Foundation. Guests explored holistic healthcare as a way to motivate the community to better understand and implement ideas to improve vitality and longevity. Parkview Health providers were also on hand for various breakout sessions.
Ahead of his visit to the Hoosier State, we hopped on a call with Dan to talk about his practice, parenting and what he discovered while working on his new book.
Why do you think meditation stuck for you?
It’s not because I’m particularly disciplined, because I’m not. I think it’s because I was really taken by the science that suggests it’s really good for you, especially for anxiety and depression. So I told myself I’d do it for a couple weeks. Then I noticed it was making a difference, so stopping just seemed counterproductive. At that time, I was only doing it for 5-10 minutes a day.
Willpower is a really ephemeral inner resource and people overestimate how much they’ll be able to summon it. Figure out the benefits and let them pull you forward. It’s not that you’ll never fall off the wagon, but it can be useful to see how obnoxious you are without it.
You meditate for up to two hours every day. And you exercise, have a successful news career, a startup company and app, a thriving podcast, a family and just released a second book. How, logistically, are you finding that much time to sit still?
I’m not gonna lie, it’s a pain. It’s a struggle every day to see how I’m going to fit everything in. I’ve come to the view that this kind of self-care, while it mathematically reduces the amount of time to do other things, boosts focus and productivity so much, you don’t need as much time to do the other things you need to do. What’s made it feasible is I chop it up into little bits, so I do it whenever I want, whenever I can. Maybe that means in my office, or on the road working, or when my wife’s asleep or early in the morning. I’ve come to a system that works.
You’ve said that when people say they’re too busy, “that’s code for a million other things.” What exactly do you mean by that?
It can mean a lot of different things. Maybe they’re not convinced it’s worth it. It can mean that even if they’re convinced, they’re not willing to do the work to overcome inertia, or maybe they’re afraid of what the effects will be.
You talk about how meditation gives you “an edge”. What benefits have you experienced?
I didn’t get my blood pressure checked before I started and I haven’t looked at the data around blood pressure, but research suggests that meditation can rewire key parts of the brain. I haven’t done biological research on myself. The benefits show up in my mind rather than in my physical well-being.
I notice it more when I ask myself: Are you less of a jerk to yourself and others? Are you less likely to check your email or fly off the handle or say things that you might regret when someone’s comments are hurtful? Are you less likely to engage in negative self-talk?
I’ve definitely noticed a reduction in my stress level. I used to have a lot of stress about work. And back when I was really stressed, I only had one job, granted it was in a competitive industry. Now I’m in the TV news business, publishing, I have a startup, a podcast … I’m competing in a lot of very high pressure spaces and I would be lying if I said I never get stressed, because I do. Writing my new book was very stressful. My wife had to get me to chill out. But I’m much less likely to get overwhelmed and, more importantly, I have more compassion.
When you see how crazy you are – meditation is very useful for giving you a front row seat of your own chaos – you realize everyone’s like this. All of our minds are a stew of urges and impulses and difficult emotions, and when you’re not aware, you just act out. But when you can see that’s true for you, you see it’s true for others and it makes you less judgmental when you see someone losing it at the airport or your child acting overwhelmed.
There’s a specific mediation called compassion meditation. It’s very sappy for a lot of people, myself included. It’s annoying initially, but research suggests it has health benefits and changes behavior and makes you kinder. I do it every day.
What are the most common forms of meditation?
Mindfulness comes out of the Buddhist tradition, a secular tradition. Transcendental meditation (TM) is literally a trademarked version of Hindu meditation. Those are the two big schools that people practice. Within the Buddhist context, straight mindfulness mediation, where you close your eyes, find your breath, get distracted and start again, and again, and again, that’s traditionally been taught in conjunction with compassion meditation. It’s the standard, traditional, Buddhist approach and can be done in a completely secular way. Buddhism is not a religion in the way we practice it. There are millions of people who practice Buddhism as a religion, but in the West, it isn’t something to believe, it’s something to do.
In your new book, you took a cross-country trip to find out why people weren’t putting meditation into practice. What was one of the most surprising hurdles?
There wasn’t one hurdle that surprised me, but the depth of the difficulty generally surprised me. Just to see how hard it is for people. We all know, but I really confronted it by being involved in my app company and writing this book. Seeing how people who really want to meditate – which is who this book is really for – can’t make themselves do it. It’s the same as healthy eating habits or getting enough sleep.
The reason is, evolution didn’t provide us with a brain built for long term health planning. Evolution didn’t care about long term health, it cared about getting DNA into the next generation. Our brain is good for detecting threats and finding sources of pleasure, like food and sexual partners. So that really explains why we’re wired for failure when creating healthy habits.
Confronting that has been the most surprising and the most rewarding thing. Once you know you’re wired to fail, you can approach things with humor, flexibility, resiliency and you know you’re going to try and fail a couple of times. You can approach change as experimentation not failure and experiment until you find what works for you.
I didn’t have trouble establishing a meditation habit because it was so beneficial. But I struggle with sugar. I would eat and get sick and then start again. Finally, I told my wife, I’d realized it fully; I can’t have it, it’s making me sick. I’m an addict. I can’t do moderation, so I quit. I’m pretty sure I’m quitting for the rest of my life. My goal is to never go back, and so far, it’s stuck. It’s just about experimenting, and if you really want to do a thing and you try enough with different approaches, you’ll find the right time and the right approach.
How did your perspective on meditation change when you became a parent?
It’s very useful in the parenting context. We had a big infertility struggle and there’s this thing we do as humans, called hedonic adaptation. That’s where, when something good happens, we build it into our baseline expectations and take it for granted. We had this baby, got what we’d wanted for a long time, and then there’s this temptation to go on for the next hit of dopamine. With meditation, I could see through the hamster wheel and I found out I was much better at wringing every ounce of joy out of the process.
Another thing is, it’s infuriating to be a parent. The baby won’t stop crying, or the toddler is defiant. It can be very trying and make you snap and get in arguments with your spouse, and I think mediation is really good for that. You have the self-awareness that anger is coming up but don’t get carried away by it like you would normally.
Also, now that my son is three and we have conversations, it makes me a better parent. If he’s sad, I don’t talk him out of being sad. I give him permission and give him time, so that eventually, he’ll have that emotional intelligence. I don’t squelch his feelings because that’s counterproductive. It will show up in some other way. I let him feel what he’s feeling so that he can let it pass.
Parents have to remember that perfection is not an offer here. Nobody’s perfect. That’s the problem with self-help materials, is they pedal all these guaranteed-to-fail plans. That’s not going to happen.
How do you think your life would be different had you never discovered meditation?
I’d still be in TV news. It’s not like I was miserable. I’d be doing what I do but continuously stressed. I have great relationships with my wife and family and I would have a happy life, either way. There’s just an incredible value add and I’m glad I found it.
What was one of your favorite takeaways from a podcast guest related to health?
I haven’t posted this one yet, but I had an interview with Paul Shapiro, who wrote “Clean Meat”. I struggle with veganism because there’s a rock solid case for it, but it’s just hard to do. So, one of the things Paul was saying was that you don’t actually have to do it all at once. There’s the concept of “Vbefore6” where you’re vegan before 6 p.m., or you can mostly do it. And that struck me. It’s like the dietary or vegetarian version of 10%. I like that the approach isn’t all or nothing.