by Dan Harris
It Books, 2014
Review by Leo Uzych, J.D., M.P.H. on Oct 28th 2014
10% Happier is the true story of how the author, Dan Harris, tamed the voice in his head, reduced stress without losing his edge, and found self-help that actually works. Harris is the co-anchor of Nightline and the weekend editions of Good Morning America.
In a "Preface", Harris comments, with the forthrightness that pervades the book in its entirety, that the inner chatter of the voice in a person's head may potentially be a malevolent puppeteer. But Harris asserts that meditation is a proven technique to avoid being led around by the nose by the voice in one's head. Harris claims that, in his experience, meditation makes one 10% happier. Harris adds that, what he is attempting to do in the book is demystify meditation; and show that if meditation can work for him, it may work also for others.
Readers are informed, in an "Author's Note", that most of the events described in the book were recorded; and that quotes from unrecorded conversations were reproduced from memory.
A vast multitude of very substantively enlivening quotes populate the text densely.
The substantive composition is profusely strewn, anecdotally, with fascinating details of particular newsworthy persons and events, as sighted by the very sharp eye of Harris.
Many sharp sighted, biographical details of Harris's life likewise contribute materially to the forming of the book's substance.
The soup of Harris's delectable discourse is made of eclectic ingredients, including: blunt candor, humor, thoughtfulness, and criticisms (of himself, and others).
A further delectable ingredient, added delectably to the eclectic mix, is Harris's very considerable insightfulness, regarding his own emotions and feelings, as well as the body language, emotions, and feelings of others.
It must be said, as well, that Harris is a particularly skilled wordsmith.
Harris recounts biographically, in Chapter 1, how he became a network news correspondent, with Peter Jennings (who Harris idolized) as his mentor (and sometimes tormentor). As Harris adds flesh to the bones of his biography, readers learn that Harris loved being a war correspondent: Harris enjoyed the rush; and also felt a sense of purpose. Readers learn further that, in Harris's view, life's biggest riddle is the balance between stress and contentment; and once Harris was at ABC, any attempts at balance went out the window. Indeed, Harris claims that an on-air "meltdown" he suffered on the set of GOOD MORNING AMERICA resulted directly from an extended run of mindlessness, beginning his first day at ABC News.
For several years, as readers learn in Chapter 2, Harris reported on every twitch, every spasm of national issues impinging on gay marriage, abortion, and faith's role in public life. In attention absorbing manner, Harris puts pen to paper in describing Pastor Ted Haggard. Exhibiting his customary bluntness, Harris tells readers that he was thunderstruck upon learning that Pastor Haggard (a spiritual shepherd to thousands) had been leading a double life.
Someone named Eckhart Tolle especially attracts the rapt attention of Harris, in Chapter 3. As explained by Harris, Tolle argued (in a book entitled: A NEW EARTH) that one's entire life is governed by a voice in one's head; and this voice is engaged in a ceaseless (and mostly negative, repetitive, and self referential) stream of thinking. Harris confesses to readers that Tolle was forcing him to confront the fact that his internal cattle prod (which Harris had always thought was his greatest asset) might also perhaps be his greatest liability. But, as Harris puts it candidly, he honestly could not figure out if Tolle was a genius or a lunatic. Harris describes interviewing Tolle. From Harris's perspective, the pressing question of how to tame the voice in one's head was unanswered by Tolle.
Six weeks after interviewing Tolle, Harris met guru Deepak Chopra, interviewing Chopra in connection with a NIGHTLINE "Face-Off". The encounter is described in Chapter 4. Harris also describes a later interview of Chopra. Harris found Chopra, as with Tolle, to be a baffling mixtape of the interesting and the incomprehensible.Harris couldn't tell if Tolle was sane; regarding Chopra, Harris couldn't tell if he was sincere.
In Chapter 5, Harris introduces readers to psychiatrist and practicing Buddhist Dr. Mark Epstein. Harris explains to readers that , after reading a thunderously satisfying book by Epstein, Harris immersed himself in learning about Buddhism. As best as Harris could understand, the Buddha's main thesis was that, in a world in which everything is changing constantly, people suffer because they cling to things that won't last. The route to true happiness, according to the Buddha, is achieving a visceral understanding of impermanence.
Buddhism's secret sauce, as Harris informs readers in Chapter 6, is "mindfulness". Harris describes mindfulness, in a nutshell, as the ability to recognize what is happening in one's mind with nonjudgmental remove. After trying a technique for applying mindfulness, Harris's candid evaluation was that: the voice in his head suddenly lost much of its authority; but mindfulness did not erase Harris's real world problems. Harris decided to go on a retreat (led by Joseph Goldstein), to meditate at a Buddhist retreat center.
Harris's ten day, retreat experience is described, in very considerable, day to day detail, in Chapter 7. As recollected by Harris, Goldstein explained that the key is not to get carried away by desire; instead, desire must be managed with wisdom and mindfulness. Goldstein further gave a dharma talk, discoursing that, according to the Buddha, everything in the world is ultimately unreliable and unsatisfying because it won't last. As understood by Harris, Goldstein discoursed as well that meditation's real superpower is not just managing one's ego more mindfully but seeing that the ego itself has no actual substance.
Back at the office, Harris applied what he had learned on retreat to very practical challenges he was facing; and, as Harris tells readers (in Chapter 8), he found mindfulness to be extremely useful. According to Harris, meditation made him 10% happier. Harris writes further that, while meditation made him more resilient, it certainly was not a cure all.
Scientific research, pertinent to meditation, garners Harris's scrutiny, in Chapter 9. According to Harris, meditation, once part of the counterculture, had flowed into the scientific mainstream. The meditation research boom, Harris adds, got its start with an MIT-trained microbiologist named Jon Kabat-Zinn. Harris informs readers that the marines became interested initially in mindfulness in connection with PTSD; and there was also hope that meditation might produce more effective warriors. Readers learn additionally that the long arm of meditation has reached corporate America (reaching to General Mills, Aetna, Procter & Gamble, and Target). Harris describes having a vision, sighting a world where meditation would be universally socially acceptable; and where significant numbers of people were 10% happier.
At the top of Chapter 10, Harris describes interviewing the Dalai Lama. As the chapter unfolds, Harris focuses readers' attention on compassion meditation. As Harris explains it, at a personal level, the great blessing of becoming more mindful and compassionate was that Harris was infinitely more sensitive to the mental ramifications of even the smallest transgressions. But, as readers learn, Harris's new compassion policy encountered a major challenge, when Harris interviewed Paris Hilton.
Notably, in last Chapter 11, Harris presents for readers an annotated list (entitled "The Way of the Worrier") of wise suggestions and insights.
In an "Epilogue", Harris's intellectual flashlight illumines the research of a Yale researcher named Jud Brewer, in the area of enlightenment.
Finally, in an "Appendix", Harris: examines critically some bad reasons not to meditate; proffers some advice and tips, appertaining to basic mindfulness meditation; identifies some books Harris likes, relating to meditation and Buddhism; and gives succinctly thoughtful answers to some FAQS, pertaining to meditation.
Cautious readers may admonish that Harris's anecdotally composed discourse is not moored securely by the anchor of scientific rigor.
But Harris, showing great writing skill, has surely penned a fascinating book.
And by penning the book in a stylistically plain English manner, Harris has expanded its vast reading appeal to reach potentially a universal audience.
© 2014 Leo Yzych
Leo Uzych (based in Wallingford, PA) earned a law degree, from Temple University; and a master of public health degree, from Columbia University. His area of special professional interest is healthcare. Twitter @LeoUzych