The Book in Three Sentences
10% Happier is a personal look at meditation. When Dan Harris, a now-retired ABC journalist, embarked on a self-development journey, he was skeptical. Through meditation though, he found a technique that allowed him to be happier and thrive professionally.
10% Happier Summary
We’re constantly engaging with the voice in our heads. We’re sacrificing our here and now to focus on the past and present. The nonstop chatter in our minds is a routine and we’re not truly awake. Meditating can be a profound experience, but there are negative connotations around the practice. The author found out that meditation can make you 10% happier and while the number can be absurd and even inaccurate, it illustrates how meditation can make you a better person. Among other things, you can use meditation to improve your focus and control your emotions.
Chapter 1: Air Hunger
On June 7th, 2004, author Sam Harris had a panic attack while working on Good Morning America. More than five million people were watching the show.
Harris had started working on broadcast news in his early twenties. He eventually got a job at ABC News, a highly competitive environment where he thrived. After September 11th, he was sent to Pakistan and then Afghanistan where he covered the horrors of war. Harris enjoyed the job because he felt his work was meaningful, but his personal life suffered: having a romantic relationship wasn’t a priority, he had health issues, he was diagnosed with depression and he started self-medicating.
Soon, Harris started experimenting with drugs (first cocaine and then ecstasy), leading to many health issues. On one occasion, his lungs seized up in what’s called “air hunger”. He then had a panic attack on camera. The journalist feared that his drug use would ruin his professional life, so he quit and decided to exercise, sleep better, eat healthy food, and go to therapy.
Chapter 2: Unchurched
Harris attended a 7,500-seat event at an evangelical megachurch called New Life Church in Colorado Springs for a story. Pastor Ted Haggard was behind the religious movement and he was trying to get the Devil out of town by praying. After a formal interview, Harris and Haggard talked off the record. Harris asked several questions about evangelicalism that Haggard politely answered. At no point did Haggard make Harris feel inferior (this is known as “unchurched”), didn’t try to convert him, and wasn’t defensive about the most difficult questions either. This made the author realize that he’s always been judgemental of religious people in general. Harris decided to use his job to explore religion rather than create conflict. He traveled to the middle east to study religion and was promoted by the time he went back home. The environment was incredibly competitive and Harris was scared he might lose his job. The journalist resented some of his peers, complained constantly, and worried about the future.
While that happened, the author committed to covering faith and he also maintained a professional relationship with Ted Haggard. Harris started questioning certain stereotypes and to a certain extent, his own faith. Soon after that, Haggard was accused of paying for sex and crystal meth.
On the personal front, Harris met his now wife Bianca while she was an internal medicine resident at Columbia University. He eventually secured an exclusive interview with Haggard after the scandal. The once influential pastor was now selling insurance in Arizona and barely making enough money to support his family. Haggard admitted his hypocrisy and openly apologized to gay people for his behavior, but he was still close to his faith. Harris was about to cover another story involving spirituality.
Chapter 3: Genius or Lunatic?
By this point, Harris’s personal life was improving. He hadn’t had a panic attack in years, he wasn’t taking antidepressants, he was going to therapy once a month, he had gotten engaged, and was enjoying his work. But he was constantly worried about the future. He met Eckhart Tolle, a writer whose books were about controlling your ego. Harris read A New Earth and became interested in the idea that the voices in our head control our lives and regardless of what we do, our ego is never satisfied. Harris found some of those ideas transformative and realized he’d been sleepwalking through life: always reminiscing about the past or worried about the future, but never fully in the present moment. While Harris connected with parts of the book, he was also surprised by some pseudo-scientific theories and often wondered if Eckhart was a genius or a lunatic.
During the interview, Harris and Eckhart had an insightful talk about spirituality that was also confusing. Harris didn’t know what to think about Eckhart but meeting the best-selling author had encouraged him to answer some of the most pressing questions he had.
Chapter 4: Happiness, INC.
Six weeks after interviewing Eckhart, Harris met Deepak Chopra. When asked about Eckhart, Chopra dismissed him as a poor writer, but Chopra also believed in the power of being in the present moment. In a way, Harris became obsessed with this idea because nobody gave him a straight answer to the question “how do you stay in the present moment?”
The American journalist started working on a segment on self-help called “Happiness, Inc.” Among other notorious gurus, he interviewed Eckhart, Chopra, and Vitale. Joe Vitale was the man behind a cultural phenomenon called The Secret. He rehashed the idea of the law of attraction and turned it into a tremendously popular book and a movie of the same name. He stated that by thinking about something and then taking action, you’d make your wish a reality. Not everything about the self-help word was glamorous so Harris was somewhat disillusioned with certain hypocritical gurus and their ludicrous ideas.
Chapter 5: The Jew-Bu
Harris’s then-fiancee gifted him some Mark Epstein books. Epstein is a psychiatrist and a Buddhist. The anchor for Nightlife immediately connected with Epstein’s writing despite not knowing too much about Buddhism. He arranged a meeting with the psychotherapist where they discussed Eastern spirituality.
Chapter 6: The Power of Negative Thinking
Harris had strong opinions about meditation. He started doing research about the topic and realized he had some misconceptions about it, so he decided to try it for himself. After meditating for five minutes, he respected the practice, and even though he didn’t like it, he promised to do it daily. Soon, he started experiencing some benefits. The respected journalist attended a self-help conference with a friend. He learned to respond instead of reacting and he also learned that mindfulness is a skill you improve with practice. Harris was invited to a retreat where he meditated for several days straight with the help of Joseph Goldstein.
Chapter 7: Retreat
The retreat involved ten days of no talking, vegetarian food, housekeeping, and ten hours of meditation a day. The first couple of days were torturous, but then Harris was able to focus. He found the experience transformative, but he was also eager for it to end.
Chapter 8: 10% Happier
After the retreat, Harris wanted to share what he learned with others. When he shared his experience, some people were incredulous while others were more accepting. He interviewed Goldstein and they discussed Buddhism and meditation. Goldstein admitted not reaching full enlightenment.
Chapter 9: “The New Caffeine”
By this point, meditation had gone mainstream and its long list of benefits became common knowledge. All of these claims were subjected to formal studies and research and backed by science. Some of these stories showed that we can train our brains using meditation in a similar way we tone our bodies through exercise. This would make happiness a skill. Some of the recent discoveries challenged Harris: multitasking doesn’t exist and hurts productivity, taking breaks can help you be more focused, and pausing work can lead to creativity and innovation. Harris started fantasizing about a world that accepted meditation and what the practice could do for people’s marriage, parenting, politics, professional lives, and so on.
Chapter 10: The Self-Interested Case for Not Being a Dick
Harris had the opportunity to meet the Dalai Lama. Among other things, they discussed the need for compassion in order to benefit yourself. Being compassionate is a good-natured act that makes you healthier, happier, popular, and successful at work, but it’s also selfish. In an interesting turn of events, Harris was sent to interview Paris Hilton about her new reality TV show. He asked some difficult questions and Hilton left the room. Although Hilton asked for the tapes, Harris refused to give them to her and used the material which made him wonder if his behavior aligned with his values, especially the idea of compassion. Not only that, but Harris also questioned if journalism was compatible with Buddhist values.
Chapter 11: Hide the Zen
Harris had a new boss, Ben Sherwood, who had had senior jobs at both ABC and NBC and had written three best-sellers. Harris lost motivation to do his job and his boss told him he was being too passive. Since then, things began to change for the better.
In true Buddhist fashion, Harris created a list. He called his list “The Way of the Worrier”:
- Don’t be a jerk: being a bad person clouds your clarity and effectiveness
- Hide the zen when necessary: be nice, but be aggressive if you have to
- Meditate: meditate to shut down the ego and watch your thoughts without judging them
- The price of security is insecurity (until it’s not useful): worrying can be worthless or worthwhile, so you have to analyze the situation to determine which one is it
- Equanimity is not the enemy of creativity: mindfulness can make you more creative
- Don’t force it: take it easy
- Humility prevents humiliation: this is a reminder to be humble
- Go easy with the internal cattle prod: stop self-criticizing
- Nonattachment to results: work hard, but don’t retreat if things don’t go the way you want
- What matters most: at some point, you have to determine what’s more important to you