10% Percent Happier by Dan Harris (Harper Collins, 2014)
My beloved sister-in-law, Betty Lenart, passed away last year. She faced death with a unique serenity, deeply dedicated to her Catholic faith. Each year Betty would go on a religious retreat, often located at the Jersey shore, where she would spend several days in silent meditation. Sometimes I admit, I thought she was nuts. However, I also harbored envy; how nice would it be to escape the constant buzzing all around me, the “have-to’s” that plague daily life, and just walk along the beach, breathing in the sweet, ocean air, and working toward inner peace?
In the increasingly stressful society in which we live, people are searching for a way to escape the constant drone in their heads and find a portal to peace. Nightline anchor, Dan Harris, embarked on a personal odyssey to achieve a quieter inner self after experiencing a nearly career ending panic attack on air. Harris’s book, entitled 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, opens with this catchy phrase, “According to the Nielsen ratings data, 5,019 million people saw me lose my mind.” (p.1)
Harris had been pinch hitting for Robin Roberts as the newsreader on Good Morning, America when, “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 a 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.” (p.2)
In analyzing what brought about that attack, and then figuring out how to prevent such a paralytic moment from recurring, Harris assesses his rise in the ferocious newscasting business (like working for his idol, Peter Jennings, but simultaneously living constantly on the edge of screwing up and getting chastised by the great newsman) in a friendly and funny narrative that makes the book inviting and enjoyable to read.
The peculiar thing about Harris’ panic attack is that as a serious newsman, he had covered combat zones in the Middle East, and yet here, in the cocoon of a set, is where he melted down. What is significant is that the moment that the attack occurred signaled the start of Harris’ journey into becoming “10% happier.”
His psychiatrists prescribed Klonopin, an anti-anxiety medication, but that did not serve as the panacea for what ailed Harris. He began examining spirituality, through encounters with such people as Pastor Ted Haggard of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, who proved to be a huge bust.
Truly, Harris’ journey begins to take off when Harris begins to read Eckhart Tolle’s Oprah endorsed book A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. When Harris first began the book, “It struck me as irredeemable poppycock,” states Harris. (p.56) But then, Tolle begins talking about the “voice in our heads,” that governs every move that we make. “It squawks away at us from the minute we open our eyes in the morning until the minute we fall asleep at night.” (p.56) Suddenly Harris realizes that he needs to find a way to quiet that incessant voice and take control of it.
The most engaging part of Harris’ journey is his description of the ten day retreat that he went on, led by “Bhu-Jew,” Joseph Goldstein. The ten day retreat was called the “July Insight Meditation Retreat,” and despite great reservations about embarking in the endeavor, Harris goes. His detailed descriptions of the ten day experience waver between extreme torture and “the most exquisite high of my life” are wonderful to read. (p.120) Fortunately, Harris is able to poke fun at himself, examining the experience from the distance of time, but more importantly, he pinpoints how the meditation that he learned how to master, has been leading him to a life that is now more than 10% happier.
The last two chapters of the book provide a roadmap for those people who might like to give Harris’ theories a whirl. He also has launched a 10% Happier Podcast and co-founded the 10% Happier App to help in one’s personal search for a little piece of “nirvana.” I am keeping my copy of the book on my night table as a reference tool for when I need to take a step back. And that is about the best reference that I can give in an endorsement of a book.