Review: 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head by Dan Harris

“Everything we experience in this world goes through one filter—our minds—and we spend very little time bothering to see how it works.” – Dan Harris

Summary: 10% Happier is the skeptic’s candid introduction to the science behind mindfulness and argues meditation is a reasonable solution for letting go of the stress in your life through acknowledging the illusions built up around your ego.

As an ABC News correspondent going through minor drug abuse and unacknowledged PTSD from reporting in a war zone, Dan Harris was finally forced to consider inward reflection after having a panic attack on live national television. His desire to resolve this inner anxiety led him on a journey of meditation and mindfulness and eventually a life—he argues—lived at least 10% happier.

#1 take-away: Be Simple, not a simpleton—why letting go of your ego won’t make you a push-over.

“One of the most interesting discoveries of this whole journey was that I didn’t need my demons to fuel my drive—and that taming them was a more satisfying exercise than indulging them.”

Here’s Dan’s interesting self-sabotage insight: We think our ego and the anxiety it provokes creates the competitive edge that drives us. For many of us, the fear of practicing meditation is that in doing so we become the world’s doormat. Without our ego, we’d be passive, detached, even nihilistic.

You know the type, right? The people who offer no resistance—who allow others to cut them off in conversation, who don’t insist on getting their order right, and who absorb tasteless comments without reprove.

This isn’t practicing mindfulness or letting go of the ego. Rather, the tendency is to act like a simpleton in order to avoid necessary conflict. It’s like having a paradoxically humble ego that is affirmed by acting selfless and detached, inevitably building into this false impression of ourselves that needs to be maintained, even by negative external cues.

“Don’t confuse letting go with going soft. Just because you’re aware of what is going on and being mindful about it does not mean you just let things go when you have the ability to take action on them and improve. The way to respond to adversity is often to work through it, not to avoid it altogether in the name of acting Zen.”

#1.5 take-away: Harris offers, “When necessary, hide the Zen.” We don’t have to walk around acting like neutralized Zen zombies. It’s fine to strive for success, as long as we accept the outcome is out of our control. Practicing mindfulness doesn’t solve our problems, it enables us to act—rather than react—when faced with daily stress and conflict.

“Nonattachment to results + self compassion = a supple relentlessness that is hard to match. Push hard, play to win, but don’t assume the fetal position if things don’t go your way.”

“’Is this useful?’ It’s a simple, elegant corrective to my ‘price of security’ motto. It’s okay to worry, plot, and plan […]—but only until it’s not useful anymore.”

Conclusion: Dan Harris was a true skeptic of meditation and practicing mindfulness. The book is his honest confession that, having given meditation a fair chance, he can actually feel its benefits throughout his daily life and his career in the news industry. Mindfulness is such a simple concept—it’s heightened common sense. If you’re open to a new perspective on understanding how our brains work, I’d recommend this as a good place to start. It’s a light read and offers some applicable insights into the mysterious world of mindfulness. Harris is definitely a journalist—his writing is not only good, it’s downright fun.

Other highlights:

“But it was in this moment, lying in bed late at night, that I first realized that the voice in my head—the running commentary that had dominated my field of consciousness since I could remember—was kind of an asshole.”

“All successful people fail. If you can create an inner environment where your mistakes are forgiven and flaws are candidly confronted, your resilience expands exponentially.”

“When I opened my eyes, I had an entirely different attitude about meditation. I didn’t like it, per se, but I now respected it. This was not just some hippie time-passing technique […] It was a rigorous brain exercise: rep after rep of trying to tame the runaway train of the mind. The repeated attempt to bring the compulsive thought machine to heel was like holding a live fish in your hands. Wrestling your mind to the ground, repeatedly hauling your attention back to the breath in the face of the inner onslaught required genuine grit. This was a badass endeavor.”

“At the end, the meditator arrives at the true goal of Buddhist meditation: to see that the “self” that we take to be the ridgepole of our lives is actually an illusion.”

“in a world where everything is constantly changing, we suffer because we cling to things that won’t last.”

Can We Really Change?

“Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everybody gets busy on the proof.” – John Kenneth Galbraith, American Economist

Change is my only constant. I’m finding the need to start deconstructing how I understand the concept of change.

Fact: we are constantly changing.

I am a firm and passionate proponent of our ability to direct change. Transition is that fine line between Change One and Change Two, and I think that’s where the magic happens. Transition is not change, it leads to change. It’s when we get to decide what the next change will look like.

“Human functioning is facilitated by a personal sense of control.” writes Ralf Schwarzer in the preface of Self-Efficacy: Thought Control of Action. He explains that, “if people believe they can take action to solve a problem instrumentally, they become more inclined to do so and feel more committed to this decision.”

Self-efficacy is a self-confident view of our capability to deal with certain life stressors and also allows us to “select challenging settings, explore [our] environments, or create new environments.”

“A person who believes in being able to cause an event can conduct a more active and self-determined life course.” (Schwarzer)

So why don’t we initiate the necessary steps toward the changes we want to make? The question has never been, “To change or not to change.” The question is always, “How will I change?”

Some people can seem stuck in their ways or stagnant. They’re not, they’re just passively going through their lives accepting the changes as they come and reacting to everything the same way—with fear, denial, and/or indifference.

So who are the agents of change and who are the victims? I think it comes down to our concept of self. People are more accepting of external information that is consistent with their—conscious or unconscious/good or bad—belief of themselves. That means people with an unclear concept of themselves are generally more dependent on and more susceptible to external cues that might carry self-relevant information (Campbell and Lavallee), and this often inhibits their own perceived power of changing.

Here’s an interesting study: Using three different measures of extremity—15 bipolar trait scales such as predictable-unpredictable, tactful-candid, cautious-risky, and unconventional-conventional—researchers showed that people with low self-esteem gave ratings that were, on average, nearer the midpoint of the scales. The study confirmed that, “people with low self-esteem tended to describe themselves in noncommittal, middle-of-the-road terms.”

Stuck in the middle—in this case—is not good. The middle seems safe, but it abuses the magic of transition. We cannot stay in limbo.

With that being said, positive long-term change is a series of small changes. “Many of life’s choices [and changes] fall into two categories,” writes New York Times columnist Carl Richards (a.k.a. Sketch Guy) in an interesting article, The Best Path to Change is Slow, Simple, and Boring:

■ Option A: Exciting and complex and quick, but the action rarely works.

■ Option B: Boring and simple and slow, but it works nearly all the time.

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The secret of making lasting change? “Small actions repeated consistently over a very long period of time,” says Richards. “Incremental change is short-term boring, but long-term exciting.” And it works.

Here’s my adaptation to Richards’ sketch:


Looking at Richards’ sketch, we assume that fundamental change starts from the bottom and works its way up. Not always true. If we don’t mindfully participate in the transition phases, change will still happen, but maybe not in the direction we’d prefer.

Even if we find it is hard to define ourselves in extreme terms like the people in the study (and even if the study might have a few variables), we can avoid (1) attempts to neutralize our lives and (2) expectations of radical transformation.

Making conscious incremental steps to slow transformation will permit us to know ourselves and push our limits one vertical transition at a time. Our level of commitment will determine our capacity to not only embrace, but regulate change for ourselves

“Every day, I make it a point to look back and notice how far I have come. Some days, the distance I have come is clear, while other days I see I still have room to improve. But keeping track of this incremental change helps reinforce why I’m making short-term boring choices. Because at some point, I’ll look back and see how far I have come, and short-term boring will become long-term exciting.” (Richards)

Confessions from a Gentlemen’s Club

The first rule is: you do not talk about this club. The second rule is: YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT THIS CLUB!

Tyler Durden’s voiceover ran through my head as I sat in an oversized leather chair looking down at a nondisclosure form. I signed.

I was sitting across a table—more like an oak platform—from Michael Caine’s doppelgänger. His eyelids were relaxed in that uncannily familiar half-closed way.

“I’ll show you where you’ll be doing your work.” He said from the other side of the table, looking at me with his chin tilted up as if using invisible bifocals. I put the pen down.

As I got up to follow him out of the lounge area and up the stairs, the plastic outsoles of my wedges clicked on the dark wood floors—I had decided to go with the pencil-skirt and ’60’s box-cut argyle sweater. With the sound of plastic against wood echoing in my ears, I took another look at his thin black tie, tailored dark grey suit, and oxblood captoe style oxfords. For the second time that day, I began questioning how I got here.

Our first encounter at the door surprised us both. Or at least I was surprised to see another Mr. Michael Caine, and I think he was surprised to see a very young person—dare I admit, a girl—standing at his door front. I wouldn’t consider myself terribly young, but my inherited smallness and somewhat round facial features still make it arguable.

“You are one of the few women to have ever set foot in here.” The Chairmen had told me after I followed him into the foyer.

“Oh?” I said, eyebrows raised, unsure if that was meant as a compliment or a warning. I shook his hand stiffly, bending at the elbow and not the wrist.

I reflected on the fact that there was no job application and no interview—something I realized in hindsight. Getting a job really is about who you know. Not that there is anything wrong with being young and female, I told myself, it’s just that here I felt in stark juxtaposition to everything, namely, all things old and masculine and, I began to realize, wealthy.

At the top of the stairs, it registered he was showing me to a bedroom. There are often times when I wish I had an inner Google search bar.

Google, “what to say when you want to sound professional when speaking?”

Google, “how to ask for money after a job offer?”

Google, “what is a gentlemen’s club?”

That last one actually did warrant some research. The original clubs were established in the West End of London. Clubs took over the role of coffee houses in the 18th century and reached their peak of popularity in the late 19th century. Club Life in London (1866) explains: “The Club in the general acceptation of the term, may be regarded as one of the earliest offshoots of man’s habitual gregariousness and social inclination.”[1] In the United States, the term “gentlemen’s club” is a common euphemism for strip clubs—something I also realized in hindsight—which is why the traditional gentlemen’s clubs are often referred to as “men’s clubs” or “private social clubs” or the term I have come to use, just “social clubs.”

I tried not to think about the irony of the bedroom as he swung the closet doors open and revealed shelves upon shelves of discolored folders and wrinkled documents.

As Consulting Archivist, I was being hired to preserve these exposed relics of a bygone era and arrange them into something meaningful. The momentum of the swinging doors fanned air through the piles of papers and I watched as a few slid from an overflowing shelf to the ground. I reminded myself we’re all imposters at some level and our success rides on our ability to convince everyone, including ourselves, that we know what we’re doing.

I hadn’t planned on working at a gentlemen’s club—an exclusive membership of white men with perhaps white-haired principles and a culturally appropriated Algonquin name—but I was surrounded by Detroit history and I rather enjoyed speaking with this other Michael Caine, a perfectly poised, impeccably dressed gentlemen who smelled of a lifestyle from another planet. He made it easy to sound more educated and better spoken than I was.

“Is there a budget?”

“Not at all, we can provide anything you need—absolutely anything.” (to note: with the right angle, “anything” includes lunch—always fish, imported—because…pesco-vegetarianism).

“What about hours? What might the schedule look like?”

“Mornings, any day of the week is fine. The boys usually have lunch around noon, so best to leave before then.”

“Shall we do Friday mornings, then?” I was half-conscious of my fake British cadence, “Eight-thirty to eleven-thirty?”

“Good.”

So began a journey into the masculine culture of the 19th and 20th century—of the club’s founding generation and my speculations of their homosexuality, of my introduction to the evolution of erotic writing, pornography, and other less evocative primary source materials I won’t share for fear of breaking the first rules of nondisclosure. Yet going through the correspondence of these men helped to understand the life of this club and perhaps grant me a more tangible explanation for its purpose in a larger masculine context.

The desire to be masculine (like many other nouns and adjectives) to me reflects the desire to be a part of something larger and more definable, a group with the right set of characteristics. It’s apparent the definition of that group is changing. To be “macho” is increasingly off trend.

As the literal and figurative outsider to this institution, I confess that my speculation for its success is precisely because of its exclusivity. Something is more desirable when it is mysterious and unattainable. For a large percentage, being white and male fits into that spectrum. I know that I am not qualified to speak much on this, and I don’t feel I need a platform, but I also know I’m not intimidated by masculinity and I certainly don’t feel the need to lash out or pretend indifference or superiority over it.

It’s reasonable to believe this patriarchal society is evolving and if it doesn’t evolve enough, eventually it will grow white hair and someone will be hired to piece together its bygone history and maybe even write something interesting about it before it’s gone forever.

[1] Cited in the introduction to Women, Clubs and Associations in Britain by Doughan & Gordon, 2006.

Splendidly Quotidian

This is the embrace of (and departure from) everydayness—a source of ecstasies in childlike experiences—a highlight of literary phenomenology—an exploration in poetry and architecture and all matters of the world’s inner horizons.

Welcome to an exercise on the study of daily things, or as the French would say: banalité.

From the About page:

quo·tid·i·an / adjective

Having the characteristics of something which can be seen, experienced, etc, every day or very commonly. 

This site is designed around a simple idea: we are all connected.

The simple purpose of this somewhat whimsical blog is to delineate the extent of this connection. The argument is that ordinary human experiences—the commonly felt, the frequently thought, and the daily overlooked realities of existing with each other—is what brings meaning to our lives.

In a world overwhelmed by an expanding culture of isolation and discontent, of inflated egos and group bias, this is a safe place, a reminder of what makes us human and brings us closer. Here is solace in one simple idea.

Our quotidian lives—the mundane Thursday afternoons and forgettable Tuesday mornings—are what connect us. Maybe it’s time we celebrate the unexceptional. It’s time we recognize that the larger rifts in life will be forgotten and, as a whole, the everyday is most meaningful when not only shared, but acknowledged.