Habits interview: Dan Harris.
I met Dan Harris—the ABC News, Nightline, and Good Morning America correspondent—when a mutual friend suggested that we'd enjoy having lunch, to talk about habits, happiness, and meditation.
We had a great discussion, and in fact, Dan was one of several people who inspired me to try meditating. (I discuss this at some length in my forthcoming book on habits, Better and Before.)
His hilarious, thought-provoking book about his experiences with meditation, 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works—is about to hit the shelves next month. (Sidenote: I'm a big fan of long subtitles, see here and here.)
I knew Dan had done a lot of thinking about the relationship of habits and happiness, and how to use habits to foster happiness, so I was eager to hear what he had to say.
Gretchen: What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?
Dan: I never in a million years thought I’d be the type of person who’d say this, but my answer is… meditation.
I had always assumed that meditation was for robed gurus, acid-droppers, fans of Enya, and people who keep yurts in their backyard. But then I heard about the explosion of scientific research that shows the practice has an almost laughably long list of health benefits, from lowering your blood pressure to boosting your immune system to essentially rewiring your brain for happiness. And then I learned that it doesn’t involve sitting cross-legged, burning incense, or chanting phrases in Sanskrit. (I’ve written up these simple meditation instructions, if anyone’s interested.)
I started with five minutes a day, and very quickly noticed three benefits: 1. Increased focus, 2. A greater sense of calm, and 3. A vastly improved ability to jolt myself out of rumination and fantasies about the past or the future, and back to whatever was happening right in front of my face.
Over time (I’ve now been at it for about four years and do 35 minutes a day), an even more substantial benefit kicked in: I created a different relationship to the voice in my head. You know the voice I’m talking about. It’s what has us reaching into the fridge when we’re not hungry, pruning our inboxes when we’re ostensibly in conversation with other human beings, and losing our temper only to regret it later. The ability to see what’s going on in your head at any given moment without reacting to it blindly—often called “mindfulness”—is a superpower.
I’m certainly not arguing that meditation is a panacea. I still do tons of stupid stuff—as my wife will attest. But the practice has definitely made me happier, calmer, and nicer. In fact, I’ve gone so far as to write a whole book designed to make meditation attractive to people who are neither hippies nor monks, called 10% Happier. (Which, by the way, you very kindly blurbed, Gretchen—thanks for that!)
What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
I’ll preface this by admitting that I know very little about the theory and science of habit—which is why I am very much looking forward to your forthcoming book.
That said, a neuroscientist friend of mine once told me, “The brain is a pleasure-seeking machine.” Usually, we do what makes us feel good. What I know (or at least think I know) now about habit formation that I didn’t know as a kid was that I generally cannot create or break habits unless there is compelling self-interest involved—in other words, unless doing so makes me feel good, either directly or indirectly.
So, for example, with meditation, I was motivated to start the habit by the science that says it’s good for you—and I’ve been able to maintain it because, while the act of meditating is often quite tough, the “off-the-cushion” (to use a meditative term of art) benefits are so readily apparent to me.
Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?
1. Multitasking: I’ve seen all the studies that say our brains are not capable of concentrating on more than one thing at a time and that multitasking is a huge drag on efficiency and productivity. And yet, I still frequently find myself flitting between email, Twitter, phone calls, and whatever work I’m actually supposed to be doing.
2. Mindless eating: I try very hard to eat healthfully, but I am a huge sucker for pasta, cheeseburgers, and cookies—and when I get into a feeding frenzy, it’s hard for me to stop. These episodes are almost always followed by a shame spiral.
In theory, meditation should help with the above, since it teaches you to pay careful attention to whatever you’re doing right now. Alas, I still struggle. Hence the title of my book (10%, etc.).
Which habits are most important to you? (for heath, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)
Other than meditation, the habit that most contributes to my happiness (aside from hanging out with my wife, Bianca—but does that count as a habit?) is exercise. If I don’t work out consistently, I started to feel a bit crazy. Sometimes, when I’m being antsy and annoying around the house, Bianca will literally force me to go running.
Have you ever managed to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
In my early thirties, as a young reporter for ABC News, I spent many years covering wars. I reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel, the Palestinian territories, and Iraq. When I got back from one particularly long and hairy run in Baghdad, I became depressed. In an act of towering stupidity, I began to self-medicate, dabbling with cocaine and ecstasy. I'm not talking "Wolf of Wall Street"-level debauchery. My intake was sporadic, and mostly restricted to weekends. I had never been much of a partier before this period in my early thirties. In hindsight, it was an attempt, at least partly, to recreate some of the thrill of the war zone.
A side-effect of all of this, as my doctor later explained to me, was that the drugs increased the level of adrenaline in my brain, which is what, in all likelihood, produced a panic attack on live television. (It happened in 2004, while I was filling in on Good Morning America.) It didn't matter that I hadn't gotten high in the days or weeks leading up to my on-air Waterloo; the side-effects lingered.
The shrink I consulted about this decreed in no uncertain terms that I needed to stop doing drugs—immediately. Faced with the potential demise of my career, breaking this habit was a pretty obvious call. It was not easy, but I quit right then and there, and was helped enormously through the process by my doctor. But again, the overarching motivation was self-interest.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)
The largest and most persistent obstacle to the two habits that I’ve discussed here (meditation and exercise) is my frequent work travel—especially when I’m on the road covering breaking news. During major news events like the Newtown school shooting or the Boston Marathon bombings, we barely get time to eat or sleep, never mind work out or meditate. In the midst of these intense work sprints, I often find that the voice in my head gets nastier and more self-critical, and also that I’m binging on pancakes at Cracker Barrel.
That said, I get an immense charge out of covering breaking news. It’d be hard to overstate how much I love my job. So, it’s a tradeoff.
Have you ever made a flash change, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
Funny you should ask.
In Question 2, you inquired about what I knew about habit formation at age 18. The answer: basically nothing. As it happens, though, in the summer after I graduated from high school, I did experience a “flash change.” I have a vivid memory of the exact moment. I was in my car, driving to go see some friends, and I decided—seemingly out of nowhere—that after years of being a mediocre high school student (I’d made it into a good college by the skin of my teeth), I was going to truly apply myself in the next phase of my life. And I did. The next year, when my father saw my first college report card, he nearly cried.
Interestingly, the fact that I did well in college has had zero practical impact on my career in television news. I don’t think any of my employers has ever looked at my transcripts or even asked about my grades. But that flash change while driving in my car through suburban Massachusetts during the summer of 1989 established a long-lasting habit of hard work and ambition. Which, it must be said, has sometimes been to my detriment. It was, I now believe, my fervent desire to excel at my job that led me to plunge headlong into war zones without considering the psychological consequences – which, in turn, led to the drugs and the panic attack. I’ve found that meditation has really helped me strike a better balance between striving and stress. It is possible, I am convinced, to do this without going soft. In fact, I would argue, mindfulness has given me a huge edge.
Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?
My wife and I exert enormous influence over each other’s habits. When one of us goes on a healthy eating jag, for example, the other generally follows suit. Overall, I’d say she has more power over me than I do her. For example, she doesn’t meditate that often—and I have enough good sense not to proselytize at home.
The most important habit I have picked up from Bianca (who is a doctor, and very compassionate by nature) is kindness. When we first met, I had the terrible—and, in hindsight, very embarrassing—habit of occasionally getting snippy with, say, uncooperative call center employees or surly taxi cab drivers. Also, I would sometimes get so caught up in my own inner monologue that I failed to acknowledge people in my orbit, such as the doormen in our apartment building or the friendly employees at our local dry cleaners.
Not long after I reluctantly became a meditator, I learned that there is actually a specific type of meditation designed to make you nicer. It’s called compassion meditation. At first blush, it’s astonishingly sappy and annoying. It involves picturing people (friends, neighbors, colleagues) and sending them good vibes. Motivated by my wife’s well-intentioned criticism—and also by science that shows compassion meditation actually works—I decided to give it a try.
It’s changed my life. It’s not that I’m suddenly a saint; it’s just that making it a priority to be nice, to push myself to take other people’s perspective, and to have fewer arguments and more positive interactions feels good. (There it is again: self-interest.)
Not being a jerk is the most important and fulfilling habit I’ve ever formed. What’s so radical and exciting about meditation is that—notwithstanding decades of calcified, Age of Aquarius-style cultural baggage—it’s really just exercise for the mind, bicep curls for the brain. No matter how old we are, we are not necessarily stuck with the most difficult parts of our personality. We can rewire our own brains in lots of beneficial ways.
This reminds of a sign that used to hang in my favorite record store in Boston, Newbury Comics. Above the list of upcoming record releases, it said, “All dates can change. So can you.”
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