Dan Harris says he’s not a religious man. But he calls himself a “meditation evangelist.”
His gospel? The mental state we want—happiness, gratitude, compassion, and connectivity—isn’t fixed at birth. It’s something we can build. And meditation is the tool we can use to build it.
“The point of meditation is to become better at your life,” he says.
Harris, co-anchor of ABC’s Nightline and the weekend edition of Good Morning America, slowly found his way to meditation after he suffered an on-air panic attack in front of millions of viewers in 2004.
Inspired by the changes he saw in himself, he wrote the bestselling book 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.
The revised, fifth-anniversary edition of the book was released this week.
An antidote to stress
Harris, 47, points out that meditation is especially beneficial for people age 45 to 60, who he says are in the rush hour of life—busy with kids, dealing with parents, and at the peak of their careers.
Meditation can help us focus, Harris says. “Our ability to focus is under attack, and yet we need it more than ever,” he says. “Brain scans show that people who meditate have rewired the part of their brain that has to do with attention regulation.”
That focus can help you become less emotionally reactive, he says: “When you’re more focused and less yanked around by your emotions, you’re less likely to say the thing that’s going to ruin the next 48 hours of your marriage, or to lose your temper in the middle of an important work meeting.”
The benefits of this improved focus reach out into everything you do, he says, especially your relationships. “There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that as social animals, quality relationships are most important to our inner well-being,” he says.
Meditation can also turbocharge mindfulness throughout your day. It’s challenging to be mindful if you don’t practice meditation, where you focus on your breath, get distracted, and try again, he says: “The base of formal practice allows you to take that self-awareness out into everything you do.”
Just a minute or two
You almost certainly already know that meditation is good for you. So what’s the roadblock? Harris says for many people, it’s time. But meditating doesn’t take long, he says.
“Most people want to know what’s the least they can do. When I talk to neuroscientists, they say it’s OK to recommend five to 10 minutes a day. That’s a pretty healthy practice,” he says.
Still too long? “If five to 10 minutes sounds hard, I think one minute most days can really make a difference,” Harris says. “Lowering the bar this way is hugely helpful to people.”
Getting a habit to stick
Harris also has advice for people who have tried meditating but haven’t been able to get the habit to stick. “That’s nothing to be ashamed of. Habit formation is incredibly hard,” he says. “You have to go into habit formation with a sense of experimentation and exploration, or you’re going to be frustrated.”
He says you need to think carefully about how meditation can fit in your lifestyle. If morning meditation doesn’t work, try later in the day. If you can’t make it stick on your own, try using an app or taking a class.
It’s important to keep trying. Harris says the boost we get from meditation can expand in ways that are vast. “It’s possible to become 10% happier,” he says. And he says that boost in happiness compounds, like interest: “What’s the ceiling? You can work on these skills forever.”
How to start
Lots of apps offer meditation guidance. Harris says he’s partial to his own company’s 10% Happier app, but he’s quick to point out that there are lots of good apps out there. He also says that most major cities have meditation centers where you can take classes.
And you don’t need an app or a class to get started. Harris says you can begin meditating in three easy steps.
- Sit in a quiet place with your back reasonably straight, and close your eyes or gaze at a neutral spot.
- Bring your full attention to your breath. Pick one spot—your nose, chest, or belly, and feel your breath going in and out.
- You’ll find that your thoughts pull your mind in various directions. When you notice that you’re distracted, return your attention to your breath again and again. Refocusing on the breath is key to meditation, Harris says.