How ABC’s Dan Harris Tamed The Voice In His Head And Became 10% Happier
In 2004, Dan Harris was a fidgety, type A, hard charging war correspondent for ABC News, freshly back from the front lines and adjusting to life behind a desk but still in front of the cameras.
One Saturday morning, he was the anchoring the news segment on Good Morning America, a job he loved, a job he had been born to do, when the unthinkable happened. He panicked. In front of 5.019 million viewers. More precisely he suffered a panic attack. His heart began to race. His chest tightened. His breathing became shallow and labored. And he started to sweat. Richard-Nixon-getting-his-ass-handed-to-him-by-JFK sweat. Albert-Brooks-in-Broadcast-News sweat. Justin-Beiber-first-night-in-prison sweat.
The whole incident only lasted seconds before he sent the cameras back to the GMA hosts, whom he called by the wrong name and royally confused the producers who were showing the Harry Potter clip that he was supposed to be talking about next.
It might have only been seconds for the millions of viewers. But inside your head, those seconds can seem like a near eternity. Believe me. I’ve been there and done that.
While excessive sweating and panting may be a plus for some on screen performers (cough, porn), it’s a definite liability in the calm, cool and collected world of talking heads and network news so Dan sought psychiatric advice to help make sure it didn’t happen again.
His panic attack, it turns out, was a result of excessive adrenaline in his brain a by product of his type-A personality, the stresses of big time journalism and a little casual cocaine and ecstasy use.
“My on-air meltdown was the direct result of an extended run of mindlessness,” says Harris, “a period of time during which I was focused on advancement and adventure, to the detriment of pretty much everything else in my life.”
Around the same time, Peter Jennings approached Harris to increase ABC News’ coverage of religion, a difficult role for the secular son of scientists, an avowed agnostic who only took part in his bar mitzvah for the money.
His new assignment at work gave him cover to pursue a better understanding of what had cause his panic attack. Eventually he met and interviewed new age gurus like Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle who introduced him to the concept of the inner narrator, the little voice inside our heads that goes on and on, day in and day out, keeping us distracted from fully living in the present moment. The inner voice that had led Harris to push himself harder and faster to prove himself at work. The same voice that convinced him that a little coke would give him the extra edge he needed. The same voice that ultimately led to his panic attack in front of millions of viewers.
Meditation and mindfulness, they told him, could help quiet the voice in his head. The problem was the packaging. The gurus mixed pseudo science and psycho babble willy nilly. You could almost hear the babbling brooks and pan flute music when they spoke
“I thought of meditation as the exclusive province of bearded swamis, unwashed hippies, and fans of John Tesh music,” Dan Harris writes in his book 10% Happier, a book he originally wanted to call The Voice In My Head Is An Asshole.
But the more he researched, the more he found that the flowing robes and incense smoke of the gurus were hiding a treasure trove of genuine scientific research showing the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. And it was the research that swayed this son of scientists.
The research has proven, over and over, that meditation and mindfulness can boost your immune system, lower your blood pressure and rewire parts of your brain, growing extra gray matter in the areas associated with self awareness and compassion and shrinking the parts of your brain associated with stress.
Meditation can help reset the default mode of the brain from endlessly pursuing every random thought the narrator whispers in your inner ear to a state of being more fully aware of what’s happening right now, more fully present in this moment of your life or, as the guru’s would call it, more in the now.
Harris has gone from scoffing at meditation to dipping his toes. From being a daily practitioner to becoming an evangelist.
10% Happier is one of Amazon’s top selling books on meditation although it still trails Tolle’s The Power of Now.
He predicts that meditation may be the next big thing in personal health and that just a few years from now could be as widely accepted as daily exercise and multi-vitamins IF we can work on the image problem.
He wants to bring meditation to the masses.
And ditch the pan flutes.
Terry Lancaster is the VP of Making Sh!t Happen at Instant Events Automotive Advertising. He writes and speaks about marketing, entrepreneurship and personal performance – i.e. selling more stuff, making more money and being better at what you do and who you are. He is a husband, a father and a Beer League Hockey All Star, as if there could ever be such a thing.