10% Happier by Dan Harris: Summary

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10% Happier gives skeptics an easy “in” to meditation, by taking a very non-fluffy approach to the science behind this mindfulness practice and showing you how and why letting go of your ego is important for living a stress-free life.

In 3 Sentences: Practicing meditation and mindfulness will make you at least 10 percent happier. Being mindful doesn’t change the problems in your life, but mindfulness does help you respond to your problems rather than react to them. Mindfulness helps you realize that striving for success is fine as long as you accept that the outcome is outside your control.

Favorite quote from the author: 
“When you have one foot in the future and the other in the past, you piss on the present.” 
― Dan Harris, 10% Happier

Life as a ABC News correspondent must feel pretty good right? The pay is great, millions of people know your face and name, and you get to tell everyone what’s important. But for some, the pressure can become too much – and they crack.

This happened to Dan Harris 12 years ago and his voice broke in a live, on-air panic attack on national television. Convinced that it was time to do some digging into his self and life, he started a long journey into the science of stress and eventually, mindfulness. Originally a skeptic himself, Dan eventually learned to tame his ego with the power of meditation, and shared his lessons in this 2014 bestseller.

Here are 3 lessons to show you why your ego causes problems, that letting it go won’t make you lose your touch and how meditation helps with this process:

The problem with your ego is that it’s never satisfied.
Be simple, not a simpleton – why letting go of your ego won’t make you a pushover.
Meditation increases your mindfulness and compassion by giving you a fourth habitual response.
Ready to crank up your happiness by at least 10%? Let’s go!

Lesson 1: Your ego gets in the way of your happiness by constantly wanting more.
The friction between acting in the present, but constantly thinking about the future and past is what causes your ego to be impossible to satisfy. This issue is also addressed in The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle in a very similar manner.

Dan Harris says your ego constantly assesses your worth by looking at your own wealth, looks and social status, and then finding the next best person with more of it to compare it against. Therefore, your ego’s default setting is more. The minute you feed your ego a new achievement, toy or compliment, the baseline for desire is reset and it starts looking for the next thing.

It thrives on drama and worry, and will instantly look for the next bigger achievement to compare yourself to, and if none is there, dig up some ancient problem or crisis and pester you with it. That’s why the ego is never happy, and it’s up to you to take charge of that, because no matter which new heights you reach, it’ll never be enough.

Time to reign it in!

Lesson 2: Be simple, not a simpleton – why letting go of your ego won’t make you a pushover.
Now you might say: “If my ego is my drive to achieve greater things, won’t I lose my edge if I completely let go of it?”

Nope! That doesn’t have to be the case at all. To the contrary. Often people overdo it with the Buddhist attitude of letting go and in some cases even end up not letting themselves orgasm during sex or letting other people order for them at restaurants in order not to express personal preference.

That’s just stupid. As Indian meditation teacher Munindra taught his students to keep things simple and easy, one of them approached him when he was fiercely negotiating the price of a bag of peanuts at the local market about how this matched his earlier lesson. Munindra replied: “I said be simple, not a simpleton!”

Mindfulness just makes you more creative and productive, not a pushover. It removes the need for competition and fuels your drive by removing wrong assumptions and bad thoughts, so instead of the usual stress you’ll approach things more clearly, because you’re not giving in to aggressive temptations.

Dan found himself filling pages upon pages with notes during a meditation retreat, because his mind was less cluttered and chaotic, and his creativity flowed freely.

Lesson 3: Meditation makes you more mindful and compassionate by giving you a fourth habitual response.
So what is it that meditation can help us do to tame the ego and fuel our drive?

It makes us more mindful and helps us live in the moment, as well as act more compassionately towards others. Meditation achieves this by giving you a fourth habitual response. According to ancient Buddhist wisdom, we usually exhibit three characteristic habitual responses to all of our experiences:

We want it. Ever passed by a hamburger place when you were hungry? Yeah. That.
We reject it. Did a spider ever land on your hand? You probably instantly threw it off.
We zone out. I bet you always listen to the flight attendant’s safety instructions all the way to the end too. Yeah, right.
But once you start meditating, you’ll be able to choose a fourth alternative: Observing, without judging.

It usually starts with physical pain, and you notice when your legs are sore or your nose itches, but you can resist the urge to scratch it and just let it be. But after a while, this transfers to your emotions and thoughts as well. You’ll catch yourself while gossiping, acting out on a bad habit, or when you’re thinking negative thoughts – and can just observe your feelings until they pass by, without reacting to them.

It’s this little pause between thinking and acting that makes you realize often no action is necessary and thus helps you make better choices altogether.

My personal take-aways
I’m skeptic about meditation. If you are too, this book is perfect for you. It does away with all the mumbo-jumbo flower power hippie stuff and takes a purely scientific, down-to-earth approach to mindfulness.

I like that this book spends more time on convincing you to give it a try, than it does on explaining the process, because it’s really simple: sit and focus on your breath. If your thoughts wander off, bring them back. That’s all there is to it. 10% Happier explains that and then focuses on the benefits, which are much more important for beginners than nailing the technique.

It takes a lot of guts to write a book about one of your most embarrassing moments in life – Dan’s boldness sure paid off!

Who would I recommend the 10% Happier summary to?
The 15 year old, who often gets angry at her classmates, the 32 year old with a demanding and stressful career in a competitive environment, like journalism, and anyone who thinks meditation is hocus-pocus.

Long notes

“My preconceptions about meditation were misconceptions.”

“In my experience, meditation makes you 10% happier.”

Some of the traits we think are fixed like a quick temper or moody-ness or compassion are learned skills, not fixed characteristics.

Many people assume they must be paranoid and worry if they want to stay at the top of their game.

People care a lot about the bio on an author’s page.

“The best parts of Eckhart Tolle were a form of Buddhism.”

Most improvements in life make very little difference and that’s fine. We spend so much time searching for transformational change in one easy step, but can we all just admit that were looking for the easy way out here? Just because you can’t change everything at once doesn’t mean you can’t get better. In many cases, most cases in fact, you are only going to see a very small increase from each action. One workout builds a very small amount of muscle. That is what is to be expected. You’re not doing it wrong if you get very tiny results. Most strategies deliver tiny results and require consistent over a long period of time. In the book, Harris makes a comment about therapy only working a little bit: “The limit isn’t your therapist. The limit is therapy itself.” It makes a small difference, but it still makes a difference. The key is to embrace these daily marginal gains rather than dismissing them because they are small.

Meditation is like doing focused reps for your mind. Focus on the breath, lose your focus, bring it back to the breath, repeat. This is the whole game. Keep bringing your mind back to the breath.

How to meditate: sit somewhere comfortable, keep a straight spine, focus on a spot, and bring your focus back to your breath whenever you lose it.

Meditation helps you shut down your monkey mind for a moment.

We have 3 habitual responses to everything we experience: 1) We want it. 2) We reject it. 3) We zone out. Mindfulness is a fourth response. Viewing what happens in the world without an emotional response about it.

“Mindfulness represents an alternative to living reactively.”

Interesting self-sabotage insight: many people worry that if they meditate they will lose their edge and no longer be competitive or driven.

“When you squelch something you give it power. Ignorance is not bliss.” You should not run from your problems and pain. You should acknowledge them.

The R.A.I.N. Technique for meditation: Recognize. Allow. Investigate. Non-identification. 1) Recognize: Acknowledge your feelings. 2) Allow: Where you lean into the pain. Let the pain be. 3) Investigate: Check out how the situation is impacting your body. Is my face hot? Is my back tight? Etc. 4) Non-identification: Realize that just because you feel pain or frustration or guilt or anger right now does not mean you are an angry or broken person. It is simply a phase happening at this moment, not your identity as a person.

Mindfulness seems to be about awareness of the self. You recognize and acknowledge the things going on around you and the emotions you are feeling. Rather than let the emotion drive everything, you step outside of it and see it from afar.

Being mindful doesn’t change the problems in your life. You still need to take action, but the key is that mindfulness allows you to respond rather than react to the problems in your life.

Hedonic adaptation: the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes.

A simple question to ask yourself when you’re worrying: “Is this useful?”

“I do meditation because it makes me 10 percent happier.”

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

Meditation will make you more resilient, but it is not a “cure all” that fixes your problems or relieves all stress in your life.

One Harvard study shows that gray matter grows in meditators. This is known as neuroplasticity.

Scientists have developed a term for the consequence of all our multitasking: continuous partial attention.

The Dalai Lama has a theory on selfishness: We should strive to be wise selfish rather than foolish selfish. Foolish selfish is when you focus on self-centered and shallow activities. Wise selfish is when you show compassion and help others because it benefits you and makes you feel good. Compassion is in our own self-interest.

Make eye contact and smile at people. This simple habit that will make you feel more connected and much better each day.

When police officers or first responders are interviewed about how and why they acted in a particular way during an emergency they often say, “My training kicked in.” I like this idea of training yourself to be mindful, aware, compassionate, and so on. These are traits that can be trained and then will automatically reveal themselves when needed (assuming you’ve practiced enough).

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.

Striving for success is fine as long as you realize that the outcome is not under your control. Be as ambitious as possible, but let go of the result. This makes it easier for you to be resilient and bounce back if the result is poor.

Buddhism is “advanced common sense.” It requires you to analyze simple fundamentals until a deeper understanding is achieved.

10 Buddhist Principles for the Modern Worker: 1) Don’t be a jerk. 2) When necessary, hide the Zen. 3) Meditate. 4) The price of security is insecurity, until it’s not useful. 5) Equanimity is not the enemy of creativity. 6) Don’t force it. 7) Humility prevents humiliation. 8) Go easy with the internal cattle prod. 9) Non-attachment to results. 10) Ask, “What matters most?”

“Meditation is the super power that makes all the other precepts possible.”

Reading Suggestions

This is a list of authors, books, and concepts mentioned in 10% Happier, which might be useful for future reading.

Books by Dr. Mark Epstein

Books by Eckhart Tolle

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