Only when we admit we have a problem can we begin to find solutions. In the first episode of How to Build a Happy Life, we explore the neuroscience of emotional management, practices that help us befriend our inner monologue, and challenges to getting in touch with our feelings. Our journey to happier living starts with the question: How do I feel right now?
This episode features Dan Harris, the former ABC News anchor, meditation expert, and founder of Ten Percent Happier.
This episode was produced by Rebecca Rashid and hosted by Arthur Brooks. Editing by A.C. Valdez, Katherine Wells, and Gillian White. Fact-check by Ena Alvarado. Sound design by Michael Raphael.
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Music by Trevor Kowalski (“Lion’s Drift,” “This Valley of Ours,” “Una Noche De Luces”), Stationary Sign (“Loose in the Park”), and Spectacles Wallet and Watch (“Last Pieces”).
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This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Dan Harris: I quite famously or infamously had a panic attack on Good Morning America back in 2004. Backstory there: I had spent a lot of time in war zones as an ambitious young correspondent. I had gotten depressed, didn’t know I was depressed, very unwisely self-medicated with cocaine. I was not high on the air, but I had been using drugs enough for the preceding year that it was enough to change my brain chemistry, according to the shrink I subsequently consulted.
That changed my brain chemistry, most likely made it more likely for me to have a panic attack. And that kind of set me off on this strange journey that included psychotherapy and then ultimately meditation. I had no, you know, preexisting interest in meditation. I actually had preexisting hostility. But then I saw the science that really strongly suggests that it can lower your blood pressure, boost your immune system, [and] rewire key parts of your brain.
Arthur C. Brooks: I really want to dig into what actually you were solving with meditation. I mean, clearly, you were self-medicating because your emotions were managing you in a way that you didn’t like. And so you fought back by trying to block out those emotions. That’s what people do when they self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. They’re trying to not be managed by their emotions. And when you actually took control of your life, you did something so that you could manage your emotions. Is that fair?
Harris: It’s very fair. In my case, the first application of it was exactly as you described. I was owned by my thoughts, urges, and emotions, which is very common. Most of us walk around completely unaware, at least consciously, of a thunderously obvious fact, which is that we have minds and are thinking. When you’re unaware of this nonstop conversation that you are having with yourself, which if we broadcast loud, you would be locked up. When you’re unaware of that nattering inner voice, it owns you!
And so that every little, every thought your mind secretes becomes, as my meditation teacher likes to say, a little dictator. So, Okay, yeah, I should eat a sleeve of Oreos right now or I should say something that’s going to ruin the next 48 hours of my marriage, and then you just do it. What meditation does is kind of systematically wake you up to the tumult, the inner cacophony, so that you’re not so owned by it.
Brooks: What does it feel like when you’re actually meditating? How does it feel like it has changed your life?
Harris: The kind of meditation I’m talking about is called mindfulness meditation. It is the kind of meditation that’s been studied the most in the labs. When you hear about the science around meditation, most of that, if not all of it, is really mindfulness meditation. The beginning instruction for mindfulness meditation is to kind of sit quietly, spine reasonably straight, close your eyes.
Second is to bring your full attention to the feeling of your breath coming in and going out. Pick one spot where it’s most prominent: your belly rising and falling; your chest rising and falling; air entering, exiting your nostrils. And the third step is the most important; as soon as you try to do this seemingly easy thing of just feeling your breath, your mind is going to go most likely into mutiny mode. You’ll have all sorts of random thoughts. What kind of bird was Big Bird? Who was Casper the Friendly Ghost before he died? Blah, blah, blah—just, like, random thoughts, powerful urges, powerful emotions. You’re just going to see very quickly how distractible you are.
Many people have the experience of trying to do this, realizing how distractible they are and thinking that they have some sort of bespoke lunacy that precludes them and only them from doing this thing called meditation, but that’s a pernicious misconception: “Clearing your mind is impossible unless you’re enlightened or you’ve died.” The goal of meditation is not to stop all thoughts, but just to change your relationship to these thoughts.
So every time you get hit by a random thought or urge or emotion, you just notice that it’s happened and start again and again and again. And every time you notice, you’ve wandered off, and you start again; that’s like a bicep curl for your brain. And that’s what shows up on the brain scans. And what this does—to get to the question you actually asked me—what this does is develop a skill called mindfulness, which you could just translate into “self-awareness.”
Brooks: You said that you started out as kind of a cynic about meditation. I’ve heard you talk about this before, and, of course, I know about your journey and I love your book and your podcast. And you went from cynic about meditation to a skeptic about meditation. For the skeptical, make the case.
Harris: Well, for me, what got me over the skepticism or the cynicism? Well, probably both, really, was the science. The science is particularly strong around anxiety and depression, both of which I’ve struggled with since I was a little kid. There’s the neuroscience, which is really the sort of “wow” stuff.
And it shows how even short daily doses of meditation among people who’ve never done it before, it can change the way your brain looks. It can shrink your amygdala, the stress center. It can boost your prefrontal cortex, which is the home of our logical, rational thinking. It can really have a nice impact, it seems, on the area of the brain associated with attention, regulation, self-awareness, and compassion.
Brooks: People who have had a lot of good things, a lot of things go right in their lives, you and me—it’s pretty easy to talk about loving-kindness meditation and just meditation in general when you’ve had a lot of privilege in your life. When people level this accusation—talking about meditation and managing your feelings is a privileged conversation—what do you say?
Harris: I’ll speak for myself that, I mean, I had two loving parents, upper-middle-class household, white and male and straight. But happiness is something that every sentient being wants. Whether you have had the amount of luck that I’ve had or not, whether you’re a grasshopper or a human.
There’s a reason why these practices are being taught in foster-care homes and juvenile halls and prisons and hospitals. And there’s a reason why it speaks to so many people, no matter their socioeconomic status … I like to use my platform to spread the word about this and to give a megaphone to folks who look different than I do, who can speak to communities that don’t want to hear from me.
Brooks: Last but not least, when our listeners are next caught behind the most idiotic driver they’ve ever seen in their entire lives and they want to scream out the window or flip them off or get in front of them and cut them off, what do they do?
Harris: … At some point, you may notice that you’re enraged. Try just repeating in your mind—you may have to grip the steering wheel while you do this, but: “May you be happy.” Try that, because what we’re doing here is, I use this phrase before, is like counterprogramming against the habitual storylines and narratives and thought patterns.
Brooks: I know, and I don’t want our listeners to miss the truly radical thing that you said in that answer: Notice that you’re in a rage. That’s it, because reactivity starts with you not noticing it and acting. Notice that you’re in a rage. Say to yourself, I’m in a rage. You can’t say “May you be happy” until you notice something about yourself. And the moment that you notice your own feelings is the moment that it becomes something that you can manage. Thank you, Dan Harris.
Brooks: As a social scientist, people are always my subject of choice. Each week, we’ll share little audio snippets from our listeners around the world. They answered this question: When is the last time you remember being truly happy?
Listener submission: The last time that I experienced happiness was the other day when I took my children to play in the park. I wasn’t distracted by my phone. I wasn’t streaming something on the device. I wasn’t trying to read or debate or find out about something polemic or partisan in the media. I was in the moment with my children. Letting them chase me, chasing them. And that moment when we were running together in this big field at the park, I felt happiness. It was definitely one of those moments when I felt joy. I could tell that this was a moment that I did not want to forget anytime soon.
Brooks: What I want to do now is to go back to the initial goal for this show: how to manage your feelings so they don’t manage you. Each day this coming week: Set aside 15 minutes in the evening after the end of your day, before you go to bed. Now think a little bit about the strongest negative basic emotion you had today. Was it anger? Were you sad? Did you feel disgusted? Were you afraid? Think about it; observe it as if it had happened to somebody else.
State the emotion out loud and its context specifically. Let me give you an example: Let’s say you’re having kind of a health challenge—everybody does from time to time—and it’s giving you some fear, some anxiety about the future. You might say today after lunch, I felt kind of afraid because I thought about the medical tests that I have coming up with my doctor. I thought about it for about an hour, and I thought about really all the worst-case scenarios. I kind of ruminated on them. I even Googled my symptoms. Now, don’t judge yourself; don’t judge your feelings; don’t judge your actions; just observe them in this way and state them out loud. This is what happened. Now you can do so using Dan’s meditation techniques if you want, or just do it simply like I described it right here.
Second, let’s analyze the feeling that you had, as if you were doing it for somebody else, a close friend. For example, say, Look, I’m not a doctor, so I don’t know what the outcomes might be. That uncertainty that I feel about this problem is the reason I thought about the worst-case scenarios. What was I doing? I was really trying to explore the possibilities so I could manage them emotionally. That’s what I was doing. But here’s the thing: I found it didn’t help at all, because I didn’t learn anything. In fact, I think it made me feel a little worse and I wasted a bunch of my time.
Now move on to step three: Manage the feeling with a positive resolution. For example, say, you know a much better way for me to deal with this anxiety I have about these medical tests is to say to myself, I don’t know what these tests are going to reveal, but I’m going to know soon enough. Now, it’s on a long list of uncertain things in the world. There’s so many things that I don’t know. I’m going to choose to focus on what I do know, and what I do know is that I’m alive and well right now. And I do know that I will not waste the gift that is this moment. I will not waste my time after lunch tomorrow, which can be spent doing generative, creative things and maybe showing love to other people.
Now, don’t forget to put the resolution into practice. One good way to do it is to write down your resolution—your resolution about how you’re going to deal with your feelings tomorrow. And then, put an alarm on your phone to remind you to actually think about your resolution proactively, so your mind doesn’t wander in this darker direction.
Do this every day for a week, by which I mean: Every day after dinner, but before you go to bed, do this 15-minute activity. Sometimes it will be the same negative emotions. These are hard to get rid of. Don’t kid yourself; this is not a one-day deal. If you make this a routine, if you stick with this for three weeks to a month, I promise you you’re going to be amazed at the level of self-management you attain! Are you going to be perfect? No, of course not. And you will still have negative emotions, which you need to have. But at the same time, as time goes on, you’ll be more and more the one in charge, and your happiness will rise.
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