James Altucher interviews Dan Harris

James Altucher interview Dan Harris (@DanBHarris) about his 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 and what it’s like to have a panic attack on live TV. The pair talk about mediation, happiness, and who exactly is that voice in your head, and how you can get it to calm down.

 The book and interview revolve around Harris’s panic attack, which you can watch below. When I first saw it I thought he was having a stroke or heart attack and describing it in the book he writes, “I was being stabbed in the brain with raw animal fear. A paralytic wave of panic rolled up through my shoulders, over the top of my head, then melted down the front of my face.”


In the interview Harris and Altucher both agree that mediation is good for anyone and the list of possible benefits include; reduced negative emotions, more empathy, treatment for anxiety disorders, less asthma, and positive cancer treatment among others. The Mayo Clinic has a comprehensive list but notes, “While a growing body of scientific research supports the health benefits of meditation, some researchers believe it’s not yet possible to draw conclusions about the possible benefits of meditation.” If the terms of a modern Buddha, YMMV.


Harris says that a big problem people have with meditation is the idea that it’s too spiritual, or for “people who live in yurts.”. He suggests that people who meditate need to come out and say they are meditators. Only when people begin to see and hear them – but maybe not their chants – will meditation become more normal. It doesn’t take much to start either. Harris began with only five minutes a day, where he sat down, set a timer, and focused on his breath. Once the alarm went off, he writes, “I opened my eyes, I had an entirely different attitude about meditation. I didn’t like it, per se, but I now respected it. This was not just some hippie time-passing technique, like Ultimate Frisbee or making God’s Eyes. It was a rigorous brain exercise: rep after rep of trying to tame the runaway train of the mind.”


Meditation practitioners are from a wide range of religions. Sam Harris is an active atheist who meditates, Tim Ferriss and Maria Popova of Brain Pickings both do it. Dan Harris’s book is filled with “Jew-Bu’s,” Jews who meditate. I meditate and I’m Christian. Saying meditation is only for Buddhists is like saying scuba diving is only for people who live in Florida. It may be easier that way, but it’s not limited to only them.


After promoting mediation for all, Altucher and Harris talk about what led up to his panic attack. In the book Harris explains he was snorting cocaine to get the same high that he had as a war reporter. He writes that being in a war zone was like “journalistic heroine.” When he got home he found his new high in cocaine, which can increase adrenaline levels in the brain and the odds of a panic attack. Harris’s psychiatrist prescribed Klonopin and this worked, until his job on the religion beat led to a meeting with Eckhart Tolle who Harris describes as “equal parts massively compelling and massively confusing.” Tolle served as the catalyst for Harris’s deep dive into mindfulness but like gas on a fire, Tolle didn’t have the long-term answers for Harris. He had to find those later, and on his own.


Harris and Altucher both mention that they’ve come around on viewing business as a zero-sum game. Adam Grant (@AdamMGrant) wrote the very good Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success and he outlines the way that giving, rather than taking, is the better long term strategy. Grant proposes that givers build a larger network of connections, and that these webs will be helpful in the long term. A suggestion from Give and Take is to do a five minute favor for whoever asks, and expect nothing in return.


Back in the interview Harris also addresses that meditation shouldn’t make you a “punching bag” or someone who gets walked over – and he speaks from experience. In the book he describes his career slipping, and complacency entering his job at at ABC. He sensed it too and met with his boss who instructed him to, “stop being so Zen.” This kindly kick in the pants was the final piece to Harris’s puzzle, how to best leverage his newfound zen. He didn’t want to attend the rally of hippies, he wanted to be the first reported chosen to cover it.


Harris has found a happy medium. He still plans things, but only to the point of being helpful. One of his favorite mantras from the experience was asking, “is this useful?” If our thoughts don’t answer this in the affirmative then what’s the point of continuing to think it? For Altucher the thoughts have moved from worry to action.

“for instance, rather than worrying, oh my gosh, I went down in rankings today or what’s my number, what’s my ranking system, becoming more creative about right now what can I do, making a list for what can I do to market better, and that’s something – so I’m in control of what I can do right now, and as you said, I can’t control the future.  So I can say, okay, well, on Twitter, I’m gonna market a little better or I’m gonna build a Facebook page.” This is the ultimate epiphany that Harris finds, the leverage that mediation provides, it helps him direct energy toward the inputs rather than react to the outcomes. Harris still compares himself to his colleagues at work but rather than seeing what they are doing, he thinks in terms of “upping his game.”


In one scene from the book, Harris is examining himself on television, wondering what doesn’t look right. His wife comes in, and sits down next to him to show momement by moment what was wrong. For Harris it was an overall stiffness in the broadcast and he needed to relax. What applies to you and me though is how often we review ourselves. Shane Parrish – who writes the wonderful Farnam Street blog – suggests having a decision journal. You can write down the context, your thoughts before, and the outcome and then review how well the decision worked.  In Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, Jeff Sutherland writes that teams should do the same thing. The Scrum philosophy is built around working sprints where a team tries to achieve a certain goal. At the end of the sprint they come together and ask what went well, what didn’t, and why. Leslie Perlow found this same idea cut down the stress and amount of work when she advised Boston Consulting Group for her book Sleeping with Your Smartphone.


In the interview Altucher asks how his work life has changed since the book came out. Harris was worried about how his colleagues would view his admitted drug use but,  “what I’ve found is that people are like, oh, okay, so you’re a human being too” and no one took that much notice. Psychologists call this the Spotlight Effect. The idea is that we often drastically overestimate how much people observe about ourselves. We notice everything, because we are the center of our own word, but we are never the center of anyone else’s.


Toward the end of the interview Harris explains the difference between mindful meditation and compassionate meditation:

“mindfulness meditation, just for anybody who’s gotten this far in the podcast and doesn’t know, you know, the basics of it is essentially the beginning practices you’re focusing on your breath.  You’re trying to feel the breath, and every time your mind wanders, you bring it back to the breath, and that really does a couple things for you.  It boosts your focus and also builds this ability to see what’s happening right now in a nonjudgmental way without getting carried away by it.  Compassionate meditation is trying to boost a different muscle – or build a different muscle in your brain, which is, you know, empathy and compassion, and what you do, and this is gonna sound really dopey, but the practice involves picturing specific people and sending them good vibes, like may you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be safe.”


If you like the interview, do check out the book. Harris approaches this question with a reporter’s eye and while he gets excited about many things, he never gets pulled into the “rah rah” nature that sometimes tags along self-help ideas.


In his book Harris suggests Real Happiness and Insight Meditation as good meditation books and Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart and Buddhism Without Beliefs as books about Buddhism and mindfulness.


Other books mentioned in the episode:


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