Book notes: 10% Happier by Dan Harris

10% Happier by Dan Harris book summary review and key ideas.

10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found a Self-Help That Actually Works by Dan Harris


Nightline anchor Dan Harris embarks on an unexpected, hilarious, and deeply skeptical odyssey through the strange worlds of spirituality and self-help, and discovers a way to get happier that is truly achievable.

After having a nationally televised panic attack on Good Morning America, Dan Harris knew he had to make some changes. A lifelong nonbeliever, he found himself on a bizarre adventure, involving a disgraced pastor, a mysterious self-help guru, and a gaggle of brain scientists. Eventually, Harris realized that the source of his problems was the very thing he always thought was his greatest asset: the incessant, insatiable voice in his head, which had both propelled him through the ranks of a hyper-competitive business and also led him to make the profoundly stupid decisions that provoked his on-air freak-out.

We all have a voice in our head. It’s what has us losing our temper unnecessarily, checking our email compulsively, eating when we’re not hungry, and fixating on the past and the future at the expense of the present. Most of us would assume we’re stuck with this voice that there’s nothing we can do to rein it in but Harris stumbled upon an effective way to do just that. It’s a far cry from the miracle cures peddled by the self-help swamis he met; instead, it’s something he always assumed to be either impossible or useless: meditation. After learning about research that suggests meditation can do everything from lower your blood pressure to essentially rewire your brain, Harris took a deep dive into the underreported world of CEOs, scientists, and even marines who are now using it for increased calm, focus, and happiness.

10% Happier takes listeners on a ride from the outer reaches of neuroscience to the inner sanctum of network news to the bizarre fringes of America’s spiritual scene, and leaves them with a takeaway that could actually change their lives.” -Audible

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Opening thoughts:

I forgot how I found this book but I’m pretty sure it was from Audible and I added it to my wish list because it sounded good. Or maybe it was on Tim Ferriss’s weekly newlsetter? But I think it’s relevant for anyone in any time period because everyone wants to be happy.

Key notes:

Reader’s note: Oh yes, this book is about a news anchor and his journey with meditation. I think I got this recommendation from Tim Ferriss weekly newsletter, most likely

  • Meditation is simply exercise for your brain
    • It’s a proven technique for preventing the voice in your head from leading you around by the nose

Chapter 1: air hunger

  • After being diagnosed with depression in his early 30s from the overseas journalism, he started to experiment with cocaine
    • He says you never reach satiety
    • He also loves experience of ecstasy but they come down was just as intense as the high
    • The lesson he learned was that there was no free lunch neurologically speaking in terms of drugs
  • His third psychiatrist helped him understand that his drug use was triggering his on-air panic attacks 

Chapter 2: unchurched

  • There is research that says regular churchgoers tended to be happier in part because having a sense that the world is infused with meaning, and suffering happens for a reason helps them deal more successfully with life’s inevitable humiliations

Chapter 3: genius or lunatic? 

  • From a book he read by Eckhart Tolle, he learned that the failure to recognize thoughts for what they are is the primordial human error
    • When we are unaware of the egoic mind, we blindly act out our thoughts and the results are not pretty
  • All we have is the present moment
    • We experience everything in our past through the present moment, and we will experience everything in the future the same way
  • Ekardt told him to make the present moment your friend, not your enemy
    • Many people live habitually as if the present moment was some obstacle meant to be overcome in order to get to the next moment
    • Imagine living your whole life like that where the moment isn’t quite right, not good enough because you need to get to the next one
      • That is continuous stress 

Chapter 4: happiness, Inc.

Chapter 5: the Jew-Bu 

  • According to a psychotherapist, Buddhism was better than seeing a therapist and the mental health community seemed to be embracing the teachings
    • Book reference to Siddhartha and how the Buddha came to be
    • The Buddha’s main thesis was that in a world where everything is constantly changing, we suffer because we cling to things that wont last
    • A central theme to the Buddha’s teaching revolved around the idea of impermanence
      • An understanding of impermanence will take you off the emotional roller coaster and allow you to see your dramas and desires through a wider lens
      • It allows you to let go, to drop your attachments
      • The key is to recognize the wisdom of insecurity
  • The Jew-bu’s were Jewish people who got into Buddhism and wanted to translate that eastern wisdom for a western audience, mostly by making it less hierarchical and devotional

Chapter 6: the power of negative thinking 

  • He decided to give meditation a try
    • The instructions were simple:
      1. Sit comfortably anywhere and make sure your spine is reasonably straight
      2. Feel the sensations of your breath as it goes in and out. Pick a spot on your body and try to feel the breath
      3. Whenever your attention wanders, forgive yourself and gently come back to the breath. You don’t need to clear your mind of all thinking
    • At first, he didn’t like meditation. But he respected it because he discovered that taming the mind was a rigorous mental exercise
  • Buddhist secret sauce was mindfulness
    • Mindfulness is the ability to recognize what is happening in your mind right now without getting carried away by it
    • According to the Buddha, we have three habitual responses to everything we experience:
      1. Want it
      2. Reject it
      3. Zone out
        • Mindfulness is a fourth option, a way to view the contents of our mind with non-judgmental remove
        • Mindfulness represented an alternative to living reactively
  • The mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy is to be aware of our self-hatred without trying to make it go away or love it particularly
    • The idea of leaning into what bothers us seemed radical because our reflex is usually to flee or numb against it
      • As the Buddhists say, “the only way out is through
    • What mindfulness does is create some space in your head so you can respond rather than react
      • You can’t control what comes up in your head, it all arises out of a mysterious void
      • The only thing you can control is how you handle it

Chapter 7: Retreat

  • After retreat, he started to experience what was called “choiceless awareness
    • Once you’ve built up enough concentration, you can drop your obsessive focus on the breath and just open up to whatever is there
    • You’ll be able to focus on whatever object is there with total ease and clarity until it is replaced by something else
      • There is something about the act of being present and awake in this way that produces a gigantic blast of serotonin
  • The Buddhist words of “life is suffering” was actually mistranslated
    • The real meaning was more like “everything in the world is ultimately unsatisfying and unreliable because it won’t last
  • Hedonic adaptation: when good things happen, we bake them very quickly into our baseline expectations and yet the primordial void goes unfilled 
  • The real super power of meditation is not just to manage your ego more mindfully, but to see that the ego itself has no actual substance
  • Reaching nirvana is when the self is seen as unreal, the negative emotions are uprooted from the mind, and the meditator becomes “perfected”
  • When back in the real world, when you are faced with stress or emotional situations that require thinking and planning, ask yourself, “is this useful?
    • Thinking and planning should only be used up to that point until it is no longer useful

Chapter 8: 10% happier

  • He came up with the tagline of how meditation “makes him 10% happier” as an easy and concise way to explain to those around him why he meditates
  • When people make the leap and attend a retreat, they get the first glimpse of what the mind is actually doing
    • You’re getting a real close, intimate look at what our lives are about
  • The point of “getting behind the waterfall” wasn’t to magically solve all of your problems, only to handle them better by creating space between stimulus and response
    • It was about mitigation not alleviation
  • The pursuit of happiness becomes our unhappiness
    • This is because we are never satisfied with the moment and we are always looking forward to the next thing

Reader’s note: This idea of the pursuit of happiness becomes our unhappines reminds me of ideas in the book Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope by Mark Manson. He talks about how hope becomes our demise because it sets expectations and skews our reality. The main takeaway from both is being content in the moment.

Chapter 9: “the new caffeine”

  • There was a ton of scientific research on meditation that gave a long list of benefits and propelled meditation from something counter culture into the mainstream
  • He found research that suggests pausing could be a key ingredient in creativity and innovation
    • Studies show that the best way to engineer an epiphany was to work hard, focus, research, and think about a problem, and then let go by doing something else

Reader’s note: This sounds like how an epiphany happens in every TV show plot ever, lol. The protagonist comes up with the idea that solves his or her main issue while they do some other activity, chatting with a friend or confidant until their epiphany occurs.

Chapter 10: the self-interested case for not being a dick

  • The Dalai Lama taught him that there is a self-interested case for being compassionate
    • The practice of compassion is ultimately benefitting to you
    • We are selfish, but be wise-selfish rather than foolish-selfish
  • He started to add compassion and empathy into his meditation practice
    • It began to have a strong positive effect on his daily life and interactions with the people around him
  • He started to see karma as a real thing in the sense that your actions have immediate consequences in your mind, which cannot be fooled
    • Behave poorly, and whether you are fully conscious of it or not, your mind contracts

Chapter 11: hide the Zen

  • The Way of the Worrier:
    1. Don’t be a jerk
    2. And, but 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. What matters most?

Main ideas / Themes:

Meditation & Mindfulness:
  • Meditation is simply exercise for your brain
  • Mindfulness is the ability to recognize what is happening in your mind right now without getting carried away by it
  • Meditation & mindfulness helps you handle your problems better by creating space between stimulus and response
Ideas from Buddhism:
  • All we have is the present moment
    • In a world where everything is constantly changing, we suffer because we cling to things that wont last
  • The idea of impermanence will allow you to see your dramas and desires through a wider lens
  • Be aware of our self-hatred without trying to make it go away or love it particularly
  • Lean into what bothers us instead of fleeing from it or numbing against it
    • The only way out is through
  • Everything in the world is ultimately unsatisfying and unreliable because it won’t last
Happiness & Karma:
  • Make the present moment your friend, not your enemy
  • Hedonic adaptation: when good things happen, we bake them very quickly into our baseline expectations and yet the primordial void goes unfilled
  • The pursuit of happiness becomes our unhappiness
  • Karma is real in the sense that your actions have immediate consequences in your mind
  • The practice of compassion is ultimately benefitting to you

Closing thoughts:

I realized yesterday that I actually had this physical book! I just bought a shelf and was reorganizing my small physical book collection and saw I actually had this book. This must have been why I put this book on my Audible wish list. It would have been cool to listen and read this book at the same time. Oh well, maybe next time.

I really enjoyed this book. As I’ve mentioned, my favorite books combine memoir-type books with also practical application of some sort of knowledge. Usually it’ll go into the history of whatever field this is and add context. When the author tells his or her own story about their journey with whatever they’re getting into, it makes more a much more memorable and compelling book, especially in the personal development space.

I’ve been meditating for a couple years now but not seriously. My practice mostly consists of 5 minutes right before I sleep which is my winding down ritual. It knocks me right out that sometimes I don’t remember finishing the guided meditation I play. But I want to start a more intentional, morning daily meditation for about 5 minutes and slowly increase to 20 minutes overtime.

It’s crazy because I recently listened to a Tim Ferriss podcast with Hugh Jackman and he talks about mindfulness and his meditation practice he’s had for years now. His testimony and this book have really inspired me to take my own practice to the next level.

Overall, this is a great book for anyone who is interested in getting into meditation, especially if they’re skeptical about it, just like how this author was. It’s a very informative read and a great peek into that world.

One Takeaway / Putting into practice:

The one obvious takeaway from this book would be to start my own, intentional morning meditation practice on a daily basis. Hugh Jackman does it, so if I want to be Wolverine, I should too, right?

However, that was already on my list. Instead, my takeaway will be an idea I want to focus on for this next month:

  • Make the present moment your friend, not your enemy

I think this hits home for me (and probably many achievement-oriented people like myself) when I’m always thinking about what my next move should be and planning for the future. While planning is good, like the author mentions, it should only be up until the point of “is this useful?”.

I need to live in the moment and enjoy the now. This is especially important when I’m ruminating too much on the past, or planning/dreaming too much about the future, or stressing about what I need to accomplish to get to the future state I desire. Instead, I just need to put one foot in front of the other and enjoy what’s right in front of me.


TV News anchor Dan Harris recounts his journey into meditation, learning about it from experts and self-experimentation. He shares insights on the benefits and philosophies of mindfulness and teachings from Buddhism.

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Rating: 4 out of 5.


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