Dan Harris’s “10% Happier”: Book Review, Notes + Analysis

Poor Ash’s Almanack > Book Reviews > Effective Thinking > mindfulness

Overall Rating: ★★★★★★ (6/7) (standout for its category)

Per-Hour Learning Potential / Utility: ★★★★★★ (6/7)

Readability: ★★★★★★★ (7/7)

Challenge Level: 1/5 (None) | ~220 pages ex-notes (256 official)

Blurb/Description: News anchor Dan Harris – who, it should be firmly noted, HATES everything “granola” – discusses how meditation and mindfulness made him “ 10% Happier.”

Summary: As Harris puts it in 10% Happier, meditation has a huge PR problem – most people’s first association is with woo-woo hippie tie-dye granola, or Eastern Zen paradox nonsense.  That’s a shame, because research on meditation – and his personal experience, despite being a huge skeptic – both point to many tangible benefits for health and happiness.

We spend so much time working on our stock portfolios, our home decor, our bodies... and almost no time tuning up the filter through which we experience everything: our minds. - Dan Harris Click To Tweet

10% Happier is a no-nonsense book about how the average person could (and should, in Harris’s view) achieve those benefits, leaving behind all the unattractive “packaging” of metaphysics and spirituality.

Highlights: Harris is really funny, and also uncommonly honest/vulnerable, admitting his personality flaws and some of the often-embarrassing (but totally relatable) thoughts that run through his mind.  

He’s also very logical and isn’t afraid to call out hucksters in the self-help world for spouting nonsense. (Deepak Chopra, per Harris, is at the “benign end” of the spectrum.)  The storytelling angle here makes the material much more relatable and effective.

Lowlights: This may be a bit of an unfair criticism, but I think the book is overly narrow in its focus on meditation – not so much that Harris shouldn’t focus on it (it’s his book!), but he pretty much never once concedes that there are other ways to achieve similar (or even superior) results via alternative paths to mindfulness.

For example, Harris explicitly stated in response to a question at a Google Talk that “I don’t know anything about positive psychology per se.”  

He even notes in 10% Happier that part of his remedy included non-meditative activities; what he didn’t note is that some techniques – like decatastrophizing – are straight from the CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) textbook.

(Literally: see Dr. Judith Beck’s Cognitive Behavior Therapy – CBT review + notes.)

Contrary to Harris’s claims that everyone can do it, meditation is not something that has worked for me despite some effort.  On the other hand, as I discuss somewhat extensively in the notes, I’ve had far better results with the more “active” approach of self-guided cognitive behavioral therapy.

Moreover, one of the most un-mindful, thoughtless, brash, and self-centered people I know is a frequent meditator… so either he’s doing it wrong (quite possibly), or meditation isn’t the magic bullet that Harris makes it out to be (even though he promises he’s not doing so).

Mental Model / ART Thinking Pointsproduct vs. packagingtrait adaptivitylocal vs. global optimizationmindfulnessagencyhabit

You should buy a copy of 10% Happier if: you want a funny, honest, practical look at mindfulness (whether or not you’re into the idea of meditation) written by a guy with a Will-Smith-level allergy to bullshit.

Reading Tips: None in particular.  Do read other material on the topic, and watch the videos.

Pairs Well With:

Cognitive Behavior Therapy by Dr. Judith Beck (CBT review + notes).  From a mindfulness perspective, I’ve found CBT to be much more helpful than meditation, and Harris uses some CBT techniques himself.

The Happiness Advantage (THA review + notes) and Before Happiness (BH review + notes) by Shawn Achor.  Relative to meditation, the techniques described in Achor’s Happiness Advantage are a much faster – and easier – way to be a little happier and more mindful.

Deep Work ( DpWk review + notes) by Cal Newport.  In a totally different context – our inability to focus long enough to do “deep work” – Newport explores the consequences of some of the same “instant-gratification” addiction that Harris touches on.

Also worth watching: Dan Harris having a panic attack on live television, and Dan Harris giving a much calmer presentation at Google.


Reread Value: 3/5 (Medium)

More Detailed Notes + Analysis (SPOILERS BELOW):

IMPORTANT: the below commentary DOES NOT SUBSTITUTE for READING THE BOOK.  Full stop. This commentary is NOT a comprehensive summary of the lessons of the book, or intended to be comprehensive.  It was primarily created for my own personal reference.

Much of the below will be utterly incomprehensible if you have not read the book, or if you do not have the book on hand to reference.  Even if it was comprehensive, you would be depriving yourself of the vast majority of the learning opportunity by only reading the “Cliff Notes.”  Do so at your own peril.

I provide these notes and analysis for five use cases.  First, they may help you decide which books you should put on your shelf, based on a quick review of some of the ideas discussed.  

Second, as I discuss in the memory mental model, time-delayed re-encoding strengthens memory, and notes can also serve as a “cue” to enhance recall.  However, taking notes is a time consuming process that many busy students and professionals opt out of, so hopefully these notes can serve as a starting point to which you can append your own thoughts, marginalia, insights, etc.

Third, perhaps most importantly of all, I contextualize authors’ points with points from other books that either serve to strengthen, or weaken, the arguments made.  I also point out how specific examples tie in to specific mental models, which you are encouraged to read, thereby enriching your understanding and accelerating your learning.  Combining two and three, I recommend that you read these notes while the book’s still fresh in your mind – after a few days, perhaps.

Fourth, they will hopefully serve as a “discovery mechanism” for further related reading.

Fifth and finally, they will hopefully serve as an index for you to return to at a future point in time, to identify sections of the book worth rereading to help you better address current challenges and opportunities in your life – or to reinterpret and reimagine elements of the book in a light you didn’t see previously because you weren’t familiar with all the other models or books discussed in the third use case.

Page AN: well, at least he’s honest.  😛

Pages xiv – xv: Dan Harris wants you to know that he does not buy into this granola hippie nonsense.  He’s approaching meditation from a purely secular perspective, as “exercise for your brain,”mindfulness practice that enables the following.

|Meditation| can create just enough space in your head so that when you get angry or annoyed, you are less likely to take the bait and act on it. - Dan Harris Click To Tweet

He notes, here, the product vs. packaging angle of being a news anchor.

He notes, here, the product vs. packaging angle of being a news anchor.

Page 3: Dan Harris has a baby face.  This comes up again.

Page 5: His step into the big time was World News Tonight, working with Peter Jennings.

Pages 8 – 9: Dan was always a worrier; he viewed this as an adaptive trait.  The news business was a perfect place for his workaholism.

Page 13: I found the quip about “you have a Jewish mother – it’s just not your mother” to be pretty funny.  (That is probably me someday.)

Pages 14 – 15: An overseas assignment in Afghanistan proved to be an adrenaline rush, including a segment where gunfire went over Dan’s head.  He notes that he felt “bulletproof” while covering a news story.

Page 17: A nice example of local vs. global optimization – Harris notes here that:

“an outsider might assume that we journalists spend most of our time competing with people from other networks.

 In actuality, we expend most of our energy competing with our own colleagues.”

Pages 19 – 21: After coming back from all the thrill of overseas war coverage, Dan found himself having unexplainable psychosomatic symptoms that a therapist attributed to depression.  Harris was prescribed antidepressants… he discovered cocaine and ecstasy instead. Which he loved.

Page 22: Harris here notes his “addictive personality,” talking about how the “power of craving” was difficult for him to resist.  See also Brene Brown in “Daring Greatly” (DG review + notes) on taking the edge off; I am not sure if this line of thinking is scientifically valid, but I’ve found it to be very useful from a structural problem solving perspective.

Page 26: Harris realizes that he’d been:

 “sleepwalking through the entire cascade of moronic behavior.”

Page 32: Harris was assigned to the religion beat, and did the whole Buzzfeed thing a decade before Buzzfeed: he was looking for wacky (albeit shallow) stories.  Then he met Ted Haggard.

Page 38: Harris notes airtime is a zero-sum game; intensifying competition caused his mental loop to go into “hyperdrive.”  He also, with little arrows, demonstrates how his maladaptive thoughts caused him to catastrophize.

Pages 51 – 55: Objectively/rationally, Harris was doing really well… but he wasn’t happy.  He was stressed.

Pages 61 – 63: While under the knife for a nonlethal form of skin cancer, Harris realizes for the first time (thanks to the kooky Eckhart Tolle) that his thoughts:

 “weren’t irrational, but they weren’t necessarily true […]

I was able to see my thoughts for what they were: just thoughts, with no concrete reality.”

See overconfidence probabilistic thinking, etc.

I find it incredibly sad (here and elsewhere) that Harris never mentions cognitive behavioral therapy, which in my mind is profoundly superior to meditation as an approach to mindfulness because it’s not just about passively observing thoughts, but rather about actively identifying maladaptive thoughts and replacing them with more adaptive ones.

In Dr. Judith Beck’s wonderful Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT review + notes), Beck notesmost people are “barely aware” of these automatic thoughts, and if you are aware of them, “you most likely accept them uncritically […] you don’t even think of questioning them.”

Beck also notes that:

“the quickest way to help patients feel better and behare more adaptively”

is to help them build more adaptive core beliefs (i.e. modify their schema.)  Why? Because:

“once they do so, patients will tend to interpret future situations or problems in a more constructive way.”

Anyway, Harris doesn’t take bullshit: he labels Tolle impractical, with “no action plan” to back up his easy-to-say premise of “don’t worry.”

Harris also bridges the gap between being mindful of the present and planning for the future, noting that human striving and thinking has resulted in our proudest achievements.

Pages 66 – 68: I thought this was a nifty little technique: rather than attacking Tolle directly, Harris used a straw man, posing a question from “some cynic.”

Pages 75 – 76: Harris makes a nice point here about how after all his reading and thinking he understood what was going on, when he tried to explain it to his boss, he realized that he really didn’t.  

I similarly find that talking through something with someone else, or writing things down, forces me to clarify/crystallize my thinking. See also the “see one do one teach one” medical instruction model mentioned by Groopman in How Doctors Think – HDT review + notes  Groopman talks about getting As in school, but giving himself an F when he tried to apply what he’d learned in the real world.

Harris also faced the classic challenge of getting other people interested in his newfound discoveries: what he viewed as life-changing was greeted by “yeah, whatever” from one of his best friends and his brother.

Also, Deepak Chopra has a Google Alert on himself.

Pages 80 – 81: Harris thinks Chopra is full of shit, but he realizes that Chopra is “on the benign end of the self-help spectrum.”  Harris discusses Joe Vitale, a positive-thinking proponent who helps you (for a fee) think your way to success.  Vitale (and others of his ilk) are portrayed as hucksters.

Page 87: Harris encounters Dr. Mark Epstein, an actual researcher who has some useful points: he “could actually write,” as Harris puts it, and says smart things like: “Much of our inner dialogue is this constant reaction to experience by a selfish, childish protagonist.

Page 94: Epstein, it turns out, is also “a normal human being […] the anti-Tolle, the anti-Chopra.  Not a guru […] just a regular guy.”  Epstein was one of a small group of Jewish students who had become intrigued by Buddhism – “Jew-Bus,” as Harris calls them.  (Fun connection – I’m working on Joseph LeDoux’s Synaptic Self” because of its mention in Laurence Gonzales’s “ Deep Survival – DpSv review + notes – and Epstein is mentioned there.)

Page 97, 98: How does Harris feel about hippies?  

“Meditation struck me as the distillation of everything that sucked hardest about the granola lifestyle […] ogling crystals, intoning om, and attempting to float off into some sort of cosmic goo.”

But he tries it anyway when his therapist recommends it.

Pages 100 – 101: How do you meditate?  Sit down and focus on your breath.  When your attention wanders, refocus on the breath.

I never can get past that step, incidentally: my experience is much like what Harris says happened to him initially:

“You could clear the space briefly, but then the bugs came marauding back in.”

Pages 102 – 103: There’s an interesting link here between 10% Happier and the (unmentioned) Deep Work by Cal Newport (DpWk review + notes).

One of the often-forgotten parts of Deep Work is Newport recommending that readers wean themselves from the entertainment-at-all-times paradigm and learn to just exist for a little bit.  

Here, Harris has a similar viewpoint:

“Now I started to see life’s in-between moments […] as a chance to focus on my breath, or just take in my surroundings.”

Newport argues that doing things like this and breaking our addiction to instant gratification helps us cultivate a more focused, thoughtful state of mind.  It seems Harris agrees.

Page 105: Harris here raises the idea of mindfulness: he calls mindfulness“the space behind the waterfall” (where the water is your thoughts.)  

Again, I don’t think this is particularly unique to meditation: certainly the whole point of CBT is to identify automatic thoughts that are maladaptive and replace them with ones that are adaptive.

There’s also the classic Stephen Covey line in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (7H review + notes):

“Between stimulus and response, we have the power to choose.”

Page 112: Again, there are alternative paths to Harris’s nirvana: he notes here the Buddhist paradigm of “the only way out is through,” i.e., “leaning into what bother[s] us.”  

This is pretty much the same concept behind exposure therapy, or behind CBT’s behavioral experimentation.  In Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT review + notes), Beck advocates, among other techniques, acting “as if” you believe something other than what you believe, and seeing what the results are.

Harris cites a mindfulness technique from Tara Brach called “RAIN”: recognize, allow, investigate, non-identification.

Pages 117 – 118: Deepak Chopra: not exactly blissed out.

I got about thirty seconds into some Deepak Chopra interview after clicking on a random portion of the youtube timer… when he started talking about platelets huddling in fright because of fragmented consciousness and thereby causing a heart attack, my woo-woo meter hit 11 and I clicked away.

Page 132: Harris, partway through his ten-day silent meditation retreat:

“It occurs to me that perhaps the quickest way for me to achieve the End of Suffering would be to go home.”

One of my mentors recommended I go on a meditation retreat.  I was like ahahahaha NO.  (I’m open to experiences… just not all experiences.)

Page 134: The “whole game,” as Joseph Goldstein puts it, is the ability to understand that moments, as we are experiencing them, will pass.

Again, you don’t need meditation for this.

Pages 142 – 143: Goldstein again:

“How often are we waiting for the next pleasant hit of… whatever?  […] We just live in anticipation of the next enjoyable thing that we’ll experience […]

we’ve been, most of us, incredibly blessed with the number of pleasant experiences we’e had in our lives.  Yet when we look back, where are they now?”

See also Shawn Achor and the hedonic treadmill in The Happiness Advantage (THA reiew + notes).  This is a phenomenon of contrast bias.

Pages 148 – 149: back in smart-alecky reporter mode, Harris questions the mantra of “don’t think.”  He asks Goldstein, well, isn’t worrying sometimes good?

And Goldstein’s like, yeah, sure.  Just ask yourself: “Is this useful?”

Page 152: Put to the test in the real world: Harris is told he’s “never going to be the anchor of a major weekdays newscast.”

Page 156: There is a money quote here from Harris; I actually prefer the slightly different version he gave at his Google Talk:

“Think about it.  We spend so much time working on our stock portfolios, working on our home decor, working on our bodies… and almost no time tuning up the filter through which we experience everything: and that is our minds.”  – Dan Harris

Page 161: There’s a bit at the top here about Harris spending “an enormous amount of emotional energy” trying to help a young man who he’d assisted in moving to America and “grown very attached” to.  Harris was “frustrated at every turn by his adolescent intransigence” until the young man moved back to Iraq (which he regretted immediately).

I had a surprisingly similar experience… didn’t involve helping someone immigrate, but almost word for word the same, otherwise.  

Page 163: Harris finds the “RAIN” approach as well as the “is this useful?” question very helpful.  Again, I’d argue you don’t need meditation at all for “is this useful” – it’s the core question of CBT; I use it all the time despite never having successfully meditated.

Page 164: Here also, Harris notes that

“my remedy these days combines some things that are non-meditative.”  

He cites the example of asking: what’s the worst that can happen?  Which is literally a question out of the CBT book.  See Dr. Judith Beck’s Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT review + notes).

Page 165: Harris here mentions the hedonic treadmill pretty eloquently.  We always expect the future to bring us happiness, but never:

“bother to examine the lie that fuels our lives.”

Pages 168 – 170: Harris here references the research on mindfulness/meditation as well as the “default mode network” – and gets his mom into meditation.

Pages 172 – 173: Again, like Deep Work, Harris here notes (via Janice Marturano) that we can’t multitask and should only do one thing at a time.

PHENOMENAL question-and-answer about pauses: well, but what if everyone else is working all the time?  

“That assumes that those pauses aren’t helping you.”  

productivity vs. busyness

Pages 175 – 177: A nice example of product vs. packaging: Harris notes again (as he does throughout) that meditation has a “massive PR problem.”  i.e. that it’s associated with hippies and mystical Eastern paradox nonsense.  Harris, who had viewed himself as a “monumental skeptic,” wanted to make it more broadly appealing.

Pages 182 – 183: The Dalai Lama seems kind of awesome and down to earth.  He also notes the self-interested benefit of empathy.

Pages 184 – 185: Harris cites research demonstrating that small acts of kindness can make you happier; see also Shawn Achor.  He’s basically discussing positive psychology here, although he claimed to know nothing about it in the Google Talk.

Pages 188 – 189: Harris notes his dad was at a life stage where “the achievements of his mentees began to mean more to him than his own.”  Harris sets off down that path.  He also finds – shocker – that empathy has personal benefits thanks to liking bias and reciprocity bias.

Page 195: Harris encounters the downside of being okay with everything: he loses his edge to some degree, finding his life taken over by a “new, creeping passivity that “began to backfire.”

In my notes on Rest, which is on the whole a pretty good book, I go off on Alex Soojung Kim-Pang for a brutally misguided recommendation that would lead many readers down the path of sleep deprivation, and note that – even as someone who’s never tried any alcohol, let alone drugs – I think hallucinogens (particularly psilocybin) would be a much safer and more effective path to creativity than sleep deprivation.

The flip side, and why I’m still firmly in the straight edge camp, is that I’ve seen, in at least a few instances, the downside of this: I can think of a few people who are very smart, very talented, and way too okay with “whatever” happening at any given moment; I think they took LSD one too many times (more likely a hundred too many times).  And they end up the way Dan does here: they lose their edge, their drive, their ambition… they drift off into a sort of quasi-nihilism when they could be doing so much more.

Pages 198 – 199: Dan’s wife thinks he is “being a total wuss” and is “bewildered” by how “gelded Dan is acting.  Dan’s boss quasi-agrees, noting that he wasn’t hustling enough.

Page 200!: Really important stuff here: Harris notes that he had confused “letting go with going soft,” Jew-Bu Mark Epstein advises him that people will “take advantage of you” if you’re too Zen.  ( Empathetic might apply as well.)

See the  dose-dependency  mental model.

Page 201!: Kind of hilarious anecdote here: Epstein notes that some people go way too far down the path and don’t want to express any preference whatsoever, falling for the allure of nihilism, as I discussed above.  Epstein notes that Harris wasn’t being “mindful” – he was “building a wall to keep out the things that made me angry or fearful.”

This is perhaps the best argument for CBT: passivity is not recommended and not accepted.  It’s a very active approach centered around figuring out what you want and finding a way to go (!@#4ing) get it.

Pages 204 – 205: Harris starts to find balance: not worrying so much and just going with it.


First Read: 2016

Last Read: 2018

Number of Times Read: 3


Review Date: spring 2018

Notes Date: spring 2018