Dan Harris was on the top of the world in 2004. He had gone from being a local news reporter in New England to working for ABC World News. Then he had a panic attack, and 5.091 million people were watching.
Tuesday evening, Harris spoke to The National Society of Leadership and Success in the Student Center about some of his tips for a happier life mentioned in his book “10% Happier.”
“This is part of a leadership broadcast series,” said Ashley Wellhousen, a member of the team that helped present this component of the Leadership Speaker Series. “There are so [many] other qualities to being a leader than just leading. Being able to sort your thoughts, prioritize what's important is key to being a leader because without having that focus, how are you to lead other people?”
From the worst day of his life, Harris embarked on a journey to research why he had that panic attack. It led him to practicing meditation and to writing “10% Happier.”
Harris proposed three steps:
1. Sit comfortably. You don’t have to sit in a weird position.
2. Feel your breath. Pick a spot on your body and focus on how it feels while you breathe in and out.
3. Every time you get lost in thought – you will – gently return to the breath.
When Harris joined ABC News in 2000, he was working among some of the giants of American broadcast journalism including Peter Jennings and Diane Sawyer. Harris responded to his own perceived inadequacy by working harder and worrying more than everyone else.
After 9/11, he volunteered to become a war correspondent, a job that took him to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I liked it – I found it thrilling,” Harris said.
He went to Iraq over a dozen times. He met members of the Taliban. He traveled around the world and worked hard, but something was wrong. Depression had taken hold of him.
“Embarrassingly, I didn’t even know I got depressed,” Harris said.
He said he felt tired all the time and always like he had a low-grade fever. He struggled to get out of bed. Soon he started self-medicating with recreational drugs – including cocaine and ecstasy.
“I hasten to add it wasn’t like the ‘Wolf of Wall Street,’” Harris said. “I was stupid, not that stupid.”
Then came the panic attack, and he was sent to a psychologist who he said he still sees twice a week.
While his path later was not an easy one, he started to get healthy again. His mentor, Peter Jennings, assigned him to cover faith and spirituality – something Harris didn’t want to do.
“I grew up in the People’s Republic of Massachusetts,” he said. “My parents were scientists. I had a bah mitzvah, but only for the money.”
Harris did it anyway and that is how he met Ekhart Tolley, a self-help guru. What struck him was that many of Tolley’s ideas were similar to the ideas found in Buddhism – especially about a key part of human nature – insatiability.
“We are insatiable,” he said. “In fact, the pursuit of happiness often becomes the source of our unhappiness.”
The solution, Harris found, was to meditate. By letting go for a few minutes every day, he found himself to growing his capacity for calmness and was able to shrink his capacity to panic. Stopping the drugs also helped.
“If you go to the gym and it’s easy you’re cheating. The same is true for meditation,” he said. “It’s not going to solve all of your problems. It’s not going to make you taller, or grow your hair back. That’s why I called my book ‘10% Happier.’”