The Ten Pillars of Cutthroat Zen

Dan Harris turned to meditation after a panic attack on live TV in front of millions of people.

In the back of his excellent 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, he writes a section that he wanted to call “The Ten Pillars of Cutthroat Zen” but ended up calling 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. Nonattachment to Results
10. What Matters Most?

Don’t Be a Jerk

It is, of course, common for people to succeed while occasionally being nasty. I met a lot of characters like this during the course of my career, but they never really seemed very happy to me. It is sometimes assumed that success in a competitive business requires the opposite of compassion. In my experience, though, that only reduced my clarity and effectiveness, leading to rash decisions. The virtuous cycle that Joseph described (more metta, better decisions, more happiness, and so on) is real. To boot, compassion has the strategic benefit of winning you allies. And then there’s the small matter of the fact that it makes you a vastly more fulfilled person.

(And/ But . . .) When Necessary, Hide the Zen Be nice, but don’t be a palooka.

Even though I’d achieved a degree of freedom from the ego, I still had to operate in a tough professional context. Sometimes you need to compete aggressively, plead your own case, or even have a sharp word with someone. It’s not easy, but it’s possible to do this calmly and without making the whole thing overly personal.

Meditate

Meditation is the superpower that makes all the other precepts possible. The practice has countless benefits— from better health to increased focus to a deeper sense of calm— but the biggie is the ability to respond instead of react to your impulses and urges. We live our life propelled by desire and aversion. In meditation, instead of succumbing to these deeply rooted habits of mind, you are simply watching what comes up in your head nonjudgmentally. For me, doing this drill over and over again had massive off-the-cushion benefits, allowing me—at least 10% of the time— to shut down the ego with a Reaganesque “There you go again.”

The Price of Security Is Insecurity— Until It’s Not Useful

Mindfulness proved a great mental thresher for separating wheat from chaff, for figuring out when my worrying was worthwhile and when it was pointless. Vigilance, diligence, the setting of audacious goals— these are all the good parts of “insecurity.” Hunger and perfectionism are powerful energies to harness. Even the much-maligned “comparing mind” can be useful. I compared myself to Joseph, Mark, and Sharon, and it made me happier. I compared myself to Bianca and it made me nicer. I compared myself to Bill Weir, David Muir, Chris Cuomo, David Wright, et al., and it upped my game. In my view, Buddhists underplay the utility of constructive anguish. In one of his dharma talks, I heard Joseph quote a monk who said something like, “There’s no point in being unhappy about things you can’t change, and no point being unhappy about things you can.” To me, this gave short shrift to the broad gray area where it pays to wring your hands at least a little bit.

Equanimity Is Not the Enemy of Creativity

Being happier did not, as many fear, make me a blissed-out zombie. This myth runs deep, all the way back to Aristotle, who said, “All men who have attained excellence in philosophy, in poetry, in art and in politics . . . had a melancholic habitus.” I found that rather than rendering me boringly problem-free, mindfulness made me, as an eminent spiritual teacher once said, “a connoisseur of my neuroses.” One of the most interesting discoveries of this whole journey was that I didn’t need my demons to fuel my drive— and that taming them was a more satisfying exercise than indulging them. Jon Kabat-Zinn has theorized that science may someday show that mindfulness actually makes people more creative, by clearing out the routinized rumination and unhelpful assumptions, making room for new and different thoughts. On retreat, for example, I would be flooded with ideas, filling notebooks with them, scribbling them down on the little sheets of paper between sitting and walking. So, who knows, maybe Van Gogh would have been an even better painter if he hadn’t been so miserable that he sliced off his ear?

Don’t Force It

It’s hard to open a jar when every muscle in your arm is tense. A slight relaxation served me well on the set of GMA, in interpersonal interactions, and when I was writing scripts. I came to see the benefits of purposeful pauses, and the embracing of ambiguity. It didn’t work every time, mind you, but it was better than my old technique of bulldozing my way to an answer.

Humility Prevents Humiliation

We’re all the stars of our own movies, but cutting back on the number of Do you know who I am? thoughts made my life infinitely smoother. When you don’t dig in your heels and let your ego get into entrenched positions from which you mount vigorous, often irrational defenses, you can navigate tricky situations in a much more agile way. For me humility was a relief, the opposite of humiliation. It sanded the edges off of the comparing mind. Of course, striking the right balance is delicate; it is possible to take this too far and become a pushover. (See precept number two, regarding hiding the Zen.)

Go Easy with the Internal Cattle Prod

As part of my “price of security” mind-set, I had long assumed that the only route to success was harsh self-criticism. However, research shows that “firm but kind” is the smarter play. People trained in self-compassion meditation are more likely to quit smoking and stick to a diet. They are better able to bounce back from missteps. All successful people fail. If you can create an inner environment where your mistakes are forgiven and flaws are candidly confronted, your resilience expands exponentially.

Nonattachment to Results

Nonattachment to results + self compassion = a supple relentlessness that is hard to match. Push hard, play to win, but don’t assume the fetal position if things don’t go your way. This, I came to believe, is what T. S. Eliot meant when he talked about learning “to care and not to care.”

What Matters Most?

One day, I was having brunch with Mark and Joseph, forcing them to help me think about the balance between ambition and equanimity for the umpteenth time. After the entrées and before dessert, Joseph got up to hit the bathroom. He came back smiling and pronounced, “I’ve figured it out. A useful mantra in those moments is ‘What matters most?’ ” At first, this struck me as somewhat generic, but as I sat with the idea for a while, it eventually emerged as the bottom-line, gut-check precept. When worrying about the future, I learned to ask myself: What do I really want? While I still loved the idea of success, I realized there was only so much suffering I was willing to endure. What I really wanted was aptly summed up during an interview I once did with Robert Schneider, the self-described “spastic” lead singer for the psych-pop group, Apples in Stereo. He was one of the happiest-seeming people I’d ever met: constantly chatting, perpetually in motion— he just radiated curiosity and enthusiasm. Toward the end of our interview, he said, “The most important thing to me is probably, like, being kind and also trying to do something awesome.”

If you think you’re on the verge of losing your way in life, I highly recommend Dan’s book.

What Is Time?

What is time

St Augustine, the theologian and philosopher, famously posed the question ‘What is time?’ in The Confessions. After waxing on for a bit about what he can say about time he admits (that he’s in a) “sorry state, for I do not even know what I do not know!”. Augustine is not alone.

Introducing Time: A Graphic Guide aims to help us understand the concept of time and its related puzzles “such as whether the past and future are real, whether time travel is possible, and the explanation of the direction of time.”

Clocks

In everyday life, we are probably most familiar with time from two sources: clocks, and our inner psychological experience of time.

Clocks are everywhere. There are grandfather clocks, watches, alarm clocks, even incense clocks that let you tell the time through scent.

There are also natural clocks.

But clocks existed well before the modern invention of portable artificial ones.

Over four thousand years ago, the Egyptians used obelisk shadow clocks, sundials, and water clocks which measured time by the flow of water passing through a stone vessel.

By 1800 BC, the ancient Babylonians had divided the day into hours, the hour into sixty minutes, and the minute into sixty seconds.

All the great civilizations of the past used the positions of the sun or stars to tell the time.

Looking at the stars with the naked eye, an ancient astronomer could tell the time to within fifteen minutes. And anyone can tell roughly the time merely by looking up at the sun.

Psychological Time

We also feel time pass. In addition to the physical time measured by various clocks, there is also psychological time. We have memories of the past and anticipations of the future. And we experience temporal durations of different sizes. We are personally, subjectively aware of time passing.

So time isn’t limited to clocks or our experience of time. It’s more than that. So is time merely in our head? That’s what Augustine argued. The Persian philosopher Avicenna agreed with him: “Time is merely a feature of our memories and expectations.”

But can this be right?

Although people disagree about their feelings of how much time has passed, they also enjoy remarkable agreement about the temporal ordering of events.

[...]

Except in rare circumstances, everyone (who has the same information available) agrees – for the most part – on the time order of events. There is definitely something objective and independent of a particular person’s feelings about the time ordering. The objectivity of the ordering of events in time proves that there is more to time than just our psychological sense of its passage. There is the fact that events seem to be laid out in a unique and observer-independent succession in time.

Maybe all there is to time is clocks.

This is actually already a deep question. But, at least at first glance, it seems the answer is “no”, for we often talk about a clock being wrong. You might say my watch is ten minutes slow or even completely off. This may be your excuse for being late for an appointment. But is your watch an infallible guide to time? No, we know it will “lose” a few seconds per year, even if it’s pretty good.

Clocks and Time-compressed

Between each “tick” of the clock, we want the same amount of time to pass. It should be no surprise that pendulums, which have regular periodic motion, can be used as clocks. But pendulums aren’t perfect. On a boat in high seas their motion will be disrupted, or in hot weather they may behave differently than in cold weather.

Consider a pendulum swinging back and forth twice. How do we know that the amount of time that passed on its first trip back and forth is the same as the amount of time that passed on its second trip? This question illustrates what the German philosopher Hans Reichenbach (1891 –1953) called the “problem of the uniformity of time”.

The uniformity of time

Firstly, your personal estimations of time won’t be precise enough for science. We need to know whether the first trip seemed exactly the same as the second trip. Secondly, your feeling as to the amount of time that passed is subjective. You might say the same amount of time went by, but your friend might not think so. Thirdly, and most importantly, you’re measuring the time that passed with your thoughts, but these are – plausibly – physical processes, and so this merely pushes our question back a step. That is, we would then ask how you know how long your thoughts last?

Newtonian Time
Newtonian Time-compressed

Real time, according to Newton, does not depend on any particular clock, or even any particular material object in the universe. Time is independent of the contents of the universe. It is this time that is used in the unchanging laws of physics. The laws of physics tell things where to be and when to be there. In telling them when to be where, Nature assumes a particular time measure.

According to Newton, we shouldn’t confuse any of (our) actual imperfect clocks with the perfect, invisible, clock that is independent of any physical object: Time.

Not everyone agrees with Newton. His idea of absolute time continues to be both influential and hugely controversial. In the language of philosophers of science, Newton is both a Realist-he thinks that the time mentioned in the laws of physics is really Time itself – and an Absolutist–he thinks that time is independent of any particular physical process.

Relationalism
Relationalism-compressed

Opponents of Absolutism, known as Relationalists, hold that time is essentially just change, or the measure of change. By change we mean change in the relationships between physical objects. Aristotle (384– 322 BC), the Greek philosopher, held that time is simply the measure of motion. Time is the measure of one physical process against another.

In this view, contrary to Newton’s, time is dependent on the physical contents of the universe since time is defined via their change. Time for Aristotle is dependent on its sensible measure – actual physical clocks.

In the Relationalist view, because time is dependent on physical movement, it seems time doesn’t pass when there is no change. Can we conceive of looking at the stars, having them stop, and still being able to experience time passing? Aristotle considered this question and pointed out that in such a case we’re still measuring the progression of time with our changing thoughts and feelings. We need these to stop too.

Because our brains will be frozen too, it is true that we wouldn’t notice the passing of time. Could time pass by nonetheless? It would, if time is independent of change. So, in Newton’s view, it would at least be conceivable for time to pass without any change at all. But according to Relationalism, this is impossible. Time is just the measure of change. No change, no time.

Tensed Time
One part of the book that stood out for me was the nature of tensed theory of time, which offers another use of branching. I connected the theory of tensed time to alternative histories.

The tensed theory of time probably best corresponds with one’s intuitive idea of time, or the idea of time shared with the proverbial “man in the street”. On this theory, the future is unreal. The event corresponding to what you will do after you read this sentence does not exist. The future is unsettled and ripe with possibility. As time passes, the world “chooses” one path from among all the available ones. The past is set and the present is that instantaneous point where the past and future meet. The world, in this picture, has the structure of a branching tree …

Tensed Time

This theory corresponds to our idea that “what’s done is done”, that the past cannot be changed, and that the future can be changed because it is “open”.

Life Without Time
Adding to our thoughts on time is Mitch Albom’s beautiful passage found in The Timekeeper:

Try to imagine a life without timekeeping. You probably can’t. You know the month, the year, the day of the week. There is a clock on your wall or the dashboard of your car. You have a schedule, a calendar, a time for dinner or a movie. Yet all around you, timekeeping is ignored. Birds are not late. A dog does not check its watch. Deer do not fret over passing birthdays. Man alone chimes the hour. And, because of this, man alone suffers a paralyzing fear that no other creature endures. A fear of time running out.

Introducing Time goes on to further explore the nature of time and our relationship to it.

John Steinbeck on Love

Nobel laureate John Steinbeck is best known as the author of The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men but we can pull from his letters a mix of insight and language that rivals that of Hunter S. Thompson.

Steinbeck hated the telephone. Letter writing was a more natural way for him to communicate his thoughts with both the people he liked and the ones he hated on all manner of subjects.

Found in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, the master pens this beautiful and passionate response to his eldest son Thom’s 1958 letter confessing his love for a girl named Susan.

While Steinbeck urges patience, a value increasingly lost in today’s hyper-connected world, he also highlights several kinds of love: one destructive and the other unleashing.

New York
November 10, 1958

Dear Thom:

We had your letter this morning. I will answer it from my point of view and of course Elaine will from hers.

First — if you are in love — that’s a good thing — that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.

Second — There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you — of kindness and consideration and respect — not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.

You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply — of course it isn’t puppy love.

But I don’t think you were asking me what you feel. You know better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it — and that I can tell you.

Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.

The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.

If you love someone — there is no possible harm in saying so — only you must remember that some people are very shy and sometimes the saying must take that shyness into consideration.

Girls have a way of knowing or feeling what you feel, but they usually like to hear it also.

It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another — but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.

Lastly, I know your feeling because I have it and I’m glad you have it.

We will be glad to meet Susan. She will be very welcome. But Elaine will make all such arrangements because that is her province and she will be very glad to. She knows about love too and maybe she can give you more help than I can.

And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.

Love,

How Sugar Affects The Brain

food

When you eat something loaded with sugar, your taste buds, your gut and your brain all take notice. This activation of your reward system is not unlike how bodies process addictive substances such as alcohol or nicotine — an overload of sugar spikes dopamine levels and leaves you craving more. Nicole Avena explains why sweets and treats should be enjoyed in moderation.

Still curious? Here are some additional resources to explore.

Sugar Cravings: How sugar cravings sabotage your health, hormone balance & weight loss, by Dr. Nicole Avena and Dr. Sara Gottfried.

Why We Get Fat: Gary Taubes lays out a coherent argument against calories in calories out.

The Science of Addictive Food: how food manufacturers tweak products to increase their addictive nature.

Coevolution and Artificial Selection: “For a great many species today, “fitness” means the ability to get along in a world in which humankind has become the most powerful evolutionary force.”

America’s Food Crisis: The Omnivore’s Dilemma — perhaps the best food politics book ever written, certainly the best one I’ve ever read. Two good places to follow up are: food as culture and the politics of food.

Ancient Wisdom For Lifelong Health — the most interesting part of this for me was the biological response to fasting and how that actually can help us fight infections.

Mindless Eating: “While most Americans stop eating when they’re full, those in leaner cultures stop eating when they’re no longer hungry.”

What Predicts a Healthy Diet: It turns out that the number one predictor of a healthy diet is whether it was cooked by a human.

​​(sources: TED)

What Matters Most

The Holstree Manifesto

The Holstee Manifesto sits above my fireplace. A reminder to live a life of purpose and meaning.

This is your life. Do what you want and do it often. If you don’t like something, change it. If you don’t like your job, quit. If you don’t have enough time, stop watching TV. If you are looking for the love of your life, stop; they will be waiting for you when you start doing things you love. Stop over-analysing, life is simple. All emotions are beautiful. When you eat, appreciate every last bite. Life is simple. Open your heart, mind and arms to new things and people, we are united in our differences. Ask the next person you see what their passion is and share your inspiring dream with them. Travel often; getting lost will help you find yourself. Some opportunities only come once, seize them. Life is about the people you meet and the things you create with them, so go out and start creating. Life is short, live your dream and wear your passion.

Aphorisms for Thirsty Fish: The Lost Writings of Wu Hsin

“Expectation is the grandfather of disappointment. The world can never own a man who wants nothing.”



One hundred years after Confucius, came Wu Hsin. His name literally means ‘no-mind.’ And there is almost no trace of this person available, which is probably how he would have liked it.

That’s because he’s likely fictional. His messages however are timeless and can be found in the excellent Aphorisms for Thirsty Fish (The Lost Writings of Wu Hsin).

His writings are filled with paradoxes, which cause the mind to slow down and, at times, to even stop. Reading Wu Hsin, one must ponder. However, it is not an active pondering, but a passive one, much in the same way as one puts something in the oven and lets it bake for a while.

I’m a big fan of concentrated wisdom. The Art of Worldly Wisdom is one of my favorites. I’ve also found a lot of value in La Rochefoucauld and Nassim Taleb. So what then can we learn from Hsin? Here are a few of my highlights.

Our attachment to beliefs …

The attachment to beliefs is
The greatest shackle.
To be free is
To know that
One does not know.

Sleep …

It is understood that
Sleep is the desire for
A period of rest
For the body.
It is less understood that
Sleep is the desire for
A period of rest
Away from the body.

True peace cannot be disturbed…

What is called peace by many is
Merely the absence of disturbance.
True peace cannot be disturbed;
It resides beyond the reach of disturbance.

As if addressing our soundbite culture …

When one is enthralled with
The beauty on the surface of the ocean,
The immensity of its depths can
Never be discerned.

You can’t think your way to freedom.

Controlling the mind doesn’t
Take one to freedom.
Controlling the mind
Adds another link To one’s shackles.

Pain is physical, whereas suffering is mental.

Whereas pain is
A physical experience
Suffering is a mental one.
It is the sense that
Things should be
Other than they are.
Its antidote is Acceptance.

We can be in a crowd and still be alone.

Solitude is not
A condition of the body.
Instead, it is
A condition of the mind.
Solitude may be found
In the busy market or
May be elusive in the forest.

Feeling lost is the first step

For many,
The first step on
A spiritual journey is to
Become lost.
The final step is
Losing one’s self.

As if to explain why consumption does not make us any happier …

Chasing after the things
One yearns for is
Inferior to
Chasing after
The source of the yearning.

The search for happiness …

To search for happiness
Implies its absence.
This implication is a fundamental flaw.
Happiness is ever present.
It may become obscured,
Such obscuration being temporary.

How magicians fool us …

The preoccupation with
The foreground, the sights,
The smells,
The sounds,
Takes the attention away from
The background.
Yet, it is in this very background that
The Mystery resides.

The natural doesn’t need laws

What is natural
Follows no laws nor
Requires any.
Can there be a rule for
The beating of the heart or
The blackness of the raven?
There is a natural rhythm to
The workings of the world.
Some are discernable
While others cannot be discerned.
It is the dance
Between the two that
Creates action.

We cannot hide from ourself.

There is no forest,
There is no cave,
There is no mountaintop
Where one can hide From oneself.

Live in the moment …

The greatest enjoyment is experienced
When there is no concern for its duration.

Speaking of mindfulness, before it had a name, he writes:

The sum of a past is I was.
The sum of a future is
I will be.
The continuous crossing back and forth
Between the two
Obscures the present moment,
The I am, Being Itself.

On freedom …

A free man’s life is
A life that is free of
Demands,
Free of dependency.
With nothing to drag along
One goes where one will.

Anyone who has ever lived through a corporate reorganization …

Do not mistake
A mere rearranging of the furniture
For true change.

Being content is about dropping attachment and desire.

The man of contentment
Seeks nothing that
He doesn’t have and
Understands that
Whatever he has
Isn’t his to own.

In fact he later writes: “Chasing after more and more is futile. It is only less and less that lastingly satisfies.”

Building on this he incisively looks at our expectations

Expectation is the grandfather of
Disappointment.
The world can never
Own a man Who wants nothing.

Hsin writes on our desire to seek confirmation of what we already know.

You are not satisfied
With the answers
Given by others.
So you come to Wu Hsin.
But what you really seek
Are not answers
But confirmation
Of what you think
You already know.
If you were to admit
That you know nothing,
Then I will most gladly answer.

The greatest crime …

The greatest crime is
The overlooking of
Who you really are In favor of
The story of
Who you think you are.
This preoccupation with
Your personal drama is
The cloud that masks The sun.

On how to change the world …

To conquer the large,
Begin with the small.
To change your world,
Begin by changing yourself.
What needs to be changed?
Only the point of view.

Hsin, like me, sees failure as an opportunity.

Nothing succeeds like failure.
Failure is a natural
Call for attention,
Like pain.
To pay attention is to
Step out of your trance.

Sometimes you have to crack some eggs

To free the chick,
The shell must be broken.
To free what is inside
One must shatter
What is outside.

How we live …

What is known is familiar
Yet unsatisfying.
What is unknown is feared
Yet desired Life thrives in risks and
Dies in stasis.
Live.

On the delta between our expectations and reality …

The world changes profoundly
When demands on it cease.
The real world and one’s imagined world
Share little.

What’s better than the acquisition of knowledge? Invert. Getting rid of ignorance. This passage also reminds me of the Arab Scholar Ali Bin Abi-Taleb, who said: “keeping one’s distance from an ignorant person is equivalent to keeping company with a wise man.”

Ridding oneself of ignorance is
Worth more than the acquisition of knowledge.
With memory gone
The past is gone
Relinquishing hopes and fears
The future is gone.
The present is upon you.
In every moment.
You are free.

Not only is Hsin full of knowledge, he’s often beautiful in his writing. Consider this …

The Infinite has no preferences.
It kisses both the darkness and
The light equally.

Aphorisms for Thirsty Fish is a worthy read.

The Keys to Happiness

“The mental construction of our daily activities, more than the activity itself, defines our reality.”

What if the formula for success is backwards. We’re told that if we work hard, we’ll be successful. And of course, if we’re successful then we’ll be happy. It’s all about the next thing. The next step will make us happy. But it doesn’t really work this way. If we’re always focused on what’s next, we’re never in the present. The present, of course, is where we live.

In his eye-opening book, The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor, who spent over a decade living, researching, and lecturing at Harvard University, shows that the formula is backward: Happiness isn’t the result of success but rather it fuels it. “When we are positive, our brains become more engaged, creative, motivated, energetic, resilient, and productive at work.”

Here are some of Achor’s tips for becoming happier.

The first tip, echoing Dan Harris, is to meditate.

Take just five minutes each day to watch your breath go in and out. While you do so, try to remain patient. If you find your mind drifting, just slowly bring it back to focus. Meditation takes practice, but it’s one of the most powerful happiness interventions. Studies show that in the minutes right after meditating, we experience feelings of calm and contentment, as well as heightened awareness and empathy. And, research even shows that regular meditation can permanently rewire the brain to raise levels of happiness, lower stress, even improve immune function.

Do something nice for someone.

A long line of empirical research, including one study of over 2,000 people, has shown that acts of altruism—giving to friends and strangers alike—decrease stress and strongly contribute to enhanced mental health.

You really need to invest in your social relationships.

“Countless studies have found that social relationships are the best guarantee of heightened well-being and lowered stress, both an antidote for depression and a prescription for high performance.”

And you need to get outside. Not only is solitude an important part of the creative process, it improves memory and thinking.

Making time to go outside on a nice day also delivers a huge advantage; one study found that spending 20 minutes outside in good weather not only boosted positive mood, but broadened thinking and improved working memory … studies have shown that the less negative TV we watch, specifically violent media, the happier we are.

Cutting the cord also helps you read more.

It’s about people and relationships.

Turns out, there was one—and only one—characteristic that distinguished the happiest 10 percent from everybody else: the strength of their social relationships. My empirical study of well-being among 1,600 Harvard undergraduates found a similar result—social support was a far greater predictor of happiness than any other factor, more than GPA, family income, SAT scores, age, gender, or race. In fact, the correlation between social support and happiness was 0.7. This may not sound like a big number, but for researchers it’s huge—most psychology findings are considered significant when they hit 0.3. The point is, the more social support you have, the happier you are.

If you’re going to spend money, make sure it’s on experiences and not stuff. Unless it’s a Vitamix, because that’s just awesome.

[W]hen researchers interviewed more than 150 people about their recent purchases, they found that money spent on activities—such as concerts and group dinners out—brought far more pleasure than material purchases like shoes, televisions, or expensive watches.

Spend it on your friends and family or random strangers. “Spending money on other people, called ‘prosocial spending,’ also boosts happiness.”

How to be 10% Happier

Think you had a bad day?

Dan Harris had a panic attack on live TV in front of millions of people.

Something had to change. He knew it. Almost immediately after the panic attack on the air he was assigned to cover religion, which introduced him to meditation, which made him, as he puts it, 10% happier.

He wrote about his on-air panic attack in great detail in his fascinating 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.

Harris argues that meditation has a PR problem.

… largely because its most prominent proponents talk as if they have a perpetual pan flute accompaniment. If you can get past the cultural baggage, though, what you’ll find is that 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. To be clear, it’s not a miracle cure. It won’t make you taller or better-looking, nor will it magically solve all of your problems. You should disregard the fancy books and the famous gurus promising immediate enlightenment. In my experience, meditation makes you 10% happier. That’s an absurdly unscientific estimate, of course. But still, not a bad return on investment.

Originally Dan wanted to call his book The Voice in My Head Is an Asshole. We all have that voice.

To be clear, I’m not talking about “hearing voices,” I’m talking about the internal narrator, the most intimate part of our lives. The voice comes braying in as soon as we open our eyes in the morning, and then heckles us all day long with an air horn. It’s a fever swamp of urges, desires, and judgments. It’s fixated on the past and the future, to the detriment of the here and now. It’s what has us reaching into the fridge when we’re not hungry, losing our temper when we know it’s not really in our best interest, and pruning our inboxes when we’re ostensibly engaged in conversation with other human beings. Our inner chatter isn’t all bad, of course. Sometimes it’s creative, generous, or funny. But if we don’t pay close attention —which very few of us are taught how to do— it can be a malevolent puppeteer.

The voice in your head is what takes you out of the present.

Consider Dan on day 9 of a 10-day meditation retreat. In the morning question-and-answer session, the instructor insists that the participants not tune out during the closing hours of the retreat.

As he presses his case, he says something that bugs me. He urges us not to spend too much time thinking about the stuff we have to do when the retreat is over. It’s a waste of time, he says; they’re just thoughts.

This provokes me to raise my hand for the first time. From the back of the echoey hall, in full-on reporter mode, with my overloud voice apparently not atrophied one bit from disuse, I ask, “How can you advise us not to worry about the things we have to do when we reenter the world? If I miss my plane, that’s a genuine problem. These are not just irrelevant thoughts.”

Fair enough, he concedes. “But when you find yourself running through your trip to the airport for the seventeenth time, perhaps ask yourself the following question: ‘Is this useful’?”

His answer is so smart I involuntarily jolt back in my chair and smile.

“Is this useful?” It’s a simple, elegant corrective to my “price of security” motto. It’s okay to worry, plot, and plan, he’s saying— but only until it’s not useful anymore. I’ve spent the better part of my life trying to balance my penchant for maniacal overthinking with the desire for peace of mind.

At some point, you just have to move on. Mediation helped him draw the line.

How do you stop thinking? How do you stop the voice in your head? Dan asked Eckhart Tolle, who simply replied that “You create little spaces in your daily life where you are aware but not thinking,” he said. “For example, you take one conscious breath.”

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As for how to meditate, Dan’s instructions are simple. Simple but not easy.

1. Sit comfortably. You don’t have to be cross-legged. Plop yourself in a chair, on a cushion, on the floor —wherever. Just make sure your spine is reasonably straight.

2. Feel the sensations of your breath as it goes in and out. Pick a spot: nostrils, chest, or gut. Focus your attention there and really try to feel the breath. If it helps to direct your attention, you can use a soft mental note, like “in” and “out.”

3. This one, according to all of the books I’d read, was the biggie. Whenever your attention wanders, just forgive yourself and gently come back to the breath. You don’t need to clear the mind of all thinking; that’s pretty much impossible. (True, when you are focused on the feeling of the breath, the chatter will momentarily cease, but this won’t last too long.) The whole game is to catch your mind wandering and then come back to the breath, over and over again.

After a while of daily forced practice, Dan started to notice big changes.

Pretty quickly, my efforts began to bear fruit “off the cushion,” to use a Buddhist term of art. I started to be able to use the breath to jolt myself back to the present moment— in airport security lines, waiting for elevators, you name it. I found it to be a surprisingly satisfying exercise. Life became a little bit like walking into a familiar room where all the furniture had been rearranged. And I was much better at forgiving myself out in the real world than while actually meditating. …

Meditation was radically altering my relationship to boredom, something I’d spent my whole life scrambling to avoid. The only advice I ever got from my college adviser, a novelist of minor renown named James Boylan (who later had a sex change operation, changed his name to Jenny, wrote a bestselling book, and appeared on Oprah) was to never go anywhere without something to read. I diligently heeded that guidance, taking elaborate precautions to make sure every spare moment was filled with distraction. I scanned my BlackBerry at stoplights, brought reams of work research to read in the doctor’s waiting room, and watched videos on my iPhone while riding in taxicabs.

He started to see more of life.

The net effect of meditation, plus trying to stay present during my daily life, was striking. It was like anchoring myself to an underground aquifer of calm. It became a way to steel myself as I moved through the world.

This was great but it wasn’t the point. The point was mindfulness — the key to thinking like Sherlock Holmes. Mindfulness, as Harris discovered, is Buddhism’s secret sauce.

In a nutshell, mindfulness is the ability to recognize what is happening in your mind right now— anger, jealousy, sadness, the pain of a stubbed toe, whatever—without getting carried away by it. According to the Buddha, we have three habitual responses to everything we experience. We want it, reject it, or we zone out.

[...]

On the cushion, the best opportunities to learn mindfulness are when you experience itches or pain. Instead of scratching or shifting position, you’re supposed to just sit there and impartially witness the discomfort. The instruction is simply to employ what the teachers call “noting,” applying a soft mental label: itching, itching or throbbing, throbbing.

[...]

The idea is that, once you’ve mastered things like itches, eventually you’ll be able to apply mindfulness to thoughts and emotions. This nonjudgmental noting—Oh, that’s a blast of self-pity . . . Oh, that’s me ruminating about work—is supposed to sap much of the power, the emotional charge, out of the contents of consciousness.

[...]

Once I started thinking about how this whole system of seemingly spontaneous psychological combustion worked, I realized how blindly impelled—impaled, even— I was by my ego. I spent so much time, as one Buddhist writer put it, “drifting unaware on a surge of habitual impulses.” This is what led me on the misadventures of war, drugs, and panic. It’s what propelled me to eat when I wasn’t hungry or get snippy with (my wife) because I was stewing about something that happened in the office. Mindfulness represented an alternative to living reactively.

[...]

By way of example: you can be mindful of hunger pangs, but you think about where to get your next meal and whether it will involve pork products. You can be mindful of the pressure in your bladder telling you it’s time to pee, but you think about whether the frequency of your urination means you’re getting old and need a prostate exam. There’s a difference between the raw sensations we experience and the mental spinning we do in reaction to said stimuli.

The Buddhists had a helpful analogy here. Picture the mind like a waterfall, they said: the water is the torrent of thoughts and emotions; mindfulness is the space behind the waterfall. Again, elegant theory— but, easier said than done.

The book is a great read that just may make you happier. Complement with this short video of Dan on the science of meditation.