Content and Editorial Director
Maybe you’ve seen the YouTube video of news correspondent Dan Harris having a panic attack during a live broadcast. as cringeworthy as it is, it did lead to something truly worthwhile. Harris’s deep dive into the world of meditation, and the book he wrote about it, “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.”
A self-described “reluctant convert to meditation,” Harris readily admits how unlikely it was that he would adopt the practice. “If you’d told me when I first arrived in New York City, to start working in network news, that I’d be using meditation to defang the voice in my head—or that I’d ever write a whole book about it—I would have laughed at you. Until recently, I thought of meditation as the exclusive province of bearded swamis, unwashed hippies, and fans of John Tesh music. Moreover, since I have the attention span of a six-month-old yellow Lab, I figured it was something I could never do anyway. I assumed, given the constant looping, buzzing, and fizzing of my thoughts, that ‘clearing my mind’ wasn’t an option.”
But he came to realize that his preconceptions about meditation were, in fact, misconceptions. Because meditation worked wonders for him. So, can it work for you? The evidence certainly points to it.
In the “Set Point Study,” scientists found that each of us has a natural “set point” in our brains for both good and bad emotions. The study found that people accustomed to being happy have more activity in the front portion of their frontal lobes. And the right side is more active in people who worry or are anxious. Even when major events occur in someone’s life, such as winning the lottery or becoming paralyzed, scientists have found that brain chemistry shifts back to its normal set point within about six months.
The good news is that you can actually change your set point through meditation. One study demonstrated that after only eight weeks of meditating for approximately one hour a day, six days a week, test subjects reported that they had become happier. Follow-up tests showed that these individuals’ set points had changed — their normal level of mental happiness had been raised. Also, they had become better at picking up emotional cues from other people, and they reported developing more empathy toward others’ emotions.
So will meditation really make you 10% happier? Well, even Dan Harris calls this promised percentage “absurdly unscientific.” But the evidence does indicate the practice is certainly worthwhile. If you want to give it a try, here is a simple introduction. No John Tesh music required.
Meditate in Four Simple Steps
1. Sit comfortably upright on a chair, with your feet on the floor, hands resting on your thighs. Or if you prefer, you can sit on the floor. Take two or three deep breaths, and then close your eyes.
2. Starting from the top of the head and moving down, mentally scan your body, noticing any tension in your muscles, places of discomfort, the feel of the floor beneath your feet. Begin to pay attention to the natural rhythm of your breath.
3. As you become more aware of your breath, follow the rising and falling sensation without changing it in any way, and focus on each breath. Your mind will wander, and that’s okay. When you notice a thought has distracted you, let go of it and gently return your attention to your breath. The same goes for sounds. Rather than trying to block them out, just let them come and go.
4. At the end of your session, take a few seconds to allow your mind to do whatever it wants. (You may find your mind is very quiet.) Noticing the sounds around you and bringing your attention back to the body, gently open your eyes.
When to do it: Many people meditate first thing in the morning, to start the day with a clear head, but find what works for you.
How long: For beginners, just ten minutes a day is fine. Use a timer or an app so you won't have to watch the clock. For some people, that will always be enough, but eventually you may decide to sit for longer periods.
How often: The more often you practice, the more quickly you'll see benefits. But quality matters more than quantity. If every day feels like it’s too much at first, start with three to five times a week.
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