How Does Meditation Help? Lessons From Dan Harris

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "10% Happier" by Dan Harris. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How does meditation help you in the long-term? What important life lessons can be learned from meditation?

In his self-help book 10% Happier, previous self-help skeptic Dan Harris describes the many benefits of meditation. The top lessons he goes over are how to respond rather than act, how to worry productively, and how to be compassionate.

Below, we will go over each of the lessons from meditation.

3 Lessons From Meditation

So, how does meditation help? Harris briefly mentions some of the scientific research and long-term benefits of meditation, such as increased ability to focus, reduced risk of heart disease, and improved aging. He also notes that the benefits of meditation are becoming more widely accepted, as evidenced by the fact that it’s been embraced by corporations and the military. 

However, his main goal is to show how meditation can help you in your life right now, particularly if you’re skeptical about meditation or self-help. To Harris, the most valuable lessons from meditation are learning how to respond instead of react, how to worry productively, and how to be compassionate. 

Counterarguments to Meditation

Harris’s goal of the book is to show the benefits of meditation from the perspective of a skeptic. However, unlike Harris, some people remain unconvinced, questioning the purported benefits of meditation. Skeptics list a few reasons for their resistance to meditating:

Meditation increases cortisol. One study found that participants who meditated produced increased levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. (However, the participants also reported feeling less stress, leading researchers to conclude that meditation might serve as a coping mechanism by teaching meditators how to handle increased levels of stress, even if that stress is caused by the meditation itself.) 

Researchers are subject to confirmation bias in meditation studies. Many of the researchers who study the effects of meditation are meditators themselves, making them more inclined to favor positive results. In a Johns Hopkins University Evidence-Based Practice Center review, investigators examined almost 18,000 studies on meditation. Of these, only 41 were high-quality studies. Of these 41 studies, only 10 had a “low risk of bias.”

Meditation isn’t a one-size-fits-all cure. While some studies show the benefits of meditation in trauma survivors and people with depression, skeptics are wary of the claims that everyone can benefit in the same ways from meditation.

1. How to Respond, Not React

One of the biggest improvements Harris notices after meditating is his ability to respond—instead of react—to situations. He contends that our default mode is to go through life on autopilot, letting our emotions and ego dictate our actions, which leads us to react to situations impulsively and make rash decisions. Meditation disrupts this cycle. 

Harris presents a principle of Buddhist teaching that says we have one of three reactions to a situation: 

  1. We like it. Think about meeting your friend’s new puppy.
  2. We don’t like it. Think about the traffic on your way home from work.
  3. We ignore it. Think about walking down a busy street and passing dozens of people.

Harris asserts that meditation offers another option: to notice without judgment. Meditation allows us to identify our emotions without attaching to them. Then we can decide how we want to respond. Harris argues that this doesn’t mean you won’t feel anger, sadness, or frustration, but that you’ll begin to stop acting on those emotions.

For example, imagine that after a stressful day at work, someone cuts you off in traffic on your way home. Instead of reacting (getting angry, yelling, and honking), you could identify that you feel stressed and irritated and continue without acting out of anger.

Harris provides evidence of the change in his behavior. After practicing meditation, Harris’s reputation in the newsroom changed. Rather than yelling at a producer or slamming his script down, Harris approached tense situations more mindfully. Eventually, he gained the reputation from his coworkers of being a laid-back, enjoyable, and easy person to work with. 

Meditation May Reduce Reactions That Are Based on Unconscious Biases

Harris notes that meditation will help you stop acting out on your emotions by placing distance between you and a stimulus. This may explain why a 2016 study showed that meditation helps people stop acting based on their unconscious racial and age biases. Another study found that compassion meditation decreased participants’ biases toward homeless people. Because meditation fosters a focus on the present, rather than on memory or the past, we’re able to respond and make decisions based on our current thoughtful reflection instead of automatic biased reaction.

Experts contend that these findings may be particularly beneficial to law enforcement officers, who serve diverse communities. Police officers are beginning to embrace mindfulness and compassion training as a method to make less biased and more ethical decisions under stress. 

2. How to Worry Productively

Harris says he learned that the intense worrying he used to engage in, particularly about how well he was doing in his career, is a recognized form of worry, one that Buddhists call “prapañca” or “monkey mind.” Harris defines prapañca as our tendency to worry excessively, when our negative thoughts multiply uncontrollably.

(Shortform note: Another name for prapañca (sometimes spelled “papañca” or “papancha”) is “conceptual proliferation.” In Buddhist tradition, conceptual proliferation doesn’t just apply to worrying. It refers to our ability to conceptualize the world through words and language. It’s our tendency to make judgments about and label everything we see or interact with. Because we interact with so many things on a daily basis, this constant stream of labels, thoughts, and judgments can be overwhelming for our minds, often resulting in suffering.)

Because meditation allowed him to identify when his thoughts were running out of control, Harris was able to consciously notice how much he worried. He explains that he began to approach his worrying habit (or prapañca) differently. He realized that worry is natural, and it can help you prepare both mentally and physically for situations. 

According to Harris, you shouldn’t ignore your worry, as your concern about a situation may be warranted and worrying may alert you to something you need to address. However, after a certain point, worrying is no longer helpful to you. If you’re running through the same mental scenario over and over again but are no longer using that worry to prepare yourself for something, you’re wasting mental energy and indulging your ego by obsessing about future possibilities. Whenever you notice yourself falling down a rabbit hole of worry, Harris recommends asking yourself, “Is this helpful?” If it’s not, let it go. 

For example, say three people are interviewing for the same job. Candidate 1 worries about the interview and imagines all the ways it could go wrong (like spilling coffee on herself, forgetting the interviewer’s name, answering a question wrong, and showing up late). She spends all of her time worrying about these scenarios. Candidate 2 worries about the interview, but he ignores his worry and tries to let it go. Candidate 3 worries about the interview but uses this worry to create a plan: printing out the route to the interview location, brainstorming answers to potential interview questions, and prepping resume documents the night before. Once she’s gone through potential scenarios, Candidate 3 lets go of her worry. Candidate 3 is in the best position to do well in the interview because she has used her worry to prepare for it. She also let go of her worry once it stopped being useful, allowing her to go into the interview with a clearer head. 

Other Ways to Manage Worry 

While Harris found that meditating helped his worrying problem, other experts offer different solutions. Many advise that since it’s unlikely you’ll be able to stop worrying completely, you should plan how you’ll react to your worry when it happens. This might entail writing down counterarguments on a notepad. For example, if you find yourself frequently worrying that your coworker doesn’t like you, you could write down, “If my coworker actually doesn’t like me, they wouldn’t sit next to me at the meeting table,” or, “What my coworker thinks of me is none of my business, and it doesn’t need to affect me.”

Similarly, in 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson provides a different solution to worrying. Peterson recommends only worrying about a problem at a specific time of day. Scheduling when you can worry conserves your mental strength and lets you focus on other things. 

3. How to Be Compassionate

Compassion—feeling concern or empathy for others—is a frequent topic among self-help experts, but Harris avoided it for most of his mindfulness journey. He explains that he didn’t think of himself as an emotional or compassionate person, and that his profession predispositioned him from displays of emotion. He also didn’t believe he was capable of deep levels of compassion.

As we mentioned earlier, during Joseph Goldstein’s 10-day meditation retreat, Harris was introduced to metta, or compassion meditation, which centers around mentally sending love to people you like, people you don’t like, and people who’ve helped you. This kind of meditation allows you to practice compassion. Harris describes the practice as emotionally moving for him, but he disregarded it after the retreat.

Defining Compassion

Harris’s focus in the book is mainly on meditation and mindfulness—compassion is an unintended bonus he finds on his journey. As a result, he doesn’t spend much time breaking down what compassion is. 

Brené Brown goes into deeper detail on compassion in her book The Gifts of Imperfection. She defines compassion as being kind to yourself and others. Self-compassion isn’t about condemning the cause of your pain or trying to make it immediately go away. It’s about empathizing and allowing yourself to feel the emotions. Brown describes self-compassion as the antidote to the self-criticizing tendencies of perfectionism. She believes that, to overcome perfectionism with compassion, you should be kind to yourself, remember you’re not alone, and stay present. 

Compassion for others is similar to Brown’s ideas on self-compassion. Researchers have defined compassion as a deep and intuitive connection to someone else’s suffering or pain. They also identified key elements of compassion for others: recognition of suffering, emotional resonance, and an effort to remedy the suffering. 

Benefits of Compassion

Harris’s attitude toward metta meditation changed when he later interviewed the Dalai Lama, who told him that there is a self-interested reason to be compassionate: It benefits you. As Harris began to realize the benefits of compassion, he incorporated metta into his daily meditation time. 

Some of the benefits Harris describes include:

  • Being compassionate towards others makes you feel better about yourself. Harris says it’s a positive way to feed your ego. Think about the last time you gave someone a thoughtful gift or a compliment they liked. Did it make you feel good to see them happy? Compassion works in a similar way.
  • Being compassionate is linked to reduced levels of stress. Harris notes that stress (specifically producing too much cortisol) can lead to cancer, heart disease, and depression. 
  • Compassion meditation makes you a nicer and more understanding person. In other words, by practicing compassion, you can actually become a more compassionate person. 
  • Compassion helps you make friends. When you show that you can understand how someone is feeling, they tend to like you more. When people like you, they’re more likely to help you out. Harris notes that this is particularly helpful at work. 
  • Compassion helps you make better decisions. When you’re not feeding your ego with comparisons or drama, you can approach problems with a clear head. 
Additional Benefits of Compassion
While Harris focuses on the self-interested benefits of compassion, studies have shown that there are other benefits, including ones for business and society as a whole: 

-Research confirms Harris’s claim that you can learn compassion through practicing it. Studies show that compassion meditation can change our brains, just like learning a musical instrument or sport. Researchers were encouraged by these findings for the benefits to both individuals and society as a whole. 
-Compassion is a component of ethical living and social order. When we can appreciate each other without judgment, we can coexist and cooperate, even when we disagree.
-In the workplace, compassion and emotional intelligence are crucial for CEOs, contrary to popular belief. When leaders manage teams without compassion, the team is more likely to make mistakes, experience stress, have lower productivity, and miss more deadlines.
Nonviolent communication is rooted in compassion. When we can focus on our shared humanity—rather than a heated argument or a mistake—we have better, more productive conversations.
How Does Meditation Help? Lessons From Dan Harris

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  • A skeptic’s journey through the world of self-help
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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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