Book Club Discussion, 10% Happier Pt. 1: The Voice in My Head is a Jerk

Join us for a discussion of the first three chapters of 10% Happier by Dan Harris

The voice in my head is an asshole. Dan Harris and I (and I’d wager to guess, many of you) have that in common. On any given day, at any given time, the (often) mean girl that inhabits my brain can be found whispering not-so-sweet nothings in my ear: “your thighs are too big”, “you’re not good enough,“, “those photos suck“, “what you just said was suuuuper awkwarrrrd“. These thoughts and others of their ilk are my secret shame and they plague me daily; while they’re not all bad, I’d say the majority of these thoughts span anywhere from disparaging to downright rude. And I’m telling you about them, because until I read Harris’ account of similar behavior, it never occurred to me that other people might also be experiencing the same thing. This was my first ‘whoa’ moment of this book.

The second was this sentence in the preface: “Some think they need depression to be creative or compulsive worry to be successful.

If you read January’s book club selection, Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, your mind might also be blown right now. The ethos behind that thought is actually a big part of Gilbert’s book, and what drew me into 10% Happier beyond the preface. I think in a lot of ways we’re taught that life is a struggle but, while there will always be difficult aspects, Harris and Gilbert and those who came before them are out there to teach us that things don’t have to be quite as painful as we sometimes make them out to be. One part memoir, one part self-help extravaganza, 10% Happier gives us a front row seat into Harris’ mind. If you’ve watched footage of the breakdown he references in chapter 1, Air Hunger, the breakdown that was chronicled on live TV and which set him on the path that led to this book, it seems far less dramatic from the outside looking in. Just a guy who maybe was feeling under the weather that day. But isn’t that always the case? We can never truly know what goes on in the minds of those around us. Everyone has their battles, everyone has experienced trauma in some way. Maybe you’re not a war correspondent coming face to face with the Taliban, but that doesn’t make your stresses and traumas and realities any less valid. We’ve all been there in some way or another — we’ve all had our own version of Harris’ on-air meltdown.

I still remember mine, at least the first major panic attack I had. I was in college and at an art opening at a gallery with some friends. The place was packed with tall and beautiful, artistic people and someone looked at me funny and then everyone was looking at me funny. Except, of course, they weren’t (until I was the girl crying in the hallway for no noticeable reason – then they were definitely looking at me). Amid the crowd and artwork and having lost sight of my friends, I had somehow convinced myself that I was the odd one out and had a total and complete meltdown because of it. Looking back, I know everything that transpired was thanks to that overly critical voice in my head, whispering that I didn’t belong.

While I haven’t experienced a panic attack of that caliber in years, I do have a tendency to overanalyze and could relate to a lot of what Harris describes in the first chapter, especially when it comes to being overly critical of oneself and maybe being a bit too competitive, always going, going, going, not allowing myself to slow down and catch my breath.

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Moving into Unchurched, the second chapter of 10%, I once again felt similar kinship with Harris, though I’m ashamed to admit it. As someone from a secular background, I’ve always found it difficult to relate to my spiritual friends and those with more religious… gusto. This is what makes Harris’ point of view so unique — as a reporter, he’s taught to be curious, to delve into what he’s been assigned, regardless of personal interest. As readers, we can only benefit from this. I appreciate that Harris doesn’t shy away from the difficult questions and chooses, eventually, to see the greater takeaway from his conversations with Pastor Ted. There’s always something to glean from the people we interact with, always an opportunity for discourse. Rather than arguing, Harris asks questions, something we (I) could stand to do more of. He learns, we learn. The bigger picture becomes clearer.

In Genius or Lunatic?, chapter 3, Harris goes deeper into the spiritual world, while simultaneously battling his own demons. How many times have you stood in the proverbial airplane bathroom, obsessing over something minuscule, as Harris does in the opening pages? We have hangups, that thing that we deem a career killer or inevitable horror. We worry, often too much, have our own versions of the inaugural proceedings. But the thing that most struck a chord in this chapter was the idea of having one foot in the past, and one in the future, none in the actual present. I mean, yeah. I believe that we’re largely taught to think in this way, to glorify the past, to fetishize nostalgia, while simultaneously working to be our best selves and striving for the future and dreaming big. But… what about now. Like, right now? I’m extremely guilty of this, of dreaming of the next place I’ll live in and the house I hope to own one day and even just counting down the hours until the weekend. Turns out, living in the here and now (and appreciating it) is a lot harder than constantly daydreaming of the future and reminiscing on the past. As Harris continues to look for answers, so do I, and I’m looking forward to diving in to the next three chapters next week.

Discussion questions:

+ Could you relate at all to the voice Harris describes in chapter 1?

+ What do you think of Harris’ approach to Pastor Ted and other religions? 

+ Are you guilty of living too much in the past or future? Why do you think we, as a culture, tends to behave this way?

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  1. I don’t know whether I could enjoy reading this book as much as your writing about it, but you certainly make it sound appealing. I would never have guessed from your blogs that you were wracked with this kind of anxiety, since it takes so much courage to write all you do, including about yourself, and up and move for new places and adventures as often as you have.

    I wrestle with that kind of thing daily. This will sound quite daft, but lately, to pull myself into the present and quiet the overanalytical, distancing inner monologue, when I feel a hint of something nice happening that I am not focusing on, I will say to myself, “I am having a lovely sandwich. It tastes great!” or “I’m looking at a wonderful view of the snow on the river. How gorgeous.” As I said, sounds daft, but it really pulls me into the moment, helps me appreciate the daily wonderful, and seals a positive experience into my conscious memory of the day.

  2. This is my first “on-line” book club so was happy when I stumbled upon it and actually managed to get the book and have the chapters read. Sorry missed Big Magic it is on my list. I enjoy Harris’ writing and he has me smiling at times with this descriptions. So here goes my participation in book club!!

    Yes, I can relate to voice in my head. I can get into a downward spiral over a comment, perceived hurt or hut and just replay that incident again and again. In the past year I have managed to shut that voice off earlier through just saying this is not who I am (mad, angry person) and I am not going to let this ruin my whole day it is one incident. It is constant work but isn’t that what life is anyways?

    I am more open towards religions (not fear or hate based). I am not a religious person but I appreciate that they can and do offer individuals comfort. If that is the case who am I to say they are not worthwhile. Plus if we are spouting openness and exploring different avenues we shouldn’t be shutting anyone or thing down. So was pleased when Harris opened up a bit over religion.

    That struck me also one foot in the past and one in the future as true. We/society seems in such a hurry to get to the next stage i.e. I will be happy when I finish school/college, I will be happy when I get a good job, get married. Even when people say I can’t wait until winter is over!! Which in some places is 1/3 of the year. Life is a journey not a destination so we should be enjoying it here and now. I am working on being more mindful and enjoying the moment. So 10% Happier I’m in.

    Rita, above, happy you are pulling yourself into the present and it is making a difference. Well done.

  3. I’ll be honest – I wasn’t planning to join in on this book club. Not that I thought the book was a bad choice… I just didn’t feel like I needed it before reading this post. However, this quote really stood out:

    “Some think they need depression to be creative or compulsive worry to be successful.”

    Yep, that’s me. For years I’ve wanted to keep my depression in check just enough, but I still wanted it to hang around because I thought my creative flows would drift away. Maybe that’s not so healthy after all (re: I know it’s not). I’m going to pick this book up on my way home today.

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