10% Happier is, like Shonda Rhimes’ Year of Yes or Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, part self-help book and part memoir. In fact, the first 80+ are essentially a chronicle of Dan Harris’s life as he rises through the ranks of broadcast journalism, becomes addicted to cocaine and ecstasy, and eventually has a panic attack on live television. It’s mildly entertaining, behind-the-curtain stuff, and it serves to frame his journey toward mindfulness and meditation, but it’s not especially useful if you’re hoping, as the extremely long subtitle suggests, to find a way to tame the voice in your head and reduce stress without losing your edge.
I picked up this book after watching the Minimalism documentary on Netflix. Although my overwhelming impression of Minimalism was “WHITE PEOPLE PROBLEMS,” I was intrigued by the chipper news anchor who claimed that meditation had helped him become about 10% happier. As I read the book, I recognized myself in a lot of his neuroses, especially the constantly churning brain and desperate need to fill the void with something. (In his case, drugs. In mine, bread and chocolate.)
I’ve been interested in spirituality, meditation, and mindfulness for a while, but I had a lot of the same reservations as Harris: namely, that it was a bunch of woo-woo hippie crap, and that if I lost my edge (for me, a kind of cultivated, Dorothy Parker-esque sarcastic cynicism) I would also lose myself. It was interesting to watch Harris work through those problems and come out the other side, but I didn’t feel like he was particularly interested in helping me start the same journey.
There was one throwaway line in the book that gave me pause. Harris mentions his college advisor, the writer James Boylan, and then goes out of his way to point out that Boylan later “had a sex change operation and changed his name to Jenny.” (Boylan went on to write several books about her journey as a transgender woman and has served as an advisor on the show Trans/Parent.) It’s such a weird, tone-deaf little jab at a professor who seemed to have disappointed or rankled Harris two decades earlier, and it clashed with his later message about how much kinder and calmer he’d become thanks to meditation.
10% Happier is ostensibly a book for skeptics and cynics who suspect that there might be something to this whole “mindfulness” thing. However, it’s not particularly useful unless you also happen to be a white, upper-middle class guy with access to the world’s spiritual leaders and the freedom to spend your vacation days in a meditation retreat. Ultimately, this is the story of Harris’s personal journey, not a blueprint for bringing mindfulness into your own life. Ironically, other than a brief appendix with instructions for beginning your own meditation practice, Harris falls into the same trap that he criticized multiple people for throughout this book by failing to offer much in the way of practical, actionable advice.
4 stars as a memoir, 2 as a self-help guide
Emperor Cupcake’s Rating System Explained:
1 Star: This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.
2 Stars: Not great, Bob.
3 Stars: The emperor is pleased. You may live.
4 Stars: Ooh, shiny!
5 Stars: *Incoherent, high-pitched fan-girling*