TIME psychology

3 Simple Things That Will Make You 10% Happier

meditation
Getty Images

Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Ever been really stressed? So stressed you nearly freak out?

This happened to Dan Harrisin front of 5 million people.

On June 7th, 2004, Dan was a news correspondent on ABC and he had a panic attack on air while reading the news:

He knew he had to do something. His career was in jeopardy.

By coincidence, he was soon assigned to cover stories about religion. This set Dan on a multi-year quest talking to people of faith — and total quacks.

But it ended up introducing him to something that helped him get his head straight and, as he likes to say, made him 10% happier.

What was it? Meditation.

Feeling skeptical yet? Thinking of hippies, beads and chanting? Actually, that’s how Dan felt too.

But it turns out his discovery wasn’t the least bit mystic — in fact it was quite scientific.

I gave Dan a call and we talked about meditation and the book he wrote about his journey: 10% Happier.

And here’s how the neuroscience behind a 2500 year old ritual can help all of us become 10% happier.

You Don’t Have To Be A Hippie And Live In A Yurt

Dan’s now the co-anchor of Nightline and Good Morning America.

What’s the first thing this Emmy-award winning journalist has to say about meditation? It has a huge PR problem.

Via 10% Happier:

Meditation suffers from a towering 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… There’s even science to back this up.

So what is science learning about meditation? A lot. Here’s Dan:

There are actually tons and tons of studies on meditation. But you can find one-off studies that show almost anything, right?

So what happened when the Journal of American Medicinerecently looked at more then 18,000 citations on the subject?

Meditation demonstrated clear results in helping people with anxiety, depression and pain.

Other studies are showing it can help with decision-making, compassion — and it might even reduce your cravings for chocolate.

And Dan’s not the only one who’s realized this:

  1. The SuperBowl winning Seattle Seahawks meditate.
  2. Google has someone in charge of teaching meditation.
  3. 12 minutes a day of meditation makes US Marines more resilient in war zones.

Looking at the research a while back, I said meditation is one of the ten things people should do every day to improve their lives.

(For more on the science of meditation, click here.)

I know some of you are saying, “Great. But what does it do, really?

Meditation and mindfulness are two things we hear about constantly but few of us can really define what they are and what they do. That’s about to change.

No Robes And Chanting Necessary

We all have that voice in our head. Our internal narrator. And he’s usually a jerk.

A nonstop running commentary of wants and needs, second-guessing, regretting the past and worrying about the future.

Dan explains:

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.

Harvard professor and author of Stumbling on Happiness, Dan Gilbert, has shown that this sort of mind-wandering makes us miserable.

In fact, a recent study showed men would rather get electric shocks than be alone with their thoughts. Yeah, really.

This is where meditation comes in.

It’s not some magic incantation; it’s a bicep curl for your brain that can tame the thoughts in your head.

By teaching your brain to focus it can allow you to not get yanked around by your emotions, to be able to respond rather than react.

And the results are real:

10-happier

A 2012 Harvard study showed:

In the mindful attention group, the after-training brain scans showed a decrease in activation in the right amygdala in response to all images, supporting the hypothesis that meditation can improve emotional stability and response to stress.

And after 8 weeks of regular meditation these changes were visible even when the subjects weren’t meditating.

A 2011 Yale study showed:

Experienced meditators seem to switch off areas of the brain associated with wandering thoughts, anxiety and some psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia.Researchers used fMRI scans to determine how meditators’ brains differed from subjects who were not meditating. The areas shaded in blue highlight areas of decreased activity in the brains of meditators.

10-happier

(For more things scientifically proven to make you happier, click here.)

Some people don’t like my fancy brain pictures. They’re still saying, “That wouldn’t work for me.” You’re wrong. Here’s why.

Excuses, Excuses, Excuses

People give tons of excuses why they can’t meditate. Dan has heard them all by now and most don’t hold water.

1) “I’m too busy to meditate.”

You can see results in 5 minutes a day. You don’t have five minutes? And how long have you been reading this post for, Mr. Busy?

2) “It won’t work for me. My mind is too crazy.”

Ah, “the fallacy of uniqueness.” Dan says he had the attention span of a 6 month old Golden Labrador. It’s worked for him and many many others.

3) “I’m not a Buddhist.”

I asked Dan about this when we chatted. Mindfulness meditation is secular:

The form of mindfulness meditation that has been studied in labs is completely secular. It’s called mindfulness-based stress reduction and you don’t have to join anything, you don’t have to wear any special outfits or believe in anything. It’s secular and scientifically validated.

4) “I need my anxiety. It drives me crazy but it’s the reason I get things done.”

I was curious about this one, too (you think someone who writes blog posts like this doesn’t have a voice in his head? C’mon.)

Dan always lived by the motto, “The price of security is insecurity.”Worrying kept him on his game. But it also made him miserable.

But then Dan asked his meditation teacher, Joseph Goldstein, what he thought of worrying.

Here’s Dan:

He said “Yes, you have to worry because that makes sense in order to function effectively. However, on the 17th time when you’re worrying about that same thing, maybe ask yourself one simple question: ‘Is it useful?’”

At some point, you have thought it through sufficiently and it’s time to move on. What I have learned how to do as a result of meditation is to draw the line between what I call “constructive anguish” and “unconstructive rumination” and that’s made me a lot happier.

You won’t lose your edge. You can still worry a bit. But when it gets out of hand ask yourself, “Is this useful?”

(For more lifehacks from ancient times that will make you happier, click here.)

At this point many of you are saying, “Okay, okay, meditation is good. But how do I actually do it?

That’s up next. And it’s crazy simple — but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

How To Meditate

Dan taught Stephen Colbert to meditate:

And here’s how he explained it to me:

It really involves three extremely simple steps.

One: Sit with your eyes closed and your back straight.

Two: Notice what it feels like when your breath comes in and when your breath goes out, try to bring your full attention to the feeling of your breath coming in and going out.

Third step is the biggie. Every time you try to do this, your mind is going to go crazy. You are going to start thinking about all sorts of stupid things like if you need a haircut, why you said that dumb thing to your boss, what’s for lunch, etc. Every time you notice that your mind is wandering, bring your attention back to your breath and begin again. This is going to happen over and over and over again and that is meditation.

Personally, I like to think of it as the toughest and most maddening video game in the world. Dan agrees:

It’s not easy. You will “fail” a million times but the “failing” and starting over is succeeding. So this isn’t like most things in your life where, like if you can’t get up on water skis, you can’t do it. Here the trying and starting again, trying and starting again, that’s the whole game.

It works. And meditation doesn’t cost anything. All you need to do is be breathing, and breathing is something that’s always with you and never stops.

And if it ever does stop, well, you may have more urgent problems to deal with.

(For more on what the happiest people do every day, click here.)

So how do we tie all this together?

Sum Up

You can still see Dan on Nightline and Good Morning America but luckily he’s not having any more panic attacks.

Is meditation going to give you magic powers? No. Even the Dalai Lama loses his temper.

Seriously — Dan asked him during an interview.

Via 10% Happier:

“Is your mind always calm?” I asked.

“No, no, no. Occasionally lose my temper.”

“You do?”

“Oh yes. If someone is never lose temper then perhaps they may come from another space,” he said, pointing toward the sky and laughing from the belly, his eyes twinkling beneath his thick glasses.

But research says meditation can make you less stressed and more happy. Here’s what Dan told me:

The bad things in my life are still bad but I am not making them worse than they need to be by adding on a bunch of useless rumination. We assume that our happiness is derived from external circumstances, like how much money we’re making, if we had a happy childhood, if we married well, whatever. The radical proposition of meditation is that happiness is self-generated. You can develop your happiness muscle the way you develop your biceps in the gym. That is hugely, hugely empowering and a comforting notion.

5 minutes a day. That’s all it takes to give your happiness muscle a workout.

What are you waiting for?

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Join over 100,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

Related posts:

What 10 things should you do every day to improve your life?

How To Make Your Life Better By Sending Five Simple Emails

4 Lifehacks From Ancient Philosophers That Will Make You Happier

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Cancer

Why Meditation and Yoga Are Recommended for Breast Cancer

Non-invasive alternative therapies can clear an anxious mind

Up to 80% of American patients with breast cancer will undergo complementary therapies to manage anxiety and stress after they receive a diagnosis.

Though there’s no clear consensus on which integrative and alternative therapies work and which are ineffective, more and more medical practices have incorporated practices like mindfulness and acupuncture into their offerings. But a new study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute Monographs conducted by several major oncology facilities has examined which therapies benefit patients the most. The answer? Meditation, yoga and relaxation with imagery.

The three methods are known to be calming for those who practice them, and the researchers gave the practices an “A” for treating symptoms of mood disorders that are highly common among people with a recent diagnosis.

To come up with the grade, the researchers parsed through clinical trials conducted from 1990-2013 on complementary therapies paired with routine cancer treatment, like chemotherapy. The researchers then graded each therapy based on efficacy. Acupuncture was given a “B” for controlling chemo nausea, and music therapy also received a “B” for anxiety and stress.

“Women with breast cancer are among the highest users [of these therapies]…and usage has been increasing,” the authors write in their study. “Clear clinical practice guidelines are needed.” The study involved researchers from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center, MD Anderson, University of Michigan, Memorial Sloan Kettering and more.

The researchers also gave some therapies low grades. For example, healing touch was given a “C” for lowering pain, and aloe vera gel was not recommended at all for preventing skin reactions from radiation therapy. The researchers also point out that while some natural products were shown to be effective, they did not have the safety data to back them up, suggesting more formal research is needed before some of the therapies can be officially recommended.

As patients with breast cancer and other forms of cancer continue to seek other ways to deal with some of the emotional side effects that stem from serious illness, it will become increasingly important for hospitals to find ways to answer their unmet needs—which might include a yoga class.

TIME HIV/AIDS

How Meditation May Help People With HIV

Meditation mindfulness
Getty Images

A mindfulness routine may lead to better health outcomes

From the time a person is diagnosed with any illness, the focus of their healthcare often shifts to managing sickness rather than promoting wellbeing. But new research shows that a non-pharmacological intervention could help play a role in HIV patient’s mental and physical health. Practicing Transcendental Meditation (TM), a 20-minute twice-a-day mindfulness regimen, may help people with HIV feel better, a small new study finds.

The project’s research, which is being submitted to scientific journals but is not yet published, was done with the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the David Lynch Foundation, a nonprofit that funds research on stress reduction methods, including TM, for at-risk populations. In the 39 HIV patients who completed the study, researchers measured health factors like stress levels, wellbeing (using an established spiritual wellbeing scale), levels of psychological distress and physical symptoms related to HIV, like fatigue. They then taught TM to the patients, and after three months of meditation, patients experienced significant improvement, the study authors say. They got sick less frequently, were less fatigued and more energized and had better general health and physical functioning, says Thomas Roth, director of the David Lynch Foundation HIV Initiative and TM teacher of 40 years. Psychological symptoms got a boost, too: patients reported being less stressed and anxious, with decreased anger, hostility and depressive symptoms.

MORE: You Asked: Is Meditation Really Worth It?

The study didn’t look at blood biomarkers for things like stress, not did it measure the patients’ T-cell counts, instead relying on reports from the people in the study. More research is needed, and for now, says Roth: “My prediction two years ago was that this could improve the quality of life of people living with HIV.”

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

You Asked: Is Meditation Really Worth It?

Illustration by Peter Oumanski for TIME

Totally. Here's why

Updated Oct. 9, 2pm

First of all, understand that “meditation” is a catchall term for a lot of different mental activities, many of which have nothing to do with sitting cross-legged on the floor and saying om.

“There are thousands of different types of meditation,” says Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and author of Words Can Change Your Brain. But while meditative practices come in all shapes and styles, Newberg says nearly all of them have at least one thing in common: They involve focusing your attention, a habit that’s been marginalized by our smartphone-tethered lifestyle of digital distraction.

“That focusing could be on a word or object or physical motion,” Newberg explains. “But regardless, the type of focusing involved in meditation activates the brain’s frontal lobe, which is involved in concentration, planning, speech and other executive functions like problem solving.” Studies have shown meditation can bolster all of these mental tasks. But the greatest benefits may spring from the interplay between your brain’s focus centers and its limbic system—a set of structures that manage your emotions and regulate the release of stress and relaxation hormones.

MORE: The Mindful Revolution

“Studies suggests your body’s arousal system is calmed and the flow of stress-related hormones is reduced [by meditation],” Newberg explains. “There’s also a softening effect when it comes to emotional responses.” Just as weightlifting allows your muscles to lift a heavier load, working out your brain with meditation seems to fortify its ability to carry life’s emotional cargo. That stress-dampening effect has tied meditation to improved mood and lower rates of heart disease, insomnia and depression.

Newberg says there’s also some evidence that meditation quiets the area of your brain that manages your sense of self and your relationship to others. That may sound like a bad thing, but this quieting may help you feel more connected to others and less isolated within yourself, he says.

“Basically, meditation helps your brain get out of its own way,” adds Dr. Judson Brewer, a Yale School of Medicine psychiatrist.

Once you’re convinced meditation is worth a try, figuring out the right type for you is important, because the benefits tend to materialize only if you enjoy your practice enough to stick with it, Brewer says. Luckily, you have a lot of options—from Transcendental Meditation to Tai Chi. Even yoga counts, because it focuses your mind and blocks out distraction.

MORE: How Tai Chi Helps Fight Depression

Mindfulness is one style of meditation that’s exploding in popularity, largely because it can be done anywhere and anytime, Brewer says. “It’s mostly about being aware of your thoughts and not running after them in your mind,” he explains. Awareness is a wedge that, with practice, you can place between your thoughts and unhealthy emotional reactions, he says.

MORE: Can Yoga Ease Major Psychiatric Disorders?

That kind of vague, semi-abstract language can make meditation seem thorny and inaccessible, but it’s easier than you think. If you want a simple taste of meditation, Brewer suggests focusing your mind on your breath or a nearby object, refocusing it when it strays. “Your mind wanders, and you bring it back,” Newberg says. “That’s a mental push-up.”

Do enough mental push-ups, and you may be amazed at how strong your mind muscle can get.

TIME Exercise/Fitness

Meditation Shortens Migraines By 3 Hours

Woman doing asana yoga at the end of day
Getty Images

Can you namaste your migraines away? A new, small study published in the journal Headache suggests that meditation may help relieve the intensity and duration of migraines.

Researchers from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center assigned 19 people with migraines either to standard medical care or to an eight-week program called mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MBSR, which incorporates mindfulness meditation and yoga. The MBSR group meditated for about 30 minutes a day.

MORE: The Mindful Revolution

People who practiced meditation had less severe headaches and about 1.4 fewer migraines a months, though those effects weren’t statistically significant (likely due to the small sample size). But their headaches were significantly shorter—about 3 hours less per headache—than the control group’s.

“They were able to have a sense of personal control over their migraines,” says lead study author (and regular meditator) Rebecca Erwin Wells, MD, assistant professor of neurology at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. “It really makes us wonder if an intervention like meditation can change the way people interpret their pain.”

Stress is a known trigger for headaches, and mindfulness is a known combatant against stress. Several studies have shown that mindfulness meditation can curb stress responses, and one review in JAMA Internal Medicine found that it can help heal depression and anxiety about as effectively as antidepressants.

We’re squarely in the anti-sitting camp (have you heard it’s killing you?) but for better health in just five meditative steps with no side effects, we’ll make an exception: Sitting still has never been so good for you.

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

You Would Rather Endure Electric Shocks Than Sit Alone With Your Thoughts, Study Finds

If you’re crazy busy like most of us and crave some time — just a few minutes, please! — to stop and just think, be careful what you wish for. That’s the upshot of a new study just published in the journal Science. The summary is written in such plain English (very unusual!) that you might as well read it for yourself:

In 11 studies, we found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts. Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.

Yes, people would rather stick their finger in an electric socket than sit quietly and think. Or rather, men would: 67% of male participants in one study “gave themselves at least one shock during the thinking period,” write University of Virginia psychologist Timothy Wilson and his co-authors. On average, the study participants who elected to self-zap gave themselves 1.47 shocks in a 15-minute interval — “not including one outlier,” the paper says, in an impressively straightforward way, “who administered 190 shocks to himself.” (O.K., they didn’t involve actual electric sockets, but it’s still kind of surprising.) Women were far less likely to shock themselves, with only a 25% participation rate.

Why is just sitting and thinking so difficult and unpleasant, you probably wonder. So do the authors, in just those words. Perhaps, they say, “when left alone with their thoughts, participants focused on their own shortcomings and got caught in ruminative thought cycles.”

Another possibility, the authors suggest, is that thinking is just too complicated. In order to do it, you have to choose a topic to think about — a trip to the beach, for example — then mentally experience the trip. Exhausting!

But no. Questioning participants after the experiments revealed that neither explanation held much water. The reason we hate sitting and thinking, despite our fond hopes to the contrary, remains a mystery.

And yet, write the authors, stating the painfully obvious: “There is no doubt that people are sometimes absorbed by interesting ideas, exciting fantasies and pleasant daydreams,” and they do have an answer of sorts.

Research has shown that minds are difficult to control, however, and it may be particularly hard to steer our thoughts in pleasant directions and keep them there. This may be why many people seek to gain better control of their thoughts with meditation and other techniques, with clear benefits. Without such training, people prefer doing to thinking, even if what they are doing is so unpleasant that they would normally pay to avoid it. The untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself.

Which may not be good news — but it’s at least good to know.

 

 

 

 

TIME technology

Burnt Out? 7 Mindfulness Apps To Help You Refocus

Your smartphone doesn't always have to be a distraction

I kind of want to marry my iPhone, day planner, and computer. But, as with any relationship, sometimes I need a break. The other night I decided to leave my to-do list and phone upstairs for the night, and I had trouble sleeping. I worried about the incoming emails and Tweets that would go unanswered until morning. And, I fondly thought about a time when my phone was anchored to the wall with a cord and my sleep was uninterrupted by thoughts of hashtags, @ symbols, and perfectly crafted subject lines. Yes, life was simple then. My nights were spent reading a good book, or with my mom doing a guided meditation to help me snooze. As I thought about her telling me to inhale the spirit of the universe and to exhale stress, my mind flashed to my app store: I bet there was an app that could do that! I quickly jumped out of bed and began searching for relaxation apps and videos. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the thing that usually makes me super-productive and connected with the world could also help me meditate and block out the business (that could wait) around me. So here you go — my top 10 apps, videos, and tools for you to just be you.

This article originally appeared on Refinery29.com.

  • Calm.com

    Courtesy of Calm.com

    Calm.com boasts a seven-step meditation process that can help you reduce anxiety, feel better, and create great ideas. The website and app are both really minimal and have beautiful imagery, music, and narration for you to find your happy place. You can choose different backgrounds to suit your mood, as well as different meditation lengths. By focusing on your breath and posture, Calm.com can help you escape the chaos around you and focus on your well-being. The yearly pro-access is available for $9.99, but the beginners edition is free.

  • Omvana

    Courtesy of Omvana

    Omvana is the life coach of meditation websites and apps. Not only will you learn how to relax and meditate, you’ll sharpen your ability to focus on your work, develop a goal-oriented mindset, and feel inspired to live in the moment. It has downloadable tracks for hypnosis, guided meditation, and sleep. There is also a huge library of inspirational speaking, poetry, and music tracks to choose from. Although the app is free, the tracks are not, so your mindfulness may cost you.

  • MINDBODY Connect

    Courtesy of MINDBODY

    MINDBODY Connect is the best app to help you find a physical place to block out the world around you. This app locates yoga classes, day spas, and meditation centers in your vicinity, and lets you book and pay for it right there on your phone. To boot, it has a user-friendly design and incorporates Google maps functionality to help you find your way to nirvana.

  • YouTube — RainBirdHD

    Courtesy of RainBirdHD

    Whether you’re trying to fall asleep or need to drown out the audible chaos of your office, the RainBirdHD YouTube channel has a ton of sounds for you to choose from. You can get up to 10 hours of thunder and heavy rain fall, airplane cabin white noise, arctic wind, winter snow, classical music, and more. But, don’t forget to pack your headphones if you’re going to listen to this at work. (I’m sure your boss doesn’t want to hear “rain on a metal roof” while conducting a budget meeting.)

  • Mindfulness Daily

    The Mindfulness Daily app allows you to set specific times that you’d like to practice your meditation: once in the morning, once in the afternoon and once at night. The app sends you a notification message at your specified time to start your meditation. It features a “lifelog” that will track your daily patterns, which allows you to reflect and make changes to make you more productive and less stressed. And of course, like most of the other meditation apps, Mindfulness Daily has relaxing sounds, breathing guides and imagery to help you block out the world around you.

TIME

Laughter Therapy Is The New Meditation

464690497
Adrian Samson—Getty Images

Laughter may have some of the same benefits as meditation

No time to just sit and breathe? Then at least pull up a quick YouTube video of “goats yelling like humans”—a good laugh now and then may give you a mental boost similar to meditation, suggests new research presented today at the Experimental Biology 2014 conference in San Diego.

“Joyful laughter immediately produces the same brain wave frequencies experienced by people in a true meditative state,” says Lee Berk, lead researcher of the study and associate professor of pathology and human anatomy at Loma Linda University.

More From Prevention: Your Brain on Laughter

To make this discovery, researchers measured the brain wave activity of 31 college students with an electroencephalograph (EEG) while they watched funny, distressful, or spiritual videos. During the funny videos, gamma waves were produced—the same ones achieved during a meditation session. The spiritual videos produced more alpha waves, which are associated with rest; and the distressful videos produced flat waves, similar to those experienced by people who feel detached.

“Gamma is the only frequency that affects every part of the brain,” says Berk. “So when you’re laughing, you’re essentially engaging your entire brain at once. This state of your entire brain being ‘in synch’ is associated with contentment, being able to think more clearly, and improved focus. You know, that feeling of being ‘in the zone’.”

More From Prevention: 10 Simple Ways To Relieve Stress and Improve Your Mood

And the more you laugh, the more you should notice these perks. “It’s similar to the way regular exercise reconditions and reprograms your body over time,” says Berk. “With regular laughter, you’re optimizing your brain’s response to this experience.”

Previous research shows that laughter also acts as an antidepressant, reduces risk of heart disease, and helps reduce the body’s inflammatory response. “There’s no reason it shouldn’t be prescribed by doctors as part of a gamut of healthy lifestyle changes,” says Berk. “Unlike food and exercise, you can’t O.D. on laughter—at least I haven’t seen it!”

More From Prevention: 4 Moves To Feel Happier

This article was written by Stephanie Eckelkamp and originally appeared on Prevention.com

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser