Dan Harris, an ABC News anchor and the New York Times-bestselling author of “10% Happier,” discussed on Tuesday how meditation benefited his well-being after he suffered an on-air panic attack. More than 100 people gathered in Battell Chapel to hear about his experience.

“I really believe that meditation is the next big public health revolution,” Harris said. “In the not-too-distant future, we’re going to think of mental exercise the way we now think of physical exercise.”

In 2003, while reporting on post-9/11 conflicts in Iraq for ABC News, Harris’ exposure to war zone violence led him to develop symptoms of depression. He attempted to self-medicate, which resulted in his on-air panic attack in 2004.

This experience was just one step in his introduction to meditation, Harris explained. It took several years until he accepted the merits of the practice, during which time he covered faith and spirituality for ABC News and read books by Mark Epstein, a professor of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine, and by Eckhart Tolle, a bestselling self-help guru.

Tolle’s writing resonated with Harris, particularly his assertion that overactive internal narratives can shift attention away from the present and onto distractions.

“The voice in my head produced the most embarrassing moment of my life,” Harris said. “It’s why I went off to war zones without thinking about the consequences, came home, got depressed, was insufficiently self-aware and didn’t know it and then I blindly self-medicated — it all just blew up in my face.”

Harris told the audience about several studies that found neurobiological benefits associated with meditation, such as increased gray matter density.

In an interview with the News, Laurie Santos, a psychology professor and the head of Silliman College, elaborated on what Harris discussed in his talk, saying that research suggests people “mind wander” — or fail to remain on task — during almost half of waking hours.

“Unfortunately, mind-wandering is associated with reduced subjective well-being, so merely taking time to be in the present moment by being mindful can have big effects,” Santos said. “There’s also work suggesting that a regular meditation practice can reduce mind-wandering and can cause reduced neural activation in areas associated with mind-wandering.”

Incorporating meditation into his lifestyle helped Harris improve his focus and mindfulness, he said. Harris now meditates for two hours each day and feels more satisfied with life.

“We assume that happiness is something that happens to us … many of us think it’s fully dependent on the quality of our external factors — the quality of our marriage, our work life, our childhood — all of which are super important,” he said. “I don’t downplay any of them at all, but in fact, what the science is showing us is that happiness is a skill that you can generate and work on.”

Harris ended his presentation by leading audience members in a group meditation, instructing attendees to sit upright and focus their attention on breathing. Losing focus and letting thoughts wander does not equate to failure, according to Harris. In fact, he suggested the act of refocusing on breathing would eventually strengthen mindfulness.

Harris’ presentation was the last in a semester-long series of talks organized by Yale Well, an initiative that aims to increase student wellness, according to Kimberly Goff-Crews, University secretary and vice president for Student Life.

Marisa Peryer | marisa.peryer@yale.edu