EVERYONE HITS that snag when a routine just stops working. After five years of waking early, going to the gym and returning home to meditate, I encountered a disturbance in the force in 2017. Suddenly, just sitting still, breathing—taking a break before I began the day—left me itching. My meditation time went from 20 minutes every morning to 10, then five, then only when I “felt like it.”
My failure to rigorously achieve “wellness” might sound like some negligible, modern-day complaint, but, to me, my lack of focus suggested a larger problem. Stress? Unhappiness? I needed something or somebody to tell me that what I was going through was OK.
I searched for answers, read fiercely chipper blog posts and leafed through self-help books—a category that generates billions of dollars in sales even if the feel-good platitudes that pack these guides are often better fit for the posters on my dentist’s ceiling. I could feel myself fighting an uphill battle each day, carrying a backpack filled with the weight of anxious thoughts.
Listen Up! / Try These Four Encouraging Shows
How to Raise a Parent: Have you ever thought of what we can learn from kids…a willingness to try new things or ways to make new friends? Host Mallory Kasdan will help crack you out of your jaded, cynical shell.
10% Happier: Are you curious about meditation? Dan Harris has had everybody from musicians and actors, to gurus to big-name entrepreneurs on his weekly podcast, which looks at mindfulness from all sides.
The Minimalists: Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus aren’t too far removed from Marie Kondo’s way of thinking, but offer up a deeper look into why you don’t need all that stuff.
The Hardcore Self Help Podcast: In the era of self-care, Dr. Robert Duff is just the person to break down all of our questions on topics from taking medication for anxiety to getting over breakups.
So I was surprised to find relief on the device I’d promised myself to use less: my iPhone. I had sworn off
and imposed a strict limit on the time I spent checking emails. But one day while scrolling through Spotify, I landed on “10% Happier,” a weekly self-help podcast hosted by author and ABC News anchor Dan Harris.
In the crowded podcast landscape—mostly funny talk shows and true crime to see us through commutes—shows like “10% Happier” offer much-needed encouragement, often for free. I valued the intimacy of having a person speak directly into my ears, walking and talking me through ways to improve my life.
Mr. Harris’s show, which focuses on meditation, has featured musicians, writers, Silicon Valley bigwigs and the Dalai Lama. “It’s very easy to get stuck in these cul-de-sacs, where you don’t know why you’re doing this thing,” he said of mindfulness practice. “Hearing friends talk about how they dealt with [situations] can jar you out of anything you’re encountering.”
For me, listening to that first episode two years ago helped elevate and evolve my practice as I joined what Buddhists call a sangah, which essentially means community. I became a dedicated listener, each week taking away a crucial message: that nothing is perfect, including meditation. I find a regular podcast helps to reaffirm that in a more vital, unignorable way than a book could.
Having increased my happiness by at least a few percentage points thanks to one show, I decided to see if I could truly improve my life, my physical and mental health and my daily outlook by embracing other podcasts geared toward people interested in self-help and wellness.
First, I found “The Minimalists,” a show admittedly outside my comfort zone. I like stuff. I have lots of it: shelves of books, sneakers, vinyl that my wife threatens to donate on a weekly basis. Yet the upbeat way hosts Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus talked, and the self-effacing dad humor they share while bantering about religion or just getting out of a daily rut, hooked me. “I think it has to be somewhat entertaining. The sugar coating on the pill, so to speak,” Mr. Fields Millburn told me.
‘I valued the intimacy of having a person speak directly into my ears.’
The duo doesn’t claim to be experts—instead, they talk things out, guiding listeners to come up with their own plans. Most episodes start with listener calls, which adds to the sense of community. In a world of Twitter threads by experts who claim to have all the answers, it’s a refreshing way to discuss issues.
“The Minimalists” became a part of my weekly podcast diet along with shows like “Good Life Project,” “Philosophize This!” and “Magic Lessons” by “Eat, Pray, Love” author Elizabeth Gilbert, who endeavors to help creatives find that necessary spark they might be missing.
But what is it about podcasts that I can’t get out of self-help books or a Tony Robbins retreat? And why are self-help podcasts like “Hidden Brain,” and “The Shrink Next Door” topping Apple and Spotify charts? For one, the best such podcasts don’t feel like attempts to sell you a lifestyle (despite the Casper mattress ads I speed through). “There’s a lot of vapid or trite advice out there and we try to avoid that. We don’t take ourselves too seriously,” Mr. Fields Millburn said.
More reasons besides the no-cost engagement: These podcasts can be downloaded in seconds, easily returned to when you need a boost or reminder, and offer relatable advice in a fun package that lets you know you’re not alone your frustrations.
Mr. Harris sees hope for humanity in the podcast phenom. “The fact that in the era of social media and of quick-hit media, people are opting for one-, two-, three-hour deep dives into esoterica, into wisdom, into science, is fascinating and says that we aren’t as shallow as we sometimes tell ourselves that we are,” he said.
I didn’t shed all earthly possessions the day I listened to “The Minimalists” and I didn’t exude joy after downloading “10% Happier.” But I always felt good after episodes, and their lessons have begun to manifest in my life: Thanks to “The Minimalists,” I did start considering my purchases, even some of the vinyl. I was awakened to thinkers and creatives I respect, and inspiring ones I’d never heard of. And not too long after I listened to Mr. Harris and his guests acknowledge that sitting there and simply breathing isn’t always as simple as we might hope, it gradually became easier for me.
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