You may have heard of Derren Brown as a mind-reading magician, a mentalist and showman, who despite being a master conjuror is an extremely rational man. He’s also (understandably, given his main trade) fascinated by human psychology and the ways in which humans tick and think.
Many of his recent shows have focused on encouraging his unwitting subjects to take steps to empower themselves and discover their own underlying strengths. Brown has an unwavering belief in human potential, and that life should be lived fully, not merely drifted through.
All this naturally resonates strongly with us, so when we were looking out books on happiness for a reading project we’d set ourselves, his 2016 book Happy jumped out at us.
In Happy, Derren Brown picks apart the history of Western philosophy and thinking about happiness and proposes suggestions for how to apply the best of this knowledge to our modern lives. As many people who write about happiness are, he is most focused on Stoic philosophy and how this can provide us with powerful insights into how to live well.
Here are three main lessons I took away from the book that I thought I’d share with you:
Control and how it relates to happiness
The well-known serenity prayer found its current phrasing in the mid-twentieth century. You’ll doubtless have heard it:
This is actually an echo of a much older idea in Stoic philosophy: in this world there are only two things we can control - our thoughts and our actions. Everything else (what people think of us, how they act, how well they do their jobs, their habits, successes, behaviour, property prices, economics, the weather…) is entirely outside of our control. So let go of the need to control them.
Of course, this is easier said than done, but trying to remember that things that frustrate me are often entirely out of my control has been helpful in the last few months when I come up against situations where previously I’d just have felt angry without any purpose.
Marcus Aurelius (yes, the Roman Emperor who - spoilers - is murdered at the start of Gladiator) was a very highly regarded Stoic philosopher. A quotation from his Meditations highlights this principle quite neatly:
It’s the same theory highlighted in Hamlet: “there’s nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”.
This doesn’t mean that you should accept people walking all over you, or situations where you’re treated badly. But it does mean that you can take responsibility for your own responses to bad situations and your own actions in choosing how or when to get out of them or change them. What you don’t need to do is frustrate yourself by wishing you had more power over things you cannot control.
Anger is a complicated emotion, but can be managed well
Derren Brown actually proposes seven different approaches to anger, which I will outline here:
Wait. Don’t react straight away, as you will often be acting upon immediate judgments which might have been made by mistake. Take time to pause and reflect on what might be a more accurate cause of the situation or a more moderate response.
Be less curious. It’s an interesting idea, but often the things that make us angry are as a result of seeking out gossip or trying to find out what others have been saying or doing about us. You are therefore likely to find something that makes you angry if you go looking for it. I definitely know this to my cost - how many of us have spent time on social media looking at the accounts of people we know we disagree with, and then found ourselves riled up over something we just didn’t need to see? I hope it’s not just me!
Talk to imaginary friends: what would you say to someone else in your situation who was feeling annoyed and whom you wanted to calm down. Imagine you are placating that person, and encouraging them to rest easy. What would you say?
Lower your self belief: remember that you are not as important as you think you are. Relax. Often the things that we take as slights or insults are not intended as such - we are just not as important to the person who pissed us off as we think we might be, and by having a false sense of self, we wind ourselves up by imagining other people have more directly malicious motives than in fact they do!
You have the same faults as those who annoy you. The people who have irritated you are not uniquely evil or flawed - you are likely just as guilty of poor or annoying behaviour as them, so consider that before flying off the handle.
Understand the offender’s motivation - people may have perfectly valid reasons for acting in the way they do. Think about their motivations before you slam them. Find a moment to pause and think about why they might behave in the way they have.
Lower your expectations: If you expect or demand high level treatment you will often open yourself up for disappointment. And disappointment often leads to anger. Remember, people will often disappoint you - don’t expect anything less of them and you can’t be let down!
This might all sound quite pessimistic, but actually I find this mode of thinking to be quite hopeful. If you can let go of unrealistic expectations and demands and remember that everyone is as flawed as you are (or you are as flawed as everyone else, depending on your perspective!) then you can step away from the toxic swirl of anger that can mess up your day.
One really important quotation comes from Epictetus, a great Stoic philosopher who lived much of his life as a slave and had his legs permanently damaged to prevent him running away. His take on these matters was:
And frankly, if someone with his brutal life experiences can take that attitude, I think we can probably all learn something from it here in the UK!
Love what you have now
One of my favourite quotes comes from a very strange and disturbing play called Cleansed, by Sarah Kane. There is one moment when two lovers are discussing their feelings for each other - one wants to declare undying, unconditional love. The other responds:
I find it really moving because ultimately that’s all any of us can do. We cannot predict or (as per my earlier point) control the future. All we can do is live the best we can from each moment to the next. While you can prepare yourself for and work towards positive future outcomes (for example, by living frugally and saving hard) you cannot predict what events might occur to take you down a different path. (For example, your cat’s antibiotic course might not entirely clean up his bladder infection so you might have to take him in for an X-ray and examination, something which might wipe out some of your savings from that month - as a random example off the top of my head. Thanks cat.)
This is something that Derren focuses a lot of attention on. Something that the stoics used to do to remind themselves of the fragility of the present moment was to take time in the evening to say goodnight to their loved ones while thinking “tomorrow you may die.” Again, this might feel unduly pessimistic but it was intended as a reminder to treasure what we have in the current moment because we do not know when we might lose it.
This is very similar to a zen state of mind in which one avoids becoming too attached to external things, as attachment can lead to suffering. This attitude can feel quite challenging, even though I very much understand the logic of it.
The final quotation that sticks with me is linked to this train of thought - no matter how much you might try and change your external circumstances in order to be happy, ultimately, you always carry yourself with you. The one thing you can ever truly change is your own mindset.
I hope you’ve found those three themes to be interesting - I really recommend reading the book as a whole, because Derren Brown covers a much broader range of themes and ideas than I’ve had a chance to touch on here, and it’s an utterly fascinating book. P and I are currently trying to bring more stoicism into our lives and to read more about that particular thread of philosophy and I really feel it holds some useful keys to modern life. Have you read Happy by Derren Brown? If so, why not let us know what you think?