How can we live happier lives? This is the question that Derren Brown aims to unravel in his latest book, Happy: Why More or Less Everything is Absolutely Fine. To tackle this topic, Brown explores a variety of themes including desire, envy and death – to name but a few. Above all, the book focuses on the ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism and how we might practically apply it today, in our own lives.
The book also alludes to certain pitfalls in the modern self-help industry. Brown notes that we often confuse success with happiness – “we want something, we perhaps get it, we feel good for a while and then return to whatever default level of happiness or sadness we enjoyed before,” he writes.
We are each a product of our own stories – ongoing narratives that determine how we interact with ourselves and the world. We look out through a unique lens that has been shaped and coloured by our past. Unfortunately, we often mistake this view as being objective, failing to see where our own predilections and biases have entered the mix.
Our self image is a prime example of this; a story we create in our heads. “The trouble is,” as Brown writes, “we often conjure up unhelpful images that make us feel bad or inadequate.” He argues that, to live well, we must regain authorship of these stories as, fundamentally, our happiness should rely on who we are, not what we happen to have.
Brown explains that “a considered life is one in which we deeply engage with our own story.” Through introspection, we can begin to examine our unconscious beliefs, understand how they shape our behaviour and assess where changes ought to be made. To help us in this process, he refers to important lessons from the school of Stoicism.
Drawing from the Stoics, Brown suggests that “we indirectly find happiness in the absence of a stressor” and, thus, we should concentrate our efforts on removing needless disturbances, rather than chasing happiness directly. He distills the Stoic teachings into two foundational building blocks which he claims will grant us a “certain psychological robustness”, should we fully internalise them:
“If you are pained by external things, it is not that they disturb you, but your own judgement of them. And it is in your best power to wipe out that judgement now.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, viii
The Stoic belief is that our emotions stem from how we choose to interpret events (i.e. the stories we tell ourselves). Thus, Brown explains, “the Stoics concerned themselves more than any other school with radically reappraising the role of feelings in order to create a life of increased tranquility.”
In the modern world, we refer to this practice as cognitive reframing – a psychological technique to help look at negative events in a more preferable light. We reframe adversity as an opportunity for personal growth, for example. Though to do this effectively, we must first accept the role our judgements play in eliciting emotion.
As human beings, we have a unique capacity for reason. By taking responsibility for our emotions, we put ourselves in a better position to sustain relationships, solve problems and therefore live happily. We cannot expect the world to play out as we would always like, but we can choose how to interpret the events that unfold.
“Don’t try to change things you cannot control.”
Other than our own thoughts and actions, there is very little – if anything – that lies within our control. It is important that we acknowledge and remind ourselves of this. We often tend to compare how things are to how we would like them to be; we compare the reality of a situation to a preferred figment of our imagination. Inevitably, this leads to disappointment.
In Latin there is a phrase ‘amor fati’ which translates to ‘love of fate’. It is a key concept in Stoicism; the idea is that we must strive to accept life as it comes and relinquish our desire for control. Epictetus (50 AD-135 AD), a prominent Stoic Philosopher, wrote “Do not seek to have events happen to you as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well.”
This is not to suggest we stop striving towards our goals or preferred ideals. Rather it is an acknowledgement that success (financial, social, etc.) is only partly in our control (i.e. through the actions we take). And so, like a game of tennis, we ought to navigate through life with the aim of ‘playing’ as best we can rather than fixating our thoughts on a ‘need to win’, as this lies outside of our sphere of control.
Ultimately, these principles are not a quick-fix, but rather, helpful templates that we can continuously refer back to. Brown writes, “our aim, when we consider these Stoic techniques, is to achieve a kind of tranquility, and through this to increase our happiness without making the mistake of trying to chase it directly.”
He notes that, as we try to utilise them, we will constantly let ourselves down. However, “the important things are not the individual successes or failures but the process of learning and developing along the way.” With that, our focus should always remain on making progress through small and manageable changes, rather than striving for perfection.
To implement Brown’s advice, we must practice engaging in more frequent dialogue with ourselves. He writes, “we need to be able to step back and recognise when we are making choices as to how to behave or think, or acknowledge when an unhelpful choice has been made and supply counter-arguments to remedy the situation.”
By taking responsibility for our stories, Brown argues we can each live happier and healthier lives. Much of the book concerns the value of understanding the distinction between happiness as a pursuit in and of itself and happiness as a by-product of creating a more tranquil existence.
He reminds us that, in this latter approach, it’s important we accept that which we cannot control and to take responsibility for our own judgements. And though we might strive for tranquility, he counters this by suggesting we welcome adversity when it arrives as perhaps our ultimate aim should be to make sure we are moving forward.