Derren Brown’s job is to use psychology to convince. When he’s up there on stage and entertaining audiences, he guiding those in front of him to believe things – to tell themselves stories that may not be true. So he’s pretty well versed on how the brain works. You’d think we might be by now, having lived with our brains for…oh, all our lives. but the trouble is that they are clever things, and capable of fooling even themselves.
It’s why the diet industry, entrepreneurial get rich quick schemes and self help happiness field is so saturated with ‘solutions’ – that don’t work. You’d think that we would have figured by now that there’s something that the elusive ‘top 5 steps’ approach can’t be readily taught, or perhaps even achieved.
Derren Brown’s new book Happy: Why More or Less Everything is Absolutely Fine is about stepping back from that. Finding a place of ‘good enough.’ Not the catchy title that usually grabs you in the book shop, but one that might help us to find, if not blissful nirvana, a state of contentment.
Because, most stuff is alright. And even when it’s not, those negative events themselves rarely hurt us; it is usually our beliefs, feelings, or judgments concerning those events which do. Instead, it’s the gap between our expectation and reality that is the source of unhappiness. If you lower your expectation, your contentment tends to increase. Does this mean giving up and not striving to be all that we can?
Far from it. He is scathing of books like The Secret by Rhonda Byrne, the 28 million copy bestseller that preaches the premise that the law of attraction is the key, and by thinking positive thoughts we will get all we need. The message that if you work and wish hard enough you’ll get what you want, and if you don’t, it’s your own fault, is one that he says is ‘toxic.’ And I agree.
One danger is the constant goal setting and planning that stops us being present. It’s very difficult to appreciate what you have, when you’re not really there, but ‘consistently orientated toward something that’s always on the horizon.’ Life just passes you by – and so of course you’re not satisfied with it.
But Brown isn’t coming up with anything particularly groundbreaking and radical here. He is heavily influenced by the Stoics, and quotes Seneca –‘ A man’s as miserable as he thinks he is’ – and Epictetus – ‘Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them’ – amongst others. There’s echoes of Stephen Covey’s sphere of influence idea from his classic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and I’m reminded of The Serenity Prayer by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) and it’s plea to God to ‘grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.’
The book is long, and there’s a rather lengthy few chapters on dying that could be trimmed down. But it’s a compelling and important message that deserves being repeated.The words we tell ourselves matter. Stories are powerful and create our worlds. Tell a better story, and accept that ‘The route to real happiness is about realising what you have now, rather than focusing on what could be.’ says Brown. It’s nothing new, but continues to be very true. When will we realise it?
Happy: Why More or Less Everything is Absolutely Fine by Derren Brown is published by Random House. Available on Audible, narrated by Jot Davies.