Paperback: 576 pages ISBN-10: 0552172359 ISBN-13: 978-0552172356
In Happy, Derren Brown explores changing concepts of happiness – from the surprisingly modern wisdom of the Stoics and Epicureans in classical times right up until today, when the self-help industry has attempted to claim happiness as its own. He shows how many of self-help’s suggested routes to happiness and success – such as positive thinking, self-belief and setting goals – can be disastrous to follow and, indeed, actually cause anxiety.
When someone tells you about an argument they were involved in, do you not administer a dose of scepticism? Do we ever think to take the same sceptical view of that one story that affects our life the most? Would we consider applying the same wry detachment to the private tale of who we are?
How might we even gain the necessary vantage point to consider our stories when we are tucked away within them? We will look at ways of gaining that perspective, but if we don’t consider how to view it for what it is, the negative aspects of that story will trap us. Feelings of anxiety and helplessness can become all too familiar. And, as we’ll discover, overt optimism tends to leave us defenceless and flailing too.
‘If this doesn’t work out, as it may not, irrespective of your enthusiasm, there is more in life that can make you happy. Don’t attach too much to this one goal.’ That is a truly considerate message, though we are unlikely to want to hear it.
It is absolutely the case that for the vast majority of people wealth does not significantly affect levels of happiness, despite how things might appear. The psychological reason for this can be expressed simply – your happiness levels are largely defined by the balance of your personality.
Or if the journey’s end is not so lonely, or if success is reached without too much sacrifice, what then? The enjoyment of arrival is usually short-lived; the happiness envisioned and rehearsed for years is unlikely to last. Why? Because it does not arrive quite as satisfyingly as suspected; because we quickly get used to it; above all, because when one arrives one is still oneself, with whatever tendency towards dissatisfaction or restlessness that may bring.
Most of what happens in life is entirely out of your control, and while blind self-belief might disguise that fact for a while, it will eventually prove an anaemic opponent to brute reality.
By projecting ourselves always into the hereafter we miss out on the present, on knowing ourselves and the richness of the current moment. By trying to control what we can’t, we all but guarantee frustration and disappointment.
Our planning does not reflect the reality of life; it can root our concerns too rigidly in the future while life slips by; it may leave us feeling empty when we get there.
the things we desire really do little other than fuel further desires and teach us what greed is. In the accumulation of material things, no deep satisfaction is to be found, other than fleeting pleasure and the temporary delight of impressing others.
Perhaps the biggest and most important step for becoming happier, then, is the first: realising we need a plan. Then we must find which plan stands up best to the realities of being alive.
Our philosophy can be highly flexible and subject to great changes, but the important point, I believe, is to have one, and one that enables us to live more fully.
Leading a considered life is about getting our story right for ourselves. It’s as simple as that.
If we, at any point in our lives, can look at what we’re up to and feel that everything is more or less in its place, and that our story is on the right tracks, we will have a good basis for happiness.
What is the experience of an unconsidered existence? We resemble the motif of Sam Mendes’s film American Beauty: a thin plastic bag flitting and sailing on the currents of life.
We are missing out if we feel that happiness is a result of lucky circumstance rather than something rooted immovably in us. For it to be solid, our happiness would not rely on fortuity or what we happen to have. It would be fundamentally about who we are.
The sign of the true expert is his modest awareness of how much more there is to know; how complex and nuanced the subject at hand insists on remaining.
Aristotle was interested in how we might be good, rather than know goodness. Thus when he taught ethics, his aim was to improve the lives of his pupils at a practical, everyday level.
People should learn to best fulfil their nature. But what do human beings do when they are being particularly successful at being human? What is our unique and therefore proper function, and therefore, Aristotle would say, the key to our happiness? In other words, what separates us from other forms of life? Aristotle supplies us with the answer: reason. What, then, is the highest aim of this reason? To ensure happiness. Success at being human would amount to the best, or most virtuous, use of reason. Flourishing – Aristotle’s take on happiness – is ‘an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue’.
Thus virtue, according to Aristotle, could be found in balancing extreme qualities with their opposites: finding the mean. For example: courage taken to an extreme is foolhardiness; its opposite is cowardliness. A virtuous person treads the middle path.
There is a sort of muscle-memory to ethics: we learn to act in a way that is appropriate until it comes naturally.
Aristotle also felt strongly that virtue requires action; mere noble intentions are not enough. We are social creatures; a solitary life is not worth living. Our personal happiness, then, was linked to the welfare of the community.
Our daily employment does not need to be our identity. It’s a wonderful bonus to do what one enjoys, but it’s not necessary. Far more important is knowing how to navigate the difficulties and disappointments in life and work, without setting up a romantic ideal of a ‘perfect’ job; it’s no more helpful or realistic than that of a perfect partner. Otherwise we are intimating that everyone who does not love his or her work has gone horribly astray; once again, the mantra of ‘you can be anything’ creates more pain than pleasure.
We remember Epicurus’s thought: ‘Everything we need is easy to procure, while the things we desire but don’t need are more difficult to obtain.’
We live in an age where ‘conspicuous consumption’ (the purchasing of goods to display our economic success) and ‘invidious consumption’ (purchasing in order to make others envy us) are so commonplace we barely notice we’re engaging in them.
We should understand Stoic virtue by considering the phrase – ‘a human being is unique by virtue of his capacity for reason’. That use of the word does not imply any ethical high-mindedness. Another way of phrasing that thought would be: ‘A human being has virtue when he exercises his capacity for reason.’
Intention was the key: philosophy taught the Stoic student merely to aim the arrow clearly at the target. Whether or not the arrow reached the bull’s eye was a matter for fortune and not a concern for the student.
If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgement of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgement now.
Stoicism remains a potent remedy for our modern lives and the myriad stresses and tragedies they may bring.
It is, as Marcus tells us, always in our power to represent events to ourselves in such a way they give us an advantage. Two thousand years later, we think of this as ‘reframing’: the reinterpretation of a negative event as something positive.
We cannot effectively choose to feel more positive about an event that is bothering us unless we have first understood that it is our judgements, which are responsible for how we feel. An encouragement to see the positive in a situation will not be effective if it clashes with a deeper story we are telling ourselves.
You may decide to interpret this notion of responsibility as an instruction to blame yourself, and haughtily insist that you certainly won’t be doing that. But there is no Stoic directive to self-blame, to beat yourself up for causing problems. This part of their thinking is about removing pain, not adding to it or merely shifting it.
No amount of effort on our part will ever secure the kind of power we would like to wield, if the target of our endeavours does not fall under our sway. It’s simply wasted effort that leads inevitably to disappointment.
Commonly, when we feel out of control, we try to establish control over something: the urge is almost overwhelming. Feeling uneasy in conversation at a dinner party, we arrange the scattered objects before us on the table at neat right angles; when having to deliver or accept bad news, we calmly straighten the folds on our clothing. At the severe end of the scale, we note the unhappy situation of those afflicted with eating disorders and/or the need to self-harm.
key to why this works is that when we let things go that we can’t control, nothing bad happens. The situation can’t get any worse, and generally we get to feel an awful lot better.
We should never aim to achieve anything that is out of our control, therefore we can always feel in control of the outcome.
Because indifferents exist in the realm of external things, it follows not only that we cannot control them but also that we may lose them one day.
Two powerful, positive consequences result from practising this non-attachment: we learn to value those things more by appreciating their transience in our lives, and we are more prepared for the moment we lose them.
The Stoic route to valuing things is to accept that whether they come or go from our lives is not under our control. This understanding allows us to enjoy them even more, because we know that we will not have them in our lives forever.
Fortune will always continue on her own path, providing one day and denying the next; the Stoic does not fight fate but quietly separates his business from hers.
There will always be people and events that get in the way of our plans. Thus we should not get too attached to our ambitions and realise that our tiny aims are an insignificant part of the myriad of plans, thwarted and realised, that make up the grand scheme of fortune as it continues to unravel itself.
Understanding we are only in control of our thoughts and actions, we can choose how to respond to events whenever they prove less than ideal, without making ourselves unhappy.
Over a thousand years after Stoicism reached its popular height, Descartes described that his ambition was: To try to conquer myself rather than fortune, and to change my desires rather than the order of the world, and generally to accustom myself to believing that there is nothing that is completely within our power except our thoughts, so that, after we have done our best regarding things external to us, everything that is lacking for us to succeed is, from our point of view, absolutely impossible.
Meanwhile, we should aim to do our best, as Marcus reminded himself, and count our successes as they occur. Epictetus suggested: So is it possible to be altogether faultless? No, that is impracticable; but it is possible to strive continuously not to commit faults. For we shall have cause to be satisfied if, by never relaxing our attention, we shall escape at least a few faults.
The Stoics had no time for the type of philosopher who prided himself on his encyclopaedic knowledge, his polished rhetoric or his understanding of difficult abstract points. Theory only existed in the service of practical exercises.
We can benefit from remembering the words of the novelist David Foster Wallace: ‘You will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realise how seldom they do.’
If we have let ourselves down, it is difficult, but highly therapeutic, to admit as much to ourselves and realise we could have done better; we make a mental note for next time, apologise if need be to the people concerned, and move on. We are fallible human beings and will make mistakes for the rest of our lives.
In Stoic premeditation, we are not aiming to ‘let go’ of thoughts like the Buddhists; rather we want to rationally engage with them.
If one can’t contrive to live on a certain income of money, one earns a little more – or steals it, or advertises for it … one braces the muscles … and balances the budget. But if one cannot arrange that an income of twenty-four hours a day shall exactly cover all proper items of expenditure, one does muddle one’s life entirely. The supply of time, though gloriously regular, is cruelly restricted.
The valued opinions of a few friends who know us well could be of enormous benefit. Given the importance we tend to ascribe to how we come across to other people, it is astonishing that we are so hostile to honest feedback. Criticisms make us defensive or upset, and flattery sinks in too deeply. If we wish to make progress with a character trait, such as minimising anger, we would be well advised to start asking trusted friends how we’re doing. There is surely no more direct route to self-deception than the avoidance of feedback.
Because we forget about the role of our appraisals and tend to ascribe our feelings to the events themselves and those who perpetrate them, two people with different judgements will live, by all accounts, in two different worlds.
When we consider, in place of feeling angry with each other, that each of us operates only from the standpoint of what we know or have been told to be true; that we each are struggling to make sense of a vast number of conflicting priorities and nameless anxieties; only then can we begin to relinquish our loneliness and truly connect with each other as fellow human beings. We each live out our contortion of the same shared truth.
This is a brilliant bit of thinking. We can aim high, seek to change the world, yet always be satisfied with the outcome. The Stoics have taken the reclusive Epicurean instruction to desire only what you already have, and allowed it to be active, engaged and vital.
It serves us to remember that total adherence to one school of thought or another is likely to deny the important and beneficial expression of part of our nature. To merely label oneself a ‘Stoic’ is to renounce one’s own voice. A considered life should not, like the pious one, be a matter of subjugation to any label, under which all the ‘consideration’ has been previously done for you.
If you unconsciously think that more money (or more exposure) will make you happier because it will bring you higher status, then you are basing your idea of happiness on what other people feel. Whilst being appreciated by other people is a pleasant part of life, it’s also something we have no ultimate control over, and no clear or stable reference point to let us know we have achieved it.
There is, as we’ve discussed, a yearly salary figure up to which people report themselves as incrementally happier. The amount depends on the cost of living, but importantly, when people earn higher than that ‘comfortable’ figure, they don’t continue to grow happier. Again, we indirectly find happiness in the absence of a stressor (money troubles) not in the having of something.
Armstrong, meanwhile, makes a refreshing point. He says we should pay attention to what we need. He emphatically does not mean by this that we should simply be frugal. Instead, as part of a considered life, he suggests we become more aware of what our priorities are: what we need to flourish. Some commodities will help us do that, and they may indeed be expensive or appear luxurious to others.
So death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist. It does not concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more.
Death, perhaps uniquely amongst the objects of our dread, instructs us how to live.
If there are things you need to face in your past because they refuse to let you go, realise at least that they grip you not because they control you (they no longer exist), but because of the narrative they’ve left you with.
Buddhists talk of thoughts acting like drips of water on the brain: as the same thought is repeated over time, the resulting rivulet is fortified to etch a free-flowing new stream in the mind.
We should live in the present while we plan for the future. Remembering the Stoic reserve clause of ‘if things work out’ (or ‘God willing’) we can make plans without investing ourselves with undue emotion in their outcomes.
Wholeness cannot be found in the mere avoidance of troubling feelings, however helpful the tools of the Stoics are for reassessing attachments and finding one’s centre of gravity. To live without anxiety is to live without growth. We shouldn’t try to control what we cannot, and we must take responsibility for our feelings. But the reason for this is to walk out into the world with strength, not to hide from danger.
Why would we not wish to pay attention to these disturbances if they have something to teach us? Anxiety is a signal that we are not in harmony with ourselves. Who is? It is good to detach from worthless sources of worry but also vital for our flourishing to listen to those rumblings and see from whence they arise.