Derren Brown is one of the world’s most infamous ‘mentalists’, a performer seemingly adept at every supernatural skillset from telepathy and hypnosis, to clairvoyance and mediumship. Paradoxically, he does not claim to possess any such paranormal abilities and his acts are often centred around exposing those who claim to do so, such as faith healers and psychics.
It is then apt that Brown’s latest book, ‘Happy: why more or less everything is absolutely fine’, can be found in the ‘self-help’ isle of most bookshops, whilst ironically taking aim at the very same, multi-million dollar industry. Having dedicated his life to mastering the mechanisms and manipulation of human psychology, Brown is well positioned to pen an engrossing book dedicated to the history and philosophy of man’s most sought after state – happiness.
In keeping with the first question to have entered your mind (‘so what is the secret to happiness??’), the prime title in the firing line is one of America’s best sellers, The Secret, which preaches that positive thinking alone can directly impact your immediate circumstances. Brown’s main criticism is that such books are ‘damaging’ and encourage a lazy complacency in the belief that you can ‘magically get whatever you want’, as if the universe owes this to you within your lifetime. In Brown’s own words, ‘the universe doesn’t give a fuck‘.
I do believe that although we are hardwired to think otherwise, we are probably not the centre of the universe, or even of great concern to it at all. Existential crises aside, my initial instinct still disagreed with the heavy handedness of Brown’s condemnation. After all, our perception of our reality is hugely reliant upon our mindsets, and whereas it is relatively undemanding to be cynical or pessimistic in an imperfect world, idealism and positivity may take a little more conscious effort. Surely then, encouraging people to adopt such mindsets as habit, could only be a good thing?
However after investigating a little further, I could better comprehend the nasty after-taste left by literature like ‘The Secret‘. It is often said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and when snippets of science are taken out of context, poorly translated and misunderstood, they become pseudoscience. This is the main affliction that plagues much of the self-help, health and wellbeing industry – well-dressed bullshit and greedy Charlatans. The Secret is not about an awareness of mindset or re-framing desires, it utilises its own version of ‘quantum mechanics’ to convince readers that our solar system is a genie in a lamp, waiting to be rubbed. It is the commoditisation of hope.
In the short-term, such magical thinking can be helpful to a certain extent but what the real solution boils down to, for those relentlessly seeking unanswerable answers, are long-term, realistic coping strategies. One such policy is rational, critical thinking which is what ‘Happy’ logically lays out, in satisfying detail. The primary focus is on Stoicism, a Greek school of Philosophy founded in the third century BC.
Stoicism is an emphasis on what you can control, which is not to be confused with the idea that everything in the universe is under your control – as the ‘positive thinking = positive life’ mantra instills. It’s not just the events in the world that cause suffering but our predominantly autonomic responses to those events.
Whether or not certain methods are considered empirically sound by scientific standards, I controversially don’t think there’s harm in occasionally indulging in the ‘spiritual’ and ‘alternative’ or whatever term you wish to use – alongside standard practice and under certain conditions. The decision should be a well informed choice, made by an autonomous adult with capacity. Where the ground is shaky is a retention of the latter in the highly emotional state the lost and the desperate find themselves in, and the volume of Quacks all too ready to exploit such anxieties, purely for financial gain. This highlights one of the key benefits of a Stoic attitude, in remaining compos mentis under trying circumstances, by removing the blame tied to external events and disconnecting from innate, conditioned reactions.
I get the impression that another hidden irony in ‘Happy’, is that its creation served a therapeutic purpose. The will to write 400 pages on how to be happy, with a 3 page long bibliography, must partly stem from some vested interest. This is exactly what makes it so thorough, thoughtful, judicious and yet personal. Compiled by a man that has everything society dictates as the recipe for everlasting happiness – fame, fortune, intellect and love, Derren Brown explores each end of the spectrum of the human condition, with captivating curiosity, tact and grace.
‘I realised that it’s only ever about what’s interesting and what’s fun and what feels worthwhile’ – Derren Brown