Derren brown is arguably one of the most intelligent individual in the 21st century partly due to his exploits as an illusionist and philosopher magician. There are a lot of things that Brown has done to showcase his brilliance however today I will not be waxing lyrical about him instead you my reader can take your time and check some of Derren brown’s work in YouTube. Today I want us to talk about the “Concept of Happiness” as explained by Brown in his book “Happy”. But before that I would like us to consider this scenario where a person let us called him “person x” wants to cross a river. There are a group of cheerleaders behind “person x “who are motivating him to cross the river. “Person x” is therefore full of determination and he decides to set off. However, as “person x” swims deep into the river he realizes that no matter how hard he strains his muscles he cannot overcome the river’s current. As a result, he drifts further and further away from reaching the intended destination.
We may not like to admit it but our lives tend to follow the same trajectory. This is because in most cases the forces which are beyond our control tend to drag us from our chosen paths. A lot of motivation speakers and self-help books would recommend that you can fight life’s “currents” and “challenges” with positive thinking and determination. But taking inspiration from modern scientific research as well as ancient Roman and Greek philosophers such as “the Stoics”, Brown argues that positive thinking and determination is simply a recipe for frustration and disappointment. He explains that “we are better off making our peace with fact that life is a dynamic process and it got its ups and downs”. Nowadays, the narratives we tell ourselves is usually inspired by self-help industry’s promotion of self-belief, determination, and positive thinking. These stories are initially empowering and makes us feel like heroes who are relentlessly pursuing their objectives through sheer willpower. However, based on Brown’s findings, this will only result in disappointment for most people.
Our problem as human beings is that we are usually not very good at choosing the right objectives. We have a terrible understanding of what fully satisfies us. Many individuals have their sights on money for example, but many psychological studies reveal that beyond certain level of wealth needed for basic comfort, extreme riches do not bring greater happiness
“If you are not convinced, Brown suggests the following thought experiment: imagine that you woke up one day to discover that you were the only person left living on Earth. With no one else around, you’d be able to go and live in any house you wanted – Buckingham Palace even. But would you want to? “You would probably find somewhere that was just comfortable and practical.” The same goes for your expensive clothes, fancy cars, or the latest technology. “When you really follow that thought through, it’s amazing how much we acquire and want only to impress other people.”
Even if we do choose the right goals, the positive-thinking movement can place too much responsibility on the individual; if we haven’t succeeded, it’s our own fault for not having wanted it enough. Worse still, the kind of inflated personal belief that is promoted by certain gurus may cause us to ignore the criticisms of those around us, even when they might be offering a more realistic view of our chances.
Ultimately, the success stories we hear are the anomalies. Just think of all the motivational autobiographies out there: all giving the impression that determination was the key to success. “You just never read the biographies of businessmen who have failed,” he says – yet there will be many out there who had all the self-belief, but just never managed to make it. After all, as many as nine out of ten start-ups end up bombing.
Brown, of course, isn’t arguing that we should simply give up on our dreams. But if we return to that idea of the swimmer crossing from one bank to the other, it’s no good ignoring the currents pushing against us or believing that our force of will alone will overturn them – it is inevitable that you are going to be dragged off course.
If positive thinking can’t make us happier, what can? Brown argues that a healthier attitude to life comes from the Stoics, the ancient Greek philosophers who argued that we should actively and deliberately distinguish between the things that are within your power to change, and the things that aren’t – which we should learn to accept as a necessary part of life.
“I find myself doing this a lot that when something’s really bothering and frustrating me. I just think which side of the line is it on? Is it my thoughts and actions? Or is it something out there? It’s always something out there, it’s someone else’s behaviour. So then I think well, what if it was fine that that person is an idiot, or that my partner can’t handle stress well, or something like that – things that kind of end up having an effect on me, but actually, what if it’s fine, that that’s just their thing? It’s a very helpful thought, because then you take all the stress off yourself. You can then still work out how to help that person if you want, if that’s appropriate, but you kind of emotionally just disconnect from the pain of it.”
He gives an example of a game of tennis, but he says that same applies to any major challenge. “If you go into the game thinking ‘I must win’, that’s out of your control. So if you start to lose, you feel like you’re failing and then you become anxious… But if you go into a game of tennis thinking ‘I’ll play as well as I possibly can to the best of my ability’ – that is under your control, and it doesn’t matter if you start to lose – you won’t feel the frustration of failure, because you’re not failing, you’re still sticking true to your goals.”
Similarly, you can go into a job interview with the full knowledge that even if you perform your absolute best, the employer’s final decision is still beyond your control, and you can afford yourself a little compassion if you don’t make it. Brown says that this lowers our emotional “centre of gravity”, making us more resilient to life’s challenges. “[The Stoic’s] model of happiness was about avoiding disturbance.”
Brown also advocates the Stoic practice of premeditation every morning to prepare the mind for the day ahead. “It is, quite simply, spending a few minutes every morning, thinking about the day that lies ahead, and what the kind of traps are likely to be where you’re likely to let yourself down, and just anticipating them and thinking them through,” he says. This deliberate self-reflection – taken from a distanced perspective, when we are in a more rational frame of mind – reminds us that some things will be out of our control, and need not be the source of upset. At the same time it helps us to navigate the challenges that are within our control more wisely, so that we don’t just make the same mistakes again and again.”
-BBC Future extract