I've long been fascinated by the work of UK mentalist and magician Derren Brown and so was pleasantly surprised to hear that he had published with a new book with a more philosophical bent. Usually his live shows exhibit his skill in magic, psychology, misdirection, suggestion and showmanship - creating experiences that surpass (in my opinion) those of the great magicians, psychics, illusionists and hypnotists alike. What sets him apart though is that he doesn't toot his own horn. He is dedicated to pulling back the curtain and explaining to his audience that there is nothing supernatural about what he does. Instead it's a form of performance. His warnings have done much to disrupt the charlatans that use their 'supernatural powers' to make money from gullible people or to delve deeply into psychologically-vulnerable minds for the sake of good theatre. I admire this about him and it's why I have found him so fascinating.
So a book on philosophy might at first sound like it's out of place. What could a stage performer possibly have to say about the topic. But as you read, you realise that's it's an amazing vantage point to come from because of the people that have bared their psychological baggage at his feet over the years.
The book 'Happy' is a candid attempt to counterbalance the menagerie of self-help books that promise that the secret to happiness lies within their pages. Instead Brown acknowledges that happiness is not something that can be achieved. It is not a destination that you can arrive at. Instead, it's a decision that we make about how we live our lives and the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves. And perhaps it's not a worthy goal to strive for in the first place.
The framework he uses in order to package his ideas is an ancient roman philosophy called stoicism - a life guide that has started to return to the zeitgeist in the last decade. Stripping away the jargon, the core tenets are profound:
- Focus only on the things that you can control, while leaving the things you can't.
- It's not your circumstances that determine your destiny, but rather your re-actions to what happens to you.
- Strive for virtue above anything else.
I'm aware that it may appear fortune-cookie-esque and that's unfortunate because you might just glance over it and ignore it. But I urge you to dig into stoicism - it is a fantastic guide to living a good life and deserves some of your time. My three bullet points are a woefully inadequate representation and many people have written much more elegantly about it than I could.
What I rather want to focus on is the core idea of the book - examining the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves.
Every second of every day there is a pattern at work. The story of who we are and why we do things is forever playing in our mind - affecting our decisions and our moods. It's the way that we make meaning out of the chaos of 21st century life.
"I'm an introvert."
"I could never enjoy going clubbing."
"She never really loved me."
"I can achieve anything I put my mind to."
"I'm not worthy of that sort of success."
"I'm an imposter."
"My confidence is my biggest strength."
I imagine it as a tiny director that lives in our conscience narrating our every move from behind our eyes.
This storytelling capability is a powerful tool, perhaps the most important psychological tool we have, and yet we spend so little time examining it and trying to better our use of it. For most of us, the story falls victim to all sorts of biases and mental flaws - which distorts the truth and applies our own filter to what really happened. And even worse than that, we tend to let the actions and words of other people dictate the way our own stories are told.
Brown implores us to detach and learn to write our own stories:
"I am talking about engaging with and owning our life stories; of being able to step back far enough to see them for what they are; of finding a way of living that has come from due thought rather than a passive immersion in the tangles of everyday distractions."
This is not easy. It requires a method of introspection that requires us to sit with ourselves and just 'be' for a little bit. It requires us to be brutally honest with ourselves and to engage with the dialogue in our head. It requires us to stop using distractions to sweep things under the rug.
This kind of self-work is stigmatised and thus ignored - but it prevents us from writing a story that self-empowering.
Instead we join the herd and live as they do. Brown again:
"We try to fit in, and we neither convince ourselves that we do, nor, we suspect, those around us. At those times, what makes us different seems only to be the crushing disappointing absence of what bonds everyone else together. Mill says that this difference is something to be celebrated. We may not have what they have, and this is a very good thing. We should look to developing and strengthening those parts of us that feel unique, not as an aggressive stance against society but with the warm glow of knowing that we can contribute more to it as a distinct, idiosyncratic individual. And therefore, ultimately, be of more use to the world."
This is something that I have found very challenging personally as social media occupies an unhealthy proportion of my window to the world. With my cellphone in my pocket, it is easy to dismiss feelings of guilt, sadness, loneliness, boredom or lethargy by delving into the dopamine-gold mine and numbing the pain for a little bit. It is also easy for the glamorized social media lives of the people I follow to become the measuring stick for my own life.
But that is the recipe for an unsatiated life - one in which you don't deal with the voice inside your head.
"If we are able to find time and space each day to redress the balance, and if we use it to remind ourselves that so much of our life has nothing to do with us, and that it is only with our thoughts and actions that we need to concern ourselves, we will soon find that our centre of gravity returns to its correct place."
The moment that we can take control of our own stories and learn to change them to be more useful - then the world begins to look different. Our luck seems to change. We can change the direction that our life is going in.
"What terrifies most about death is not the loss of the future but the loss of the past. In fact, the act of forgetting is a form of death always present within life." - Milan Kundera