Happy - Derren Brown

Famous illusionist, Derren Brown, is no fan of the self-help industry.

He points out that despite all the suggestions of positive thinking, self-belief, and goal setting as a means of achieving happiness and fulfilment, issues with depression and mental health seem more prevalent than ever.

Not content with merely pointing out flaws in these ideas, through the lens of the ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism, along with some more modern ideas, he offers some alternatives that may help in this pursuit of happiness, whilst simultaneously questioning the idea of happiness itself, as a goal.

You’ll likely get a lot from this book if you have a passing interest in philosophy and want to learn more, but I think you’ll also get a lot from it if you’ve been struggling to make sense of your place in the world, and are in search of some insight into how to approach living a good life, and maybe even (if you’re lucky) finding some happiness along the way.

The Big Ideas

1. We Tell Ourselves a Story, and We Can Change it

Our view of the world and who we are is based on the stories we tell ourselves. When we recognise these stories, we are able to assess whether or not these stories are actually true, and alter them to more useful stories where needed.

e.g. “I’m not good at sports.” vs. “I’ve only actually tried one sport and hated it, but could potentially be good at a different sport, especially if I learned about it and practiced."

2. Goal-Setting May be Harmful

Of course, it’s useful to have something we’re working towards, but if we are putting off our happiness until this outcome has been met, we are setting ourselves up for failure, because (a) we’re not very good at knowing what we actually want and (b) as soon as we hit that goal, we’re likely to switch our focus directly on to the next one.

As well as that, we often fail to recognise that the achievement of these goals is only partly within our control, with chance and fortune playing a role.

When taking to the extreme, we can see this in books like “The Secret”, where we’re told that all we have to do is believe completely in the goal, and it will come to fruition, which can leave people with a false sense of hope, and eventually, disappointment.

3. Materialistic Things Don’t Make us Happy

How often have you set your eyes on buying something nice, and after working your ass off and saving up, you finally get it, only to realise the novelty has worn off after a few days?

Having enough money to cover the basics (things like food, shelter, bills, etc.) can help us avoid the frustrations associated with lacking in those things. But extra money beyond this doesn’t usually increase happiness. We may think that a new car or house or piece of clothing will make us happier, but that feeling is fleeting, and soon, our baseline adjusts to this as the new normal. This concept is known as the ‘Hendonic Treadmill’.

4. There are Two Selves

In Daniel Kahneman’s book, “Thinking Fast and Slow”, he outlines the idea that we have “two selves”: The experiencing self (who we are in the present moment. The ‘you’ reading this article, for example) and the remembering self (who we are when thinking about our memories and our life’s path).

In Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book “Flow”, he outlines the idea that we are fulfilled in the moment (the experiencing self) when we are being challenged to the limit of our skills in a given task.

The remembering self is more concerned with the stories we have about our lives. Living a considered life, where we critically assessing the stories we tell ourselves, allows us to see what is true or untrue about these stories, adjusting as needed, and adjusting our actions to create better stories.

5. The History of the Philosophy of Happiness

The history of philosophy gives us an outline of the changes in thoughts around the nature of life and reality, and allows us to draw on parts we find useful.

The ancient Greeks spoke about rising above the particulars of everyday life (transcendence), as well as only focussing on things within our control, and debated what it meant to be a ‘good’ human being, with a big focus on using reason and rationality as guides.

Christianity built on these ideas, focussing more on guiding principles (from God) rather than individual reason and rationality, as well as the idea sacrificing the present for a future pay-off (heaven, for example).

The enlightenment put reason and logic back at the forefront, but pushed the idea of God out of the picture, and perhaps a set of guiding principles along with it.

The industrial progress that came as a result of scientific progress was met by critics who said it was taking us away from nature, and others like Karl Marx, who proposed that work should be a means of fulfilment in itself, and not just a means of manufacturing products to earn money to feed your family.

Great minds like Nietzsche and Freud proposed the ideas like “being the authors of our own lives”, and the idea of being ok with “natural unhappiness”.

Now, we seem to be in this place where we have the ability to guide our own lives to a large extent, but without a set of guiding principles (previously found in religion or mythology), the “remembering self” has no blueprint for constructing our story, and our “experiencing self” can indulge in short-term pleasure, never having to grapple with the tough (but rewarding) work of challenging ourselves and improving our abilities.

6. Stoicism - The Surprisingly Modern Ancient Greek Philosophy

The Stoic philosophers said that things, situations, and people don’t trouble us, but rather that our view about them does. This is related to the previous idea around the stories we tell ourselves.

They also offered the idea of assessing our well being based solely on those things which are within our control, namely our thoughts and our actions, and not putting a focus on things out of our control, such as other people’s thoughts and actions, or even the ultimate outcomes of our own actions.

Stoics believed that the ultimate virtue of a human is our ability to use rationality. However, this rationality can only be used to aim the arrow (this is within our control), but not control where the arrow ultimately ends up (this is out of our control).

7. Anger is Futile

Anger usually comes from someone breaking our own set of ‘rules’ about the world, which may not be in line with their rules.

We can control this anger somewhat by seeing things from other people’s point of view, asking ourselves how we might advise a close friend in the same situation, and lowering our own expectations.

Rationality is often a more favourable approach than anger because when we are angry, our opinion is often dismissed as emotional, we create regret on both behalves, and we make poorer decisions (think: road rage).

8. Fame and Money Don’t Make us Happy

With the idea of God becoming almost irrelevant for most people, there is a “role-model” shape hole left over. Because we tend to only see the best parts of celebrities’ lives, this hole is often filled by them.

However, fame doesn’t make you happy, as given by Derren’s personal experience and accounts from others, so perhaps these are the wrong ideals for us to be working towards.

As discussed earlier, even money only helps as far as covering the basics.

Furthermore, both fame and money are somewhat out of our control, so if our happiness is based on them, our happiness is also out of your control.

9. We Don’t Have to Fear Death

If we think about it, we’ll probably realise that we don’t actually fear death, but perhaps we fear the potential suffering leading up to death.

The fear of no longer existing is unfounded, since we’ve been there before: before we were born.

So is death good? Perhaps it can be if it reminds us to live our best life and enjoy it now.

Sam Harris said that “Greater engagement with the present moment is the antidote to the fear of death.”

10. Aim to Live a “Good Enough” Life Now

By aiming to live a “good enough” life, we avoid setting ourselves up for disappointment in pursuit of a perfect life.

Even without the belief in an afterlife, we live on in the memories of others, or perhaps our personalities live on, in something that others can remember and act out.

Derren ends with a final call to action, to not merely seek tranquillity, but to welcome the opposite: tough conversations about the messy subjects in life, with both ourselves and others.

My Top 3 Takeaways


1. Although it wasn’t Derren’s original concept, I found the idea of the “2 selves” to be enlightening, as it wasn’t something I’d considered before.

The experiencing self needs to feel fulfilled in the moment, through work that challenges us to the limits of our skills, and our remembering self needs to view our life’s stories in a way that is meaningful.

2. I like how he outlined a short history of philosophy, as it gave me an overview of how we came to today’s ideas, and also gave me ideas for topics I’d like to explore further, and added 5-6 books to my reading list.

3. Having read quite a bit of stoic writing, I liked his focus on this branch of philosophy as a practical approach that can be used today, breaking it down to the basic concepts that the Stoics proposed, such as realising that our reactions to things are more important than the things themselves, focussing on the things within our control, and using rationality.

Conor O’Neill

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