Happy by Derren Brown

Link to review on GoodReads (let me know if the link doesn’t work, haven’t linked from GoodReads before): https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1853186261




I should preface this review with the blunt acknowledgement that I am a huge obsessive Derren fan-boy. My admiration for his contributions the fields of magic, mentalism, entertainment, and the performing arts in general will quite likely provide the first and most prominent barrier to objectivity with regards to an honest review of his latest book, Happy. But I will do my best.

Having worked my way through Letters to a Stoic prior to picking up this book, I was delighted to see that the foundations of Derren’s foray into the study of happiness was a look at Stoic philosophy and indeed the history of other prominent philosophies at the time. In this section I picked up a fair amount of knowledge when it comes to the historical aspects of how Stoic philosophy came to be, its different factions, and its enduring influence in our everyday lives; most notably in diluted forms shrouded in the teachings of Christianity. I found this aspect utterly fascinating and such a pleasure to track the course of Stoic teachings throughout history.

What I liked about this section and indeed with all of Derren’s writing is his ability to reduce quite complex ideas into bite-sized pieces to consume and digest. I found that throughout the Stoic sections of Happy I was having moments of revelations which consolidated question marks that were leftover from my Letters to a Stoic readings.

The initial sections in which Derren talks about the reigning narratives around how to be happy in current society really struck a chord with me. Being quite an impressionable and easily-led individual, it is very easy for me to give into overly inspirational narratives spouted by outspoken members of society and indeed social media influencers. Lately, it has been the notions of positivity and the mantra of ‘believe in yourself against all odds’ that so many self-proclaimed spiritual leaders and entrepreneurs seem to all have their own versions of. And which, I confess, I even started to parrot in my own interactions with the world.

The section in which Derren points out the inherent risks and flaws with this mindset and approach to life was quite a breakthrough for me. Having such high expectations of yourself and the world when there are other extraneous forces acting independently of your desires, can only be a recipe for anxiety, depression, and being unsatisfied with one’s existence.

Discussions around control of the different forces in the world, and the ultimate realization that our sphere of control is a lot smaller than we initially assume or would prefer it to be, was a very empowering moment as well. With a deep internalization of the idea came with it an incredible shift that redressed the unbalanced way in which I perceived the world. This allowed for an instant, sustainable, and noticeable bump in general feelings of happiness in my life.

I was also quite shocked to learn of some of the uglier sides of fame. Being such a thing that you always see the positive side of it and therefore constantly have a private yearning to experience, it was enlightening to have concrete anecdotes of some of the not-so-favorable aspects about being well-known. Which again was very empowering, as it encouraged a desire to value the immediate process that one is invested in, and not the end result. Again, Derren successfully proves to the reader why a commonly held belief (that fame is desirable) will not always be the case, and thus encourages an approach to life which focuses on the here and now, and on things that we can control such as our thoughts and actions. And more importantly to not focus on what we cannot control – in this example whether we become famous or indeed successful in our chosen pursuit(s).

Finally – the section which, I guess you could say, was the final nail in the coffin: the section on death. And owning one’s death. I found this portion of the book to be particularly heartwarming and touching. Not a subject that is widely discussed or socially acceptable to talk about, it was frankly quite refreshing to see a text talk so openly and warmly about the process of dying, and all surrounding issues. I have to say that – accounting for recency effects being the final section of the book – this is the section which will stick with me the most. Many of the teachings and interviews about the stark realities that many people live/have lived with, not only created pin-drop moments of silence and astonishing awe while I was reading, made me all the more appreciative and mindful of the gift of life. It taught me to not take things in this life for granted – a simple idea that gets thrown about a lot in the world, but this section really hammered the notion into me. When I got over my initial reaction to head in the opposite direction when it came to the subject of death, I discovered a lot of virtuous and wondrous perspectives on life that can only be found through an honest study of the subject. I think as a result I’ll be looking into more texts around death; I am now quite intrigued by it.

In summary – I found this to be a very touching and heartwarming read. I feel like a new person coming through it, and have a much more positive glow about me in terms of approaching and interacting with life and its many wonders. I think rather than making me happier, it has granted me a lot more control and power over my life. Not in the sense that I now have the tools to achieve whatever I want, but in the sense that I know what the extent and jurisdiction is of my capabilities in this world/existence, and how that is constantly kept in check by the other uncontrollable forces of life, summarized and embodied by what the Ancient Greeks used to call Fortune, which grants me the opportunity to fundamentally reduce any associated feelings of anxiety and depression.

A truly heartwarming read.


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