Derren Brown rubs his eyes. It’s no illusion. He’s just tired. The 45-year-old has a new puppy and didn’t sleep much the night before we meet at a club in Soho to speak about his new book, Happy: Why More Or Less Everything Is Absolutely Fine.
Brown, the mentalist and star of TV shows like Trick or Treat, Messiah and Pushed To The Edge, is deeply relieved that my first question isn’t ‘What is the secret of happiness?’.
“Thank you for not asking that. I think the reason why I expect to be asked that is that there is an idea that is perpetuated by the self-help industry - not just the self-help industry, I think it’s a much richer cultural problem really - that happiness is this sort of thing that we are entitled to, like it’s a sort of commodity,” he says.
In his book Brown shares his theory on how to be happy, and launches a scathing attack on most of the self-help industry. He calls its logic “damaging” and compares its writers to psychics and charlatans whose message, that you can “magically get what you want”, is a promise that will always disappoint.
“It’s just guilty of bad thinking,” he says. “It’s every goal-setting book… the vast majority of books sold on how to be happy or self-help.”
His concern, specifically, is about the message that if you wish for something hard enough “the universe will provide.” He singles out the best-selling 2006 book The Secret, which has sold more than 19 million copies based on the premise of the ‘law of attraction’: that if you think positively enough, you will attract more positive ‘energy’ and good things will happen to you.
“It’s hugely popular, a lot of people swear by it,” Brown says, “It epitomizes the infantile notion that we can and should be able to have anything we want, by wishing it – by demanding it, and that the universe is there to give us everything that we want.
“It’s all strangely always about money and finances, and lots of references to cheques arriving on people’s doorsteps. In the film version, a woman looks at a necklace in a window or something and it magically appears around her neck.”
Books like these treat their readers like babies, he argues. “We learn when we are little that when we scream, somebody comes and gives us what we want. But sometimes a baby will cry and it won’t always get satisfied or fed, and that’s what we need to learn in order to grow up with any kind of balanced social ability: we don’t always get what we want.
“But we are infantilised. We are infantilised by politics, when it tells us there are easy good and bad answers to things, like a fairy tale. Good guys win and bad guys lose. And we’re infantilised by a lot by what we eat and drink, and television. We should be wary of that.”
He concedes that self-help books will appear to work some of the time, and can be useful for short-term goals like losing weight or passing an exam. “Clearly, some people adhere to The Secret, and that works out well for them. I don’t think that’s because the universe cares what they think. Having a dose of positive thinking and all that of course is helpful to a certain extent, but the universe doesn’t give a fuck.”
“The basic idea that we become happy by believing that we can achieve whatever we want to, [by] believing in ourselves enough until we get there, is quite a damaging idea, because we are constantly living in the future by doing that: consistently oriented toward something that’s always on the horizon.
“It also misunderstands the reality of life, which I think the Greeks and the Romans had a much better handle on, which is that life throws stuff at us all the time that you can’t control. What the self-help industry fails to realise is the role of fortune and what they used to call fate.”
Having a dose of positive thinking and all that of course is helpful to a certain extent, but the universe doesn’t give a fuck
Today, Brown is less commanding in person than his TV shows suggest. He’s thoughtful, reflective and less intense - a man who has been almost simultaneously performing a stage show, launching a ghost train, penning a book and now, rearing a puppy. He flashes me a photo of the dog in question, a blur of fluff snuggled in blankets.
Now is perhaps the right time for a career evolution. He’s been on our TV screens for 16 years, spawning ten series, twelve one-off specials, seven stage shows, a Thorpe Park ride and six books. In Happy, his seventh, he puts forward a considered philosophy of happiness, drawing especially on Stoicism, the Greek school of philosophy founded in the third century BC.
“I’m in the quite nice position where I can have a book out on happiness and a ghost train coming out at the same time, and no-one bats an eyelid. Whatever my remit is, whatever the ‘brand’, it’s fairly wide. So I’ve just sort of gone with whatever feels interesting at the time.”
The obvious irony is that while slamming most of the self-help industry, he has now written a self-help book himself. “There’s nothing wrong with writing a book trying to help people,” he smiles. “What this doesn’t do is provide any glib answers. It tries to open up a much more richer world of thought than that which is generally supplied by the self-help industry. I have worked a lot with illusion and so on, and part of that is debunking myths and trying to offer a kind of a more rational, informative approach to things that can appear magical.”
Brown’s concern is that the books he disapproves of - those that suggest you can control every aspect of your life - can actively make us more unhappy. “It puts the burden of worry on us. In my book, I talk about when I’ve seen faith healers at work, and they do something that feels a bit like a healing, then tell you that you have to now go away and have complete faith that this has happened, and if it doesn’t work out it’s because you lost faith. [Author] Rhonda Byrne does exactly the same in The Secret. That’s not a nice message. It’s a great safety net for the charlatans, but it’s a horrible trap to be left in.”
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He feels modern life is plagued with things that needlessly create anxiety. “Every advertising board is saying you need this to be happy, you are lacking in this. And that basic idea of what’s actually important and what isn’t is skewed every day.”
Despite this, wish-fulfillment style books will always be popular, he says. “In the same way that magicians or psychics will always be popular, because there’s the promise [that] you can have what you want, whether it’s through being able to talk to the dead because they are still around, or being able to somehow sort of magically get what you want, which again is the urge of the screaming baby.
“As adults, we realise that has to be magic because it doesn’t really happen. Any number of magic promises will always be really popular, but they just don’t really help us.”
He’s less certain on whether the writers of self-help books actively set out to mislead readers. “I think when you’re dealing with massively commercial projects it becomes harder to retain a charitable view point,” he muses. “I always feel the same with psychics, you know? If someone’s nan thinks they can read tea leaves it’s probably quite sincere, or if someone’s selling out theatres every night and sounds like they are using an earpiece or sounds like they are cheating, then yeah they probably are cheating. The more successful you get, you’re doing what you can to be able to make the sleazy promise stand up.”
There’s nothing wrong with writing a book trying to help people
Heavyweights like Alain de Botton and AC Grayling have praised Brown’s book, the latter calling it “a really excellent account of how to be happy - really, maturely, properly happy.”
Brown knows that some may scoff at a rich, famous man handing out advice on happiness. “I’m sure some people might just find that too much to swallow, but the book is so clearly not about that. It’s not just the musings of somebody who enjoys money and fame, in fact it talks very specifically about why money and fame are not conducive to happiness, at least after a certain point - money in particular.”
He feels he’s always had these ideas but didn’t have the language for them. “Way before I was doing anything public, when I was a graduate in Bristol just living with my parrot and doing the occasional magic gig - even back to when I was studying law - I realised that it’s only ever about what’s interesting and what’s fun and what feels worthwhile.”
His own approach to happiness is that there are some elements of life you can’t control, and to focus on changing those you can - an idea led by the Stoicism that underpins the book. “One idea was that it’s not events in the world that cause our problems, but our responses to those events. It’s a huge thing to take ownership of your own responses to things, your own anger, your own anxiety. Realising that another person in exactly the same situation might be perfectly happy with it, or would feel totally different. We all do it: ‘She made me angry’ or ‘this makes me angry’. Such an easy thing to say and think.
“So, you decide that everything is fine. And if you realise that, and that nothing bad happens when you realise that, that’s huge.
“There are some areas, like social injustice, where it feels like there is something that needs changing - I think it still stands up [in that case] but I think it’s more complex. It’s just, in essence, going through life, all those things that bug you, what other people think of you, and how other people behave [and realising] it’s always fine. It really is.”
“When I’ve felt that and reminded myself of it, I always feel like when you’re a kid and it’s a Saturday morning, and you don’t have to go to school but you thought you did, and you get that wave of relief.”
In Happy - whose chapters all end with a smiley emoji - Brown sees happiness as the absence of worry and stress. If we can release ourselves from anxiety, we can achieve a state of tranquility that the philosophers Pyrrho and Epicurus called Ataraxia, he argues. “It isn’t really a thing in itself, it’s more about when you take all of the frustrations and the anxieties away. And then, they’re quite easy to pin down and deal with. What you’re left with is this sort of tranquil calm state, and though I don’t think it’s the answer to everything, I think it’s a much more helpful model of how to be happy.”
It’s also about accepting that you can’t have it all. “The ancient idea was to limit your desires,” he explains, “because if you limit your desires to what you have and what’s available to you, or what’s freely available, you value those things more and you’ll value your happiness much more easily.”
Consequently, there is a chapter in Happy about lowering your expectations. “If you’re angry, it’s because your expectations were too high,” Brown reasons. “Rather than trying to control everything through self-belief, you don’t try and control the thoughts you can’t.”
I can have a book out on happiness and a ghost train coming out at the same time, and no-one bats an eyelid
Happy is the result of three years of research. He doesn’t get time to work at home when he has TV projects on (“I’m not terribly good at multitasking”) but tours every year for between four and six months, leaving the daytimes free to write in hotels and coffee shops. “I basically have a suitcase of books with me. I used to try and do it all by Kindle, but I like to write a lot of notes in margins.”
He’s found the writing process enjoyable. “This process of learning and communicating, let alone the actual physical thing of writing and sitting on your own for a few hours and being very focused, and feeling at the end of the day like you have achieved something - that kind of creative zone that is very important for me in terms of happiness. Not that I’m sat there grinning through it, but if I don’t do something like painting or other [creative] things, I feel down… a bit just sort of muggy and useless.”
He’s interested in the trend for mindfulness, calling it “terribly helpful for people prone to anxiety”. Though he doesn’t meditate, or practice mindfulness in any formal way (“I haven’t picked up one of those books and then done those exercises”) he feels their rise over the last few years has helped him to avoid worries to do with the past or future. “When I do find myself getting anxious about something, one of the first stops [is to] ask myself, is this something that’s a problem right now?”
As we part, it seems only fitting to ask if Derren Brown is happy. “Yes, I am. I would say I am,” he replies, his face creasing into a smile far larger than at any point during our interview. “The puppy might have something to do with it. I might have to add an epilogue: it has something to do with puppies.”