Book Review: Happy by Derren Brown

Derren Brown Happy CoverI wanted to write a quick review of Derren Brown’s recent book called Happy: Why More or Less Everything is Absolutely Fine (2016) because I think it’s very well written and worth reading. I’ve decided to focus on what he says about Stoicism because, well you know, that’s what I’m into. Stoic philosophy has obviously been a major influence on his own philosophy of life and it’s a theme that runs through most of the book. If you’re interested in Stoicism, in other words, I’d recommend reading this book, although there’s certainly a lot of other good stuff in there as well.

Brown is a celebrity in the United Kingdom but people in other parts of the world may not be as familiar with his work. He’s basically a mentalist. (That’s not an insult, it’s a type of illusionist.) He’s well-known from British television for shows that combine elements of mentalism and stage hypnotism, and stuff about the psychology of suggestion. They’re done in a pretty creative and modern style.

Derren BrownNow, at the outset, I should probably explain that I actually hate magicians. Or rather, I hate magic; I’ve met a few magicians over the years and I get along with them surprisingly well in person. And “hate” is too strong a word – I just find people pulling rabbits out of hats, etc., mildly annoying. And as soon as someone pulls out a pack of cards and says “Watch this…” I begin secretly planning my escape route from the building. (So, yes, magic is something I have to learn to cultivate Stoic indifference toward.) I quite like Derren Brown, though, even though I’m not really into magic, because I get the impression he’s as much of a nerd about the history of philosophy and psychology as I am. That said, I’m one of those cynical (small c) people who reckon you can’t just take everything that professional illusionists say at face value. (I know, right?) If you’re in that game you’re basically the boy who cried wolf. “Ha ha! I tricked you!”, “Ha ha! I tricked you!”, “No honestly, this time I’m telling you the truth.” Perhaps because of that, though, what Brown’s written is actually a more personal, thoughtful, and sincere book than you’d normally expect from (broadly speaking) the self-help genre.

Overall, I see Happy as being one of a growing number of books that adopt a sort of contrarian or skeptical approach to traditional self-help, especially toward positive thinking. Brown diplomatically uses Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret (2006) as an example because most reasonable people seem to agree that’s basically mumbo jumbo but he presumably has in mind a much broader category of self-help and New Age hokum. Another example of the emerging skeptical-about-self-help genre would be Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (2012), which also finds Stoic philosophy a more palatable alternative to positive thinking. As it turns out, Stoicism particularly appeals to people who are disillusioned with conventional self-help literature, especially the more Pollyannaish end of the spectrum.

Anyway, Brown’s book explores the concept of happiness from a number of angles, drawing on a wide range of influences from philosophy, literature, and modern psychology. He relates many vivid anecdotes from his own life and shares his thought processes as he works through various questions about the meaning of happiness. I thought the style of writing was very appealing and the author really finds a distinctive voice, which is sometimes difficult when discussing these subjects.

There’s a great deal I could say about Happy. I like books that contain a lot of ideas – I tune out when an author just draws out one idea for hundreds of pages. This book is stuffed full of Brown’s musings about happiness and the meaning of life and his attempts to weigh up and assimilate the implications of various bits and pieces of psychological research and philosophical wisdom. So there’s too much to choose from as a reviewer! I’d love to say more about the psychological observations in the early chapters or the later ruminations about death but, for now at least, I’ll focus on what he actually says about Stoicism.

Basically, he’s obviously really into Stoicism but he also says that “to merely label oneself a ‘Stoic’ is to renounce one’s own voice.” I can see his point but I feel that’s an overgeneralization. It depends on your personality. Some people identify too much with labels and are restricted by them. For other people it’s just a convenient way to describe conclusions they’ve arrived at for themselves, like calling yourself a “vegetarian” because that happens to be the simplest way to explain the fact that you’ve decided not to eat meat. Names don’t have to be a prison for us unless we turn them into one. There’s an important difference between believing something because it conforms to a label you’ve attached to yourself and doing it the other way round by using a label for yourself because it happens to describe what you believe. Consider the following interaction… “Hello, is that Fred Fawcett the plumber? I’ve got a bit of an emergency here. There’s water gushing through my ceiling and I can’t swim.” “Well, yes, this is Fred but I don’t really like to attach labels to myself… I prefer to think of myself more as someone who’s exploring a range of creative existential possibilities…” [Phone hangs up.] Labels aren’t necessarily a bad thing; sometimes they’re helpful. Calling yourself a Stoic, IMHO, doesn’t have to mean renouncing your own voice. It just means you happen to agree with their core values.

Anyway, labels or not, I’m going to argue that Derren Brown is actually more of a Stoic than he seems to realize. So here goes…

Happy on Stoicism and Happiness

The seventeenth and final chapter of the book opens with the following words:

The Stoics have given us a means of increasing our happiness by avoiding disturbance and embracing what they called ‘virtue’. Through taking to heart their pithily expressed maxims, echoed in future generations by subsequent philosophers, we might move in greater accordance with fate and align ourselves more realistically with the x=y diagonal of real life, where our aims and fortune wrestle with each other constantly. We have seen the wisdom of not trying to control what we cannot, and of taking responsibility for our judgements. Otherwise, we harm ourselves and others by becoming anxious, hurtful or intolerable. We have learnt to approach happiness indirectly, concentrating instead upon removing hindrances and disturbances and achieving a certain psychological robustness.

Then he weighs up some criticisms of Stoicism as a philosophy of life:

Stoicism offers us great lessons and helpful threads to weave through our lives. As I hope I’ve shown, it is at its best neither cool nor detached but rather open, porous and connected easily to life. Yet if we have a lingering doubt about its all-encompassing wisdom, it is perhaps because some part of us remains unmoved. It may seem an odd question to ask at this point in the book, but is happiness truly what we should seek? And if so, is it in its richest form synonymous with an avoidance of disturbance?

In other words, he’s asking whether “happiness”, construed in terms of tranquillity, is the real goal of life.

Now, the Greek word conventionally translated as “happiness” is eudaimonia, which literally means having a good relationship with our daemon, our divine inner nature. It doesn’t mean “happiness” in the modern sense of merely “feeling good” but rather in the now archaic sense of being blessed or fortunate, the opposite of the word “hapless”, meaning wretched or unfortunate. The old translation of eudaimonia as “happiness” is therefore the source of much confusion.  Nowadays it’s often rendered as “flourishing” instead. (I sometimes also translate it as “fulfilment”.)

The easiest way to define what eudaimonia meant in ancient Greek philosophy is to point out that it denotes the condition of someone living “the good life”, i.e., the best possible life. Put another way, it describes someone who possesses all the things we consider intrinsically good in life. Sometimes that may have been thought to include positive feelings like joy and tranquillity but for the Stoics the main, and usually the only, constituent of eudaimonia is “virtue” (arete), another confusing word by which they actually mean a sort of moral or practical wisdom that causes us to excel as human beings, and which we typically admire in others when we see it.  (So sometimes arete is better translated as “excellence”.)  It’s about reaching our potential, not just feeling good.

Psychotherapists used to talk to clients about the difference between merely “feeling better” and actually “getting better” – they’re not necessarily the same thing. That’s an important distinction because feelings can be misleading. In fact, one of the recurring strategies employed by Socrates in the dialogues was to ask people to distinguish between appearances and reality, e.g., between people who merely appear to be our friends and people who actually are our friends. Happiness, as people tend to mean the word today, i.e., “feeling good”, is merely the appearance of flourishing. The Stoics believe our goal is to attain real flourishing, though. That requires using reason to evaluate our lives rather than just allowing our feelings alone to guide us. Of course, sometimes our feelings are a good guide but often they’re not, especially when we happen to be depressed, angry, or anxious. Sometimes appearances are misleading.  Sometimes people who seem friendly turn out to be our enemies, and vice versa. It’s the gift of reason, of course, that allows us to question appearances and try to look beyond them.

Happy on Stoicism and Tranquillity

Whereas the Epicureans equated eudaimonia with feelings of pleasure (hedone) or tranquillity (ataraxia), the Stoics disagreed and equated it directly with wisdom and virtue. Moreover, they firmly believed that virtue must be its own reward. As the philosopher Julia Annas puts it:

If we are tempted to seek virtue because it will make us tranquil and secure, we are missing the point about virtue that is most important [according to the Stoics]; it is virtue itself that matters, not its results. (Annas, p. 410)

However, Brown presents Stoicism as a “formula for tranquillity” and I think that lies at the heart of his reservations about it as a philosophy of life. He may be influenced, in doing so, by William B. Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (2009), one of the bestselling books on the subject. You have to be looking quite closely perhaps to spot this but Irvine himself actually mentions in passing that his version of “Stoicism” is not Stoicism as conventionally understood because he replaces the goal of virtue with that of tranquillity.

The resulting version of Stoicism, although derived from the ancient Stoics, is therefore unlike the Stoicism advocated by any particular Stoic. It is also likely that the version of Stoicism I have developed is in various respects unlike the Stoicism one would have been taught to practice in an ancient Stoic school. (Irvine, 2009, p. 244)

Notably, he claims that he’s doing this because, in his words, it is “unusual, after all, for modern individuals to have an interest in becoming more virtuous, in the ancient sense of the word” (2009, p. 42).

I have to say that my own experience has been different. Remember that Stoic virtue actually means living rationally and in accord with practical wisdom. I’ve spoken to countless people about Stoicism over the past twenty years or so – last year, for example, seven thousand people enrolled on Stoic Week and many provided us with detailed feedback on their experiences and attitudes toward the philosophy. I’ve found that they’re typically drawn to the philosophy precisely because it offers a rational guide to life, and promises a sense of deeper fulfilment. People for whom tranquillity or peace of mind is the main goal are more drawn to Epicureanism, as you might expect. In fact, I’m certain that if we asked the community of Stoics online a great many would say, pace Irvine, that “virtue” in the ancient sense of the word is actually something they’re very interested in. I’d say it’s more unusual for people to approach Stoicism purely as a means of securing mental tranquillity.

Irvine, as we’ve seen, acknowledges that ancient Stoicism was more concerned with virtue. I think people realize that when they turn to the primary sources, such as The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and, in fact, that’s part of their enduring appeal. If Irvine is right about it being unusual for people today to be interested in virtue, in the ancient sense, then why do so many of them still love reading Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius? And why aren’t they all just reading the Epicureans instead?  (Side note: Sometimes people assume that I hate Irvine’s book when in fact I’ve been recommending it to people for years, with the caveat that they should take note of the bit where he says himself that it’s “unlike” what we normally mean by Stoicism – there’s a world of difference between disagreeing with something and disliking it!)

Now, here’s the thing: based on what he’s written in Happy, I suspect that Brown is one of those people who would, on reflection, come to see wisdom and virtue (getting better) as healthier goals than tranquillity (feeling better). Particularly toward the end of Happy, when he mentions his reservations about Stoicism, his thinking seems to be heading in that direction. Ironically, though, that would be more in agreement with ye olde Stoicism as conventionally understood by all the famous Stoics: the “virtue is its own reward” philosophy described above by Julia Annas rather than Irvine’s more tranquillity-centric version.

One of the issues with making tranquillity (or indeed anything except virtue) the supreme goal of life is that virtue then becomes merely an “instrumental” good, i.e., a means to some other end. If circumstances arise, though, where tranquillity (or whatever) could be achieved without virtue then, according to that philosophy, virtue potentially loses all value.  However, that seems to fly in the face of most people’s moral intuitions. For instance, if generally being nice to people happened to lead to lasting tranquillity that might seem workable as a philosophy of life. Suppose we suddenly discovered a drug that could induce a healthy state of tranquillity, though, with no side-effects. Wouldn’t that make being nice to people become redundant in the eyes of this philosophy? (This notion that virtue might just be a means to an end was originally associated with the Sophists, incidentally, although it was later reprised by the Epicureans, whereas virtually every other school of Greek philosophy treated virtue as an end in itself.)

Another difficult thought experiment for philosophies that make tranquillity the number one goal in life is how they’d feel about the possibility of being a happy brain in a vat.  Suppose we could just stick your brain in a vat and pump it full of tranquillizers.  You’d be guaranteed a perfectly tranquil existence and as an added bonus let’s say you’d live twice as long as normal.  Shouldn’t we all be falling over ourselves to opt for that if tranquillity is the supreme goal in life?  Another worrying thought experiment for this philosophy is: what if it turned out to be more conducive to your tranquillity to collaborate with an oppressive regime like the Nazis than to defy them?  It boils down to the underlying issue that if you’re going to say that something is the supreme good in life then, by definition, you have to be willing to say that you’d sacrifice everything else for the sake of it.  Stoicism arguably gets round the Nazi-colllaborator problem, incidentally, because its supreme goal encompasses social virtues (justice, kindness, fairness) that entail being nice to other people, etc., and not just throwing them under the bus for the sake of a quiet life. Of course, this is a massive can of worms so having cracked it open just enough to be annoying, I’m going to move on to something else because I don’t have space to deal with it properly…

I should emphasize that there’s a big difference, as we’ll see, between making it our goal to achieve tranquillity, in the sense of total peace of mind, and wanting to overcome the troubling desires and emotions the Stoics call “passions”. I hate to break it to you but a certain amount of pain, discomfort, grief, and anxiety, is perfectly natural in life and not necessarily bad for you, in the grand scheme of things. Stoic virtue, in part, means not worrying about it any more than is necessary, but not completely avoiding or eliminating those feelings because, after all, to some extent they’re not “up to us”, as Epictetus puts it. Sometimes that’s described as the difference between ataraxia and apatheia. Ataraxia is usually translated “tranquillity” and it literally means “not disturbed”, pure and simple. It’s true that Epictetus sometimes used this word but it’s more associated with the Epicureans who made it the goal of life. Apatheia, on the other hand, is the word more associated with Stoicism and it’s a bit harder to translate because it’s a more nuanced concept. (It’s the root of our “apathy” but forget that because it’s not really what it’s about.) It literally means, very simply, “freedom from passion”, which for the Stoics was about not indulging in worrying or ruminating about things in an unhealthy and irrational sort of way. As we’ll see, though, the apatheia of the Stoic Sage, or wise man, does not exclude ordinary feelings of pain, anxiety, grief, frustration, etc., insofar as these are natural and occur automatically. It’s not a complete absence of unpleasant feelings, in other words. Personally, I’d say it’s a much healthier and more realistic goal than perfect tranquillity, which, as a therapist, sets alarm bells ringing for me because it sounds like a classic perfectionism and a recipe for neurosis.

Some reviewers, myself included, have argued that Irvine’s version of Stoicism ends up being, in some respects, more like Epicureanism. The ancient Stoics, especially Epictetus, do refer to tranquillity as a good thing in life. However, it’s generally understood that positive feelings like these were a byproduct of wisdom, for Stoics, rather than the goal of life itself. That’s important because trying too hard to be tranquil tends to backfire psychologically, mainly because it seems to be an attempt to control feelings over which we lack control. Over the past few decades a growing body of psychological research has pointed toward the risks associated with “experiential avoidance” or the intolerance and avoidance of unpleasant feelings. So encouraging clients to actively accept automatic feelings of anxiety and other uncomfortable feelings has become a mainstay of what we call the “third-wave” of cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). There’s good reason therefore to believe that making your supreme goal in life tranquillity, i.e., the avoidance of unpleasant feelings, actually undermines emotional resilience and increases the risk of developing psychological problems such as anxiety and depression in the long-run.

I can’t go into this in full here because it would take far too much space so I’ll try to very briefly describe some of the reasons for this concern. First of all, there’s just the fact that we have an emerging body of research converging on the finding that emotional suppression can be counter-productive. However, we can also try to explain this problem in everyday terms to some extent. When we view something as very “bad” we tend to instinctively focus more attention on it, and we do so more frequently and for longer periods of time. We’re hard-wired to pay attention to threats. That makes sense if there’s an angry sabre-toothed tiger on the horizon – you should forget about everything else and keep your eye on him until he leaves. However, that instinct goes pretty haywire if we do something that probably only humans can do and start viewing our own inner thoughts and feelings as bad or threatening. Paying attention to our inner experiences tends to amplify them, creating a vicious cycle. If your whole philosophy of life is that tranquillity is supremely good that implicitly (or explicitly in the case of Epicurus) commits you to the view that disturbances or unpleasant feelings are supremely bad. For instance, agreement with the statement “anxiety is bad” has been found to correlate with a number of psychological problems. So following the kind of philosophy that views anxiety and other unpleasant feelings as supremely bad potentially constitutes very toxic  advice.

Likewise, the Stoics would perhaps say that the Epicureans and others who make feelings the goal are confusing cause and effect, by mixing up being healthy with its typical consequence: feeling healthy. One of the problems with that is that we might come to view other causes as having the same or similar effects – and providing a convenient shortcut. Again, I’m having to simplify for the sake of brevity but if you wanted tranquility more than anything you could potentially get it more quickly and easily from (futuristic) tranquilisers.  At least in theory, one day you may be able to get it by such artificial means more safely and reliably. Alcohol and narcotics are also tempting ways to get there.

However, undoubtedly the quickest and surest path to short-term tranquillity – the veritable royal road – is good old-fashioned avoidance. Agoraphobic? Just don’t step outside your front door. Problem solved! Of course, now you’ve got a much bigger problem but if you’re intolerant of anxiety you can bet that from time to time avoidance is going to feel like a very appealing solution despite the fact that it probably strikes everyone else as obviously pathological. You might feel less anxious, but your quality of life is going to suck, and in reality you’re vulnerability to panic attacks is probably just being made much worse. Scared of public speaking? Just throw a sickie when you have a looming presentation at work. Problem solved. Not really, though; you’re likely heading for even bigger problems if you keep that up. It’s maladaptive coping.  Somewhat paradoxically, therefore, Brown ends up worrying that Stoicism might actually lead to avoidance:

The Stoics tell us to ‘remove disturbances’, but for some this might come to mean ‘hiding away safely’ where nothing can harm them. This is a meagre substitute for flourishing. Our ultimate aim is maybe not so much to be happy as to live fully and make sure we are moving forward.

The former, again, sounds much more like Epicureanism to me than Stoicism. In fact it sounds like a Stoic criticism of Epicureanism. Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, paced up and down lecturing in a public space near the Athenian agora where he would engage strangers and philosophers of other schools in debate. Epicurus stayed outside Athens doing philosophy in a secluded private garden with a close circle of friends where the motto was reputedly “live in obscurity” (lathe biosas). At least according to some accounts he advised his followers not to marry or engage in public life whereas the Stoics did the opposite and advised their students to marry, have children, and engage in public life, for the common good, if nothing prevents them. If you have a philosophy that makes preserving your own tranquillity the most important thing in life it might seem logical to live like a monk. However, if your philosophy makes flourishing as a human being and fulfilling your potential the main thing then you’re probably going to want to engage with other people and the world around you.

The priority for Stoics, indeed, is not the avoidance of disturbances but the cultivation of wisdom and the other virtues, such as justice, courage, and temperance. Ironically, to exercise those virtues, as Seneca realized, we have to actually have unpleasant feelings. To exhibit the virtue of temperance we need at least a glimmer of desire to overcome. To exercise courage we have to actually experience some anxiety.

There are misfortunes which strike the sage – without incapacitating him, of course – such as physical pain, infirmity, the loss of friends or children, or the catastrophes of his country when it is devastated by war. I grant that he is sensitive to these things, for we do not impute to him the hardness of a rock or of iron. There is no virtue in putting up with that which one does not feel. (On the Constancy of the Sage, 10.4)

I think Brown noted earlier in the book that the Stoics were known for being courageous political and military leaders. They didn’t typically seek to hide away in seclusion, quite the opposite, because theirs was a philosophy of action. Epictetus, for instance, asked his students: “Would Hercules have been Hercules if he’d stayed at home snuggling under his blankets instead of going forth to endure vicious men and defeat the most fearsome monsters?” (I’m paraphrasing him slightly.) That’s precisely because virtue, fulfilling our potential, is infinitely more important to the Stoics than maintaining their inner peace or tranquillity.

Stoicism and Accepting Anxiety

Brown concludes by arguing that “the Stoics can’t always be right” in the sense that sometimes, rather than seeking tranquility, we should be willing to accept anxiety and other unpleasant feelings. One reason he gives is that sometimes we can learn from these feelings. However, he also implies that it can be healthy just to sit with anxiety rather than trying to fix it, and he rightly observes that the need to fix or control it is one of the things that actually fuels our anxiety in the first place.

Wholeness cannot be found in the mere avoidance of troubling feelings, however helpful the tools of the Stoics are for reassessing attachments and finding one’s centre of gravity. To live without anxiety is to live without growth. We shouldn’t try to control what we cannot, and we must take responsibility for our feelings. But the reason for this is to walk out into the world with strength, not to hide from danger.

If you feel anxiety, let it sit. See if it is amenable to the lessons we have learnt from the Stoics. You don’t need to fix things that lie outside of your control. You also don’t need to fix the anxiety: it is a feeling that you have; it is therefore not you. The need to fix, to control is what fuels the anxiety in the first place. Let it be, and it will lose its excessive force. Then, once you are no longer running away with it, or trying to remove it, you might even welcome it.

Why? Because the Stoics can’t always be right. We cannot demand from them a formula for our happiness, because no such formula exists; happiness is messy and fuzzy and active. […] The final call, then, is not to merely seek tranquillity but, from its strong shores, to welcome its opposite.

I think what’s missing from this is the distinction the Stoics make between voluntary and involuntary emotions (propatheiai). That’s not well explained in many books on the subject but it’s extremely important if we want to understand Stoicism as a psychological therapy, and I think it probably answers some of Brown’s criticisms. Our main sources for this are Seneca’s On Anger and a remarkable anecdote about an unnamed Stoic teacher during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, told by the Roman author Aulus Gellius, in which he quotes a one of the lost Discourses of Epictetus. There are also references to this notion scattered throughout other sources, including The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

Make sure that the ruling and sovereign part of your soul remains unaffected by every movement, smooth or violent, in your flesh, and that it does not combine with them, but circumscribes itself, and restricts these experiences to the bodily parts. Whenever they communicate themselves to the mind by virtue of that other sympathy, as is bound to occur in a unified organism, you should not attempt to resist the sensation, which is a natural one, but you must not allow the ruling centre to add its own further judgement that the experience is good or bad. (Meditations, 5.26)

He’s talking about accepting painful sensations, with studied indifference, rather than trying to resist them as something bad or harmful, but the same point applies to the first flush of anxiety or grief.

Put very simply, the Stoics thought there were good, bad, and indifferent emotions, or at least that’s one way of putting it. Good emotions are based on underlying wisdom and justice, courage, and moderation. They include a healthy aversion to wrongdoing, a sense of deep joy in things that are truly good, and feelings of affectionate goodwill toward ourselves and others. Bad emotions, the ones the Stoics have most to say about, are irrational and excessive feelings of hatred, greed, indulgence, fear, anguish, and so on. These “passions” are not really emotions as we normally think of them today, though. They refer to feelings that we’re allowing ourselves to indulge in. The best analogy would be the difference between feeling anxious versus actively worrying or feeling down versus morbidly ruminating about things from a negative perspective. Although they often feel out of control, in a sense they’re voluntary and conscious processes, which we can learn to stop. The Stoics contrast these “passions” with the propatheiai or “proto-passions”, also called the “first movements” of passion. These are our automatic emotional reactions to events, such as blushing, shaking, stammering, turning pale, sweating, jumping out of our skin, and so on. Seneca compares them to blinking when a finger is moved toward our eye. They’re reflex-like and involuntary. I tend to call them involuntary “reactions” as opposed to voluntary “responses”.

We’re told these automatic emotional reactions (propatheiai) are inevitable, and because they’re not “up to us” we’re not to view them as bad or harmful but rather to actively adopt an attitude of “indifference” toward them. We’re to accept them as natural. I think the Stoics would also say that these are analogous to the sort of emotions exhibited by some non-human animals, particularly other higher mammals. Problems arise when we amplify, distort, or perpetuate our natural emotional reactions, though, by ruminating about them. Seneca says a deer may be startled by a predator and flee in terror but it relaxes and returns to grazing as soon as the threat has gone. Man, by contrast, would still be worrying about it weeks later. The ability to use language and reason, as he puts it, is both our greatest gift and our greatest curse in this respect.

Gellius concludes his story about the anonymous Stoic teacher caught in the storm, summing up what he’d read in the lost Discourse of Epictetus:

That these were the opinions and utterances of Epictetus the philosopher in accordance with the beliefs of the Stoics I read in that book which I have mentioned, and I thought that they ought to be recorded for this reason, that when things of the kind which I have named [such as being caught in a storm] chance to occur, we may not think that to fear for a time and, as it were, turn white is the mark of a foolish and weak man, but in that brief but natural impulse we yield rather to human weakness [a natural reaction] than because we believe [foolishly] that those [frightening] things are what they seem. (Aulus Gellius)

Of course, nothing is truly frightening for a Stoic because death is an indifferent. So he would naturally turn pale and feel anxiety in a storm like everyone else, but he would realize that the thing he’s anxious about isn’t worth fearing, and he’d therefore recover more quickly afterwards by not dwelling on it or lamenting the experience too much.

So, basically, the Stoic philosophy teaches us to accept automatic emotional reactions, such as grief or anxiety, as natural in life.  We’re to view them as neither good nor bad, but indifferent. What we’re to avoid doing is adding to them by imposing more negative value judgements. We should accept them and then let go of our response to them. That means neither struggling to suppress them nor indulging in them and perpetuating them but just allowing them to run their course naturally.  The Stoics refer to giving our “assent” to our initial automatic thoughts and feelings and being “swept along” or “carried away” by them into full-blown passions.  The wise man, though, suspends his assent, and avoids going along with these initial automatic impressions and proto-passions, although he accepts their occurrence as natural and indifferent.

So that’s the Stoic theory of emotion. There’s a trigger, followed by automatic thoughts and feelings, which we should accept as natural and indifferent because they’re not “up to us”, and then there are the more conscious and voluntary thoughts we have in response, adding layers of value judgements to the original experience – that’s the part we should learn to prevent because it’s potentially under our control. That’s a more nuanced interpretation of Stoicism than you find in most books on the subject but it’s actually what the philosophy taught. I’m still in awe of how far ahead of its time it was because it happens to resemble, in particular, Aaron T. Beck’s “revised” model of anxiety, which is kind of state-of-the-art cognitive therapy.

So, in conclusion, I’m sorry this review is four times longer than it should have been but, you know, that’s what happens when the book’s interesting and it’s about my pet subject. Hopefully, somebody somewhere will find something of value in the ramblings. In case you’ve forgotten, I said I liked this book and I’d recommend that you read it, especially if you’re interested in Stoicism.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: Happy by Derren Brown”

  1. Great review Donald. This is the book I cite as most changing my life – because it led me to learning more about Stoicism. Being an atheist, so not having a religion as a ‘guide’ in my life, it was a massive eureka moment for me, finding something I related to and felt could actually help me become a better person. A thoroughly interesting and must read in my humble opinion.

  2. Excellent article. I’d guess he gets his idea of Stoicism from Irvines’ book due to his criticism of tranquility as a goal.

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