Why relentless optimism can be harmful

Imagine that you are standing on one side of a river, and you want to reach a village on the other side.

You have a group of cheerleaders behind you, egging you on. So you set off, full of determination. But you have forgotten to take the river’s current into account – and no matter how hard you strain your muscles, you can’t quite overcome it. By the time you reach the other bank, you have been pulled far from the place you intended to be.

We may not like to admit it, but our life follows a similar trajectory – as forces beyond our control drag us from our chosen path. And the importance of recognising this fact is just one of the many lessons I learnt from Derren Brown, the illusionist, “mentalist” (mind-reader) and writer, whose book Happy explores the philosophy and psychology of wellbeing.

Most self-help books would suggest that you can fight life’s currents with determination and positive thinking. But taking inspiration from ancient Greek and Roman philosophers like the Stoics and 19th Century German thinker Arthur Schopenhauer, as well as modern scientific research, Brown believes that this is simply a recipe for disappointment and frustration. “We’re better off making our peace with the fact that that is the dynamic of life – rather than creating a false idea that we can somehow control everything to bring it in line with what our goals are,” he says.

I sat down with Brown to discuss the inspiration for his book and the reasons that ancient philosophy is essential to cope with the peculiar demands of the 21st Century.
The concept of Happy might seem like a departure from Brown’s well-known stage shows and TV programmes, but he points out that his illusions have often played with the mind’s blindspots. “Magic is a great analogy for how we edit our experiences.”

How so? Magicians, he says, try to tell a convincing narrative that dismisses certain inconvenient facts – and that’s exactly what the brain does as it compiles our life story. “It took me a long time to realise that. When I did realise that, I saw that magic wasn’t just this childish way of trying to impress people, but actually it sort of held a clue as to how we how we process reality and therefore might better live in accordance with it.”

You might tell yourself that you’re an awkward misfit, for instance – and so you only remember the times when you acted embarrassingly. Or you might only ever pick bad relationships, because your overarching story is that you are “unlucky in love”.A lot of the narratives we inherit come from when we’re really small, from our parents, who have their own set of frustrations, their own unlived lives – Derren Brown

We often adopt these stories from a young age, he says. “A lot of the narratives we inherit come from when we’re really small, from our parents, who have their own set of frustrations – their own unlived lives,” he says. “And for better or worse, we take all that on board and we go out in the world thinking that maybe we have to be successful to be loved, or that we have to always put other people’s needs first, or that we have some big secret that we couldn’t possibly tell people.” Recognising the sources of these narratives can go some way to reducing our anxiety and unhappiness, Brown says. (For more on the power of storytelling to shape our health and happiness, see our recent in-depth story on the subject.)

Today, the stories that we tell ourselves may also be shaped by the self-help industry’s promotion of positive thinking, determination and self-belief. While it might initially feel empowering to see ourselves as the beleaguered hero who relentlessly pursues their goals through sheer willpower, Brown argues that for most people, it will only lead to disappointment. (In Happy, Brown is particularly scathing of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret.)

One problem is that we often aren’t very good at choosing the right goals. “We have a terrible understanding of what fulfils us.” Many people set their sights on money, for instance – but psychological research has shown that, beyond the certain level of wealth needed for basic comfort, riches do not bring greater happiness.

If you’re not convinced, Brown suggests the following thought experiment: imagine that you woke up one day to discover that you were the only person left living on Earth. With no one else around, you’d be able to go and live in any house you wanted – Buckingham Palace even. But would you want to? “You would probably find somewhere that was just comfortable and practical.” The same goes for your expensive clothes, fancy cars, or the latest technology. “When you really follow that thought through, it’s amazing how much we acquire and want only to impress other people.”

Even if we do choose the right goals, the positive-thinking movement can place too much responsibility on the individual; if we haven’t succeeded, it’s our own fault for not having wanted it enough. Worse still, the kind of inflated personal belief that is promoted by certain gurus may cause us to ignore the criticisms of those around us, even when they might be offering a more realistic view of our chances.

Ultimately, the success stories we hear are the anomalies. Just think of all the motivational autobiographies out there: all giving the impression that determination was the key to success. “You just never read the biographies of businessmen who have failed,” he says – yet there will be many out there who had all the self-belief, but just never managed to make it. After all, as many as nine out of ten start-ups end up bombing.

Brown, of course, isn’t arguing that we should simply give up on our dreams. But if we return to that idea of the swimmer crossing from one bank to the other, it’s no good ignoring the currents pushing against us or believing that our force of will alone will overturn them – it is inevitable that you are going to be dragged off course.

If positive thinking can’t make us happier, what can? Brown argues that a healthier attitude to life comes from the Stoics, the ancient Greek philosophers who argued that we should actively and deliberately distinguish between the things that are within your power to change, and the things that aren’t – which we should learn to accept as a necessary part of life.

“I find myself doing this a lot that when something’s really bothering and frustrating me. I just think which side of the line is it on? Is it my thoughts and actions? Or is it something out there? It’s always something out there, it’s someone else’s behaviour. So then I think well, what if it was fine that that person is an idiot, or that my partner can’t handle stress well, or something like that – things that kind of end up having an effect on me, but actually, what if it’s fine, that that’s just their thing? It’s a very helpful thought, because then you take all the stress off yourself. You can then still work out how to help that person if you want, if that’s appropriate, but you kind of emotionally just disconnect from the pain of it.”

He gives an example of a game of tennis, but he says that same applies to any major challenge. “If you go into the game thinking ‘I must win’, that’s out of your control. So if you start to lose, you feel like you’re failing and then you become anxious… But if you go into a game of tennis thinking ‘I’ll play as well as I possibly can to the best of my ability’ – that is under your control, and it doesn’t matter if you start to lose – you won’t feel the frustration of failure, because you’re not failing, you’re still sticking true to your goals.”

Similarly, you can go into a job interview with the full knowledge that even if you perform your absolute best, the employer’s final decision is still beyond your control, and you can afford yourself a little compassion if you don’t make it. Brown says that this lowers our emotional “centre of gravity”, making us more resilient to life’s challenges. “[The Stoic’s] model of happiness was about avoiding disturbance.”

Brown also advocates the Stoic practice of premeditation every morning to prepare the mind for the day ahead. “It is, quite simply, spending a few minutes every morning, thinking about the day that lies ahead, and what the kind of traps are likely to be where you’re likely to let yourself down, and just anticipating them and thinking them through,” he says. This deliberate self-reflection – taken from a distanced perspective, when we are in a more rational frame of mind – reminds us that some things will be out of our control, and need not be the source of upset. At the same time it helps us to navigate the challenges that are within our control more wisely, so that we don’t just make the same mistakes again and again.

One of the best ways of achieving this, he says, is to leave the phone out of the bedroom. “It’s a little reminder that okay, instead of just browsing Twitter, I’ll think about what’s going to happen today and how I can meet those things in a more useful way.”

A sceptic might question whether these ancient philosophies can be relevant in today’s turbulent times, but Brown argues that it is just as relevant today as ever before. “The Stoics appear during a huge time of constant wars and real political strife. And it became very popular, I think, because it’s a way of distancing yourself from strife and keeping your centre of gravity within you.” He emphasises that this is not an excuse to remain passive or apathetic – it simply helps you to find some personal peace in the turmoil, and some perspective in the battles we do choose to fight, rather than resorting to outrage in every disagreement.

The more detached approach might also help us to deal with the trials of social media and to remember that the truth of someone’s private life is often very different from the perfect exterior we present to the world. “It must be very difficult growing up, when that [social media] is really all you know, and you’re comparing that to this sort of horrible, ugly, messy version of yourself that you know, exists,” he says. “It’s hard to remember that everybody else has one of those as well.”

With that in mind, I wonder how much we are simply seeing a public facade of Brown himself. But as far as you can tell from our short conversation, the Stoic approach of accepting our lack of control certainly seems to bring him moments of relief in his hectic life.“It’s like that feeling when you’re a kid and you think you’ve got to get up for school and you realise it’s a Saturday,” he says. And that’s the kind of contentment that we could all hope to achieve.