How to be happier: Derren Brown shares his four essential tips

It’s dark and raining outside when I wake-up and start thinking about the people who’ll let me down during the day.

Given we’re so often told to begin each morning being thankful, it might seem a negative way to kick-off things off, but it’s what illusionist and author Derren Brown describes as ‘an alternative to meditation’ in his new book, A Little Happier.

Brown’s guide to happiness is the opposite of other self-help books. Based on the philosophy of Stoicism, it reminds you that ‘we are not so special’ and ‘you are stuck with yourself’. The aim is to experience long-lasting contentment and resilience by acknowledging we can only control our own thoughts, actions and responses.

How preparing to be disappointed could make you happier

Following Brown’s guidance, I find myself in bed compiling the list of potential ‘disappointers’. Off the top of my head, there’s the pushy woman at the gym who always dominates the space, the customer service person I’ll speak to for the umpteenth time about a booking, and my partner who’ll be more engrossed by his phone than my musings.

As part of the meditation, you must remind yourself ‘they will act like this because in that moment they will know no better’ and (somewhat begrudgingly) acknowledge ‘the wrong they do is similar to my own that I commit every day’.

The point, Brown says, is to prime yourself for the challenges ahead. ‘Where might you let yourself down? Do you have unrealistic expectations of someone?’ In doing so, you can mentally prepare, avert negative outbursts and react as the best version of yourself.

It’s true – by the end of the day, it’s helped. Gym? The woman wasn’t there. Call? I remained unusually calm. Boyfriend? I concede screeching, ‘Stop looking at your phone!’ wasn’t my finest moment.

Beware your own storytelling

Our own storytelling has a lot to answer for, it’s how and why we view the world as we do, but it’s entirely subjective. As Brown highlights in the book, an ‘accusation is a story on our part, a narrative of interpretation of events’, which is, like most things, largely impacted by our formative years.

But that’s on us, therefore we need to ‘own it’, he says. So, when I’m faced with a certain situation (again), I decide to use Brown’s example verbatim and, in a somewhat stilted voice, announce, ‘It makes me feel annoyed when you do that, like you’re ignoring me’. The boyfriend looks bewildered for a moment but does put his phone down.

Gain perspective to tackle anxiety

Brown observes that ‘much of our unhappiness comes from ruminating over past events or worrying about those yet to come’.

I don’t tend to catastrophise, but sometimes a memory will pop up in my head, often in the middle of the night when everything takes on greater significance, and unwarranted over-analysis ensues.

Brown says we must learn to press pause on replaying past experiences and the best way to do that is by asking yourself, ‘Do I have a problem right now?’ I try it and find it’s a simple but effective way to keep things in perspective, especially at two in the morning.

Know you’re not so special

Despite what our parents, friends, influencers and self-help gurus have told us, we’re not special or unique. Not only that, ‘we are as flawed and intolerable as others we are encountering,’ observes Brown. We get defensive, we’re easily influenced by others, our behaviour’s predictable, we gossip, we’re awkward and we’re tormented by feelings of inadequacy.

‘We are not special, we are similar,’ he says, and by admitting our vulnerabilities, we ease the pressure we put on ourselves.

I, for one, feel socially awkward most of the time, which I try to conceal and subsequently appear standoffish or a bumbling mess. That’s my truth I hereby share with you. In response, I imagine you’ll either relate, or not really care and I suppose that’s the point Brown is making.

Enjoy the journey

There’s another area where Brown believes the self-help industry has misguided us, and it relates to setting goals and self-belief. He points out goalsetting is fine in the short-term, for tests and deadlines, but it’s not something we should stretch over years.

What happens, he asks, when you reach that goal? What have you missed in the meantime? What if you fail to reach it? Instead, ‘be guided by a sense of what’s enjoyable’ rather than ‘fixate on endings’, find fulfilment in what you do and savour the journey.

I find this is pertinent as a freelancer. It’s tough out there, especially in this climate, but I endeavour to remind myself of the reasons I took the leap and enjoy the ride.

Tips for happiness: Derren Brown versus Paul McKenna

Derren Brown vs Paul McKenna – what they say about finding happiness

TV Illusionist Derren Brown and hypnotist Paul McKenna both famously claim to know mind exercises to help you find happiness. But who says what?

On smiling

Derren Brown says: ‘Don’t underestimate the impact being tired, hungry and hurried can have on your mood. Eat and sleep well, and don’t rush.’

Paul McKenna says: ‘Laughter also releases serotonin and endorphins. Research has shown that it boosts the immune system and helps the body to clear out toxins. That means that by laughing a lot you will have better digestion and fewer colds and flu.’

On death

Derren Brown says: ‘Death and loss aren’t things people like to dwell on, but there’s a lot to gain from reminding yourself there is limited time.’

Paul McKenna says: ‘Happiness reminds us that every day is precious. Not one day of our life will be repeated.’

On acknowledging setbacks

Derren Brown says: ‘Acknowledge the roles fate and fortune play in our lives, the natural to and fro of life.’

Paul McKenna says: ‘However you might feel, YOU are not broken. You have simply picked up some unhelpful ways of thinking and acting that are making you feel bad.’

On control

Derren Brown says: ‘Don’t try to control things that are not under your control ie, anything bar yourself.

Paul McKenna says: ‘Don’t keep your happiness to yourself. Spread it around and it will make you happier still.’

A Little Happier by Derren Brown (published in hardback by Bantam Press, £8.99) is out now.

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