A Review of Happy by Derren Brown

If life is about the stories we build, then one of my most cohesive narratives is reading.  It’s fair to say most everyone spends their entire life reading, so I suppose I am no exception, but even so, I like to count it as a hobby, rather than a necessity of life. And part of that story is that I never give up on a book, no matter how poorly-written, boring or just plain baffling.

I gave up on Happy.

It’s a tricky one, isn’t it? Because knowing Derren Brown there’s probably a twist in the last third that would have made my gentle trudge through the first third worth it, and my world would have turned on its axis and suddenly I’d have got it. But I’m never going to get that far.

Happy and I have a somewhat difficult relationship.

I really want to like Happy, Happy seems to actively despise me and every life choice I’ve ever made. It’s complicated.

I feel I should mention that I feel this book is one for the psychologically sound, at worst the psychologically wobbly; and not the psychologically oh-dear-god-what-is-happening. There was one line that stood out to me which really made me think: oh, we might have some disagreements here:

We might, worse, choose how to live based almost entirely on a reaction against the way we have been treated by people and thus hand over control of our life force to the transgressors of our past.”

This may seem like a throwaway line to get stuck on, but I think for a lot of people, myself obviously included, this could give pause for thought.

Living with PTSD is like living in the past and the present concurrently. The two are blended almost seamlessly into a ball of anxiety, doubt and every protective measure you have learnt over the years to make sure what happened never happens again. Your dreams turn easily into nightmares. You drift off and end up thinking about something that happened over ten years ago. You look at the photographs of your old school mates and wonder how they got away scot free and you didn’t. You are constantly living the story of your past, as your brain tries to construct and reconstruct it into something you can digest. Your every action is dictated by a hedgehog bristled protective instinct to stay safe, and whilst Brown may suggest that the stories of our past are largely irrelevant to our current wellbeing, it is damn near impossible to objectively take that on board when you live your past every day, from the moment you wake up to the moment you eventually fall asleep (and into your nightmares).

It is true that we construct narratives out of our lives, that we have wants, hopes, goals and dreams that may be entirely unrealistic. We seek happiness outside of ourselves, in friendship, acceptance and relationships, platonic or otherwise (oddly the platonic was weirdly disparaged, which I found difficult to comprehend as my only meaningful relationships have been platonic, after all, it is very difficult to date when you cannot leave the house without functionally sedating yourself).

In deciding a few years ago that theory of mind was in fact a very real thing, and that other people had exceedingly, marvellously, miraculously complex internal lives all of their very own, I came to the conclusion that if I cannot be happy, then at least other people can be slightly less miserable. To that end, I treated every smile I could get from my nephew as golden, every giggle from my niece as a reward, every ALL CAPS response from my best friend as a job well done. I wrote at once both selfishly and selflessly, a desire to be seen and remembered, for my work to somehow one day end up on charity shop shelves, sandwiched between dog-earred copes of Fifty Shades of Grey or some other nonsense. The selfless was in spreading stories of love, hope and okay, admittedly, sometimes cannibalism. Using Amazon’s promotional tools to give my writing away for free, flinging my stories into unexpecting people’s faces and hoping that maybe the words I had strung together somehow resonated and remained long past the final page. The mantra I found that best fit was simply: create beautiful things. Less simply: leave the world in a better place than you found it in. In two words, ultimately though, it was: be kind.

In accepting a narrative, things were bad, things will in all likelihood continue to be bad, but maybe I can make things slightly less bad for other people, I found more purpose than in striving for a happiness of my own. Maybe it is selfish, to want with such fierceness, for my niblings to live a life where the bad cannot touch them, cannot in any way impede their lives. For my mother to find a sense of peace, though I have yet to figure this one out, she’s tricky. For my cat to live a life where his rotund and fluffy self can make happy sleeping noises all day every day and never have to worry about, well, anything.

Glancing at the book now, I keep re-reading the subtitle, ‘Why more or less everything is absolutely fine’. Maybe I just never reached the point of the book where the glass in my mouth is revealed to be sugar glass and largely harmless, but life within four walls, the same cast of characters day in, day out, and a boredom that cannot be quantified, does not feel like everything is ‘more or less absolutely fine’. Everything feels more or less decidedly less than fine. No amount of complicated philosophy (as someone who took Philosophy at AS Level and failed it in a rather spectacular fashion, the sheer amount of, to me, dense philosophical discussion within the chapters I read made me feel intensely stupid, like maybe I was too stupid to be deserving of happiness) could simplify matters. It was in parts bewildering, indecipherable and finally, genuinely upsetting. As someone whose anagram skills were not revived by the Rumyodin example (I stared and stared at it, trying to find the word, and in the end only discovered it was in fact two words: ‘your mind’, upon watching the documentary, Fear and Faith, mentioned in the book) I was starting the stairs on the wrong foot and off balance from there on really.

The problem is, I tried, I really did. The paragraphs of philosophy wandered into my brain, turned over a few objects, ran a finger across a dusty surface, and decided this was not a place they wanted to stay, and in fact, they were frankly insulted at the idea. In other words: it did not stick. Grand ideas are all well and good, but when phrased and collected and presented as an opportunity for, if not happiness, than a lack of desire to seek happiness, and then being too dense for my immensely simple brain to comprehend, well, didn’t I feel a tad bit stupid. I do understand, that objectively I am stupid, that my IQ is slightly above average, but that fundamentally I am not the sharpest cookie in the cookie jar. I feel this is why I get on so well with my cat, who, when not being threatened with a swift rehoming, is looked upon fondly and told ‘you’re lucky you’re pretty’. A better natured cat you will not find, but there is little going on upstairs. Lacking his ginger locks and distinguished features, I find myself without even that comfort.

So: happiness. Is the truth out there? Is it just slightly too impenetrable for my traumatised brain to decipher? Is this book written, unavoidably from a place of privilege – be it wealth, mental stability or education? Or am I Dumbo, falling and creating an elephant sized crater in the pavement because I don’t quite trust the magic feather, or my own capabilities? I know enough to know the magic is not in any magical trinket or external controlling force. I also know enough to know that the magic has not been inside myself all along. No amount of prodding my internal self is going to stamp down my ultimate unrealistic fantasy of being able to go to Tesco without popping a Diazepam and disassociating in the bread aisle.

I have filled my life, in lieu of genuine companions, with the fictional, and have indulged in their stories and the action = consequence narrative. Whilst I agree that the universe does not give a shit about me, I cling still to the brutal hope that someday this will all reveal itself as worth it. That one day I will stand in the bread aisle and not be overwhelmed by the utterly arbitrary amount of very similar breads.

So, my narrative is not as simple as: I was born two weeks early and as a result crave punctuality and hate waiting around (though this is true). Nor is it as twee as: I set up my position in my mother’s uterus as breech, and with a stubbornness I display to this day, I refused to budge, causing rather more trouble than I’m worth to be frank.

The past shapes us, we are not separate from it, it informs our every decision, conscious or unconscious. When the past is present in your every thought, tangled utterly within your thought processes, it becomes impossible to write off as just something that happened.

We might, worse, choose how to live based almost entirely on a reaction against the way we have been treated by people and thus hand over control of our life force to the transgressors of our past.”

My transgressors may have taught me to fear, to seek control and to doubt authority in all its many varied forms, but they also taught me this: spite. Not as an active position, but as a passive decision to hope for better in spite of what they may have wished for me.

Turning twenty eight in January, I realise I have rather missed the boat when it comes to every traditional life hurdle. Facebook serves as a rather caustic reminder of this. And yet, at the same time, there is a heady relief in not fitting into the Stepford model of marriage, kids, mortgage, rinse and repeat until death. I may not be happy, and everything is not more or less absolutely fine, and on my death bed I will undoubtedly be itemising the regrets of a life half lived, between shouts for more morphine. But in still being alive, I have managed to cause an awful lot of trouble for those who hurt me, and hopefully, through words I wrote using this rather substandard brain of mine, have made people laugh and cry and consider however briefly, a narrative other than their own. My characters may be paper thin avatars of myself, living out better lives, and maybe that is my flaw: I am ultimately tied to stories and beginnings, middles and endings. And so, to dismiss narrative as a way of comprehending life seems completely alien to me, and also sort of sad. I don’t want to wake up every day like I’ve received a bang to the head and everything is shiny and new. I carry the weight of my experiences and live despite them, and to spite them.

As I write these words, I am aware that Brown would be finding hiccups in every argument, shaking his head at the very basic misunderstanding of his words. That’s okay, and I don’t blame him. Ultimately though, Disappointing a National Treasure makes for quite a good chapter title in the book of my life, don’t you think?