Derren Brown (2016) Happy: Why more or less everything is fine.


I like Derren Brown which makes everything easier. As Billy Connolly said when people approach him they are usually smiling. Derren Brown doesn’t make me happy. You can only do that yourself and he’s not really sure that happiness exists, except as a transitory experience, a bi-product of something else. Derren Brown’s book reminds me f those chap-books heroines in nineteenth-century novels, written by Jane Austen, who were, for example, always scribbling in it remembrances such as   ‘Where our treasure is there will our hearts be also’.

I’m not knocking it. That’s what this blog is. Derren is a great debunker. I like that too. He’s got an inside track on how magic works and debunks mystics, especially charlatans that prey on the needy searching for answers that involve the afterlife. For Derren there’s no after life. The theme of his book is it’s this life we should concentrate on.

First up on the firing line are those selling the notion of positive thinking as a panacea for…well, just about everything positive. The negative stuff is your fault, for not being positive enough. If you’ve got cancer, it’s your fault for not being positive. As it progresses it’s your fault for not being positive enough. Derren isn’t saying positive thinking isn’t a good idea, but it’s not a cure, but a marketing strategy to hook the gullible and snake-oil for the most vulnerable and needy.  We don’t for example give a dog a tablet and tell it to think positively about it, or give a horse an injection and then complain that it no longer gallops as fast.

The problem as Derren (and economists) see it is our needs are limited our wants unlimited. The solution is asking why we want something, what story is being told to sell it? When we change ourselves we change the narratives of our lives.

Derren looks at the considered life. Stoicism and hedonism as propounded by the ancient Greek Epicureans. He flings in a bit of everything: Aristotle, Christianity, Renaissance and Marxism and stirs with a big spoon. (I’m going to look at that bit again, I’m always interested in Marxist dialectic because it sounds quite intellectual.)

The next major means of achieving happiness and redemption from the encumbrance of society was offered by the Marxists: work will set you free.  

(No it willnae, I hear myself saying).

To Marx, a bourgeois society alienates its working class from rewarding or creative labour.

(That’s more in line with my viewpoint. We all tell ourselves stories that resonate within us and seem true.)

Next up are the Stoic building blocks for a proper life. I can’t remember what they are, but they sounded to me like one of the steps in the AA handbook about powerlessness. To paraphrase, accepting the things you cannot change and having the wisdom to know the difference. You can get somebody (like Alexander the Great) to step out of the way so you can get the sunlight, but you can’t move the sun.

Derren rattles through more of life’s lessons, regarding being famous, being rich and being loved. As Meatloaf says 2 out of 3 ain’t bad. But Darren gives us the secret magic formula for success (which I’ve forgotten and will need to look up, again, but I’m happy too).

TALENT + ENERGY = SUCCESS

STYLE + ATTITUDE = BEING A STAR

Twinkle, twinkle I say, but Derren does allow for the Greek idea of FATE. This is shorthand for saying I don’t know. I often use it to bemoan my own fate. I’m often happy to do so.

The ending of the book is about death and happy endings. Funnily enough they’re not mutually exclusive. I recently came face to face with death. I like Derren’s take on all that positive thinking crap. He’s reiterating what I’ve often thought and written about. ‘How to Die Well’ is not often on the agenda. We ignore death until we cannot. His idea of ‘a good-enough death’ is lovely. He quotes Donald Winnicott:

I have extended the ‘good enough’ theory to most of my life and now my death. We are at times so obsessed or feel pressurised into ‘being the best at…the fastest at…the cleverest at…’ I genuinely worry about all this positive thinking/ life coaching!

…It is undoubtedly excellent to try to achieve one’s maximum potential, but that should be to please ourselves, not be judged by others, and for living a ‘good-enough’ life with its shares of wonders and disasters…

We’ve came to the end, as does Derren Brown, with a chapter And in the End. And Now. He’s perhaps gone too far, but hey, it’s entertaining and informative and I do like the guy.   

Derren Brown: Pushed to the Edge, Channel 4, 9pm.

http://www.channel4.com/programmes/derren-brown-pushed-to-the-edge

The advertisement as it appeared in local papers

Derren Brown is a genius, an illusionist, a magician that does no magic, a man that uses reason like other folk wield hand guns. In one of his earlier shows he got a man to shoot him. But he’s still alive and still at it. Making his own shows, his own productions and selling the product to Channel 4. If the premise of his show can’t be described in one sentence it’s usually a dud and not a Derren Brown classic. In this one he’s going to get someone to push someone else off the edge of a tall building to their death—so they believe.

We the audience know that is not the case.  In the Sting (1973) Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) teams up with o Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) to take revenge on the ruthless crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) responsible for their mutual pal’s death by stealing his money.  Here the victim of the sting is not a ruthless crime boss, but an innocent member of the public. I’d guess we’re looking here at Stanley Milgram’s authority study (1974) which tested a paid subject’s conflict between what he or she thought was right or wrong and the prompting of an authority figure, in this case a teacher, who urged the subject to inflict increasing levels of pain on another subject when ostensibly researching responses to stimuli and the affect on memory. This in essence mimicked German’s citizen’s response to Nazi authority and in particular the claim ‘I was only doing what I was told’. This abdication of responsibility conducted at Yale University using ordinary Americans was expected to be a failure. In other words, few or very few subjects would move through the gears and throw a switch in which another subject experienced increasing levels of electric shock which begun at 15 volts, and ended with XXX 450 volts, and presumably death, as the setting before it warned of Danger: Severe Shock. The actor or confederate who was playing the part of the person being shocked was asked to make his pain more realistic by shouting and screaming and begging for mercy. Sixty-five percent of the sample tested, despite this, when verbally urged to throw the switch by the teacher, or authority figure, did so.

milgram's shocks box with its display of controls and - it must be said - warnings

I didn’t catch all of Derren Brown’s programme, but caught the end of it, when the subject of the sting, Chris Kingston, 29, being duped and urged to push an old man off a building, refused to do so. But this is a trick that backfired for Derren Brown and his script team. Mr Kingston meets Derren Brown and his courage is lauded. He has done what 35% of subjects in Milgram’s study did, refuse to bow to authority and maintained their autonomy and judgement. So far so good. But then Derren shows the viewer the same experiment, but run with another three members of the subject cohort. Two middle-class woman and a man did push an old man off a building. We see them doing it. The difference between Milgram’s experiment and Derren Brown’s is the former was anonymous. The subject gets to walk away knowing what he or she has done and how they’ve been duped. Here the social media sting comes into effect. Those subjects that pushed the old man off the building are known. What they have done is in the public sphere and likely to have countless adverse effects on their long term career. No amount of de-briefing of counselling can take that away. This is a disappointment which belongs more to the Jeremy Kyle school of lets laugh not with them, but at them. This is poking people’s inadequacies with sticks and I don’t like it. But I don’t have to life with it. The people taking part do.