Derren Brown’s Happy did for me.
I expected a throw-away, smart-arsed, skip-a-chapter-or-three self-help guide I would forget as soon as I hadn’t read it. But it’s magic and will leave a mark. Between the turkey and steak pie Brown told me I have dominion over two things: my thoughts and actions. This timely antidote to “Make A Million By Midday Monday” and “You Are Soooooo Beautiful” is just what the doctor ordered. Self-help books can be futile and destructive and Brown takes aim at a few, especially The Secret by Rhona Bryne, while revisiting the various snake-oil salesmen he has exposed in the past.
Brown aims to convince us more or less everything is just fine, in fact that’s the strap line for the book. Happiness is neither a journey nor a destination, but you can choose to have it and will get rewards if you work at it. If you think that’s not so, try losing that Xmas paunch without exercising your body, your restraint, or both.
Brown gives us more than foundations. There is an entertaining, crystal clear-round-up of a smorgasbord of philosophers and philosophies which he later reprises to help us build a more contented life. Juxtaposing the treatises of Epicurians and Stoics, and showing how they play in the modern world, we get “desire what you have and you have everything you want” and, for the more ambitious, “aim high, seek to change the world, yet always be satisfied with the outcome”.
Other highlights are counter-intuitive:
- Lower Your Self Belief shows us that we have an inflated sense of our own importance and are well served by keeping it in check;
- Stick With First Impressions tells us to stop making up stories about others based on nothing more than our own proclivities because they are usually wrong and always destructive; and
- Resist Curiosity suggests if you want to control anger you should be less inquisitive, as we are prone to looking for things we shouldn’t and often don’t like what we find.
Not only did Brown remind me to attend better to my own thoughts and actions because they are the only show in town, he has awoken a thirst for knowledge that will have me get on with my own book and that’s a game-changer: if a ginger magician can be a philosopher what am I waiting for?
Introspection is almost compulsory at New Year and Brown educed reflections on what other books have moved me to action. In 1997 Frank Bascombe, thirty-something and living an unremarkable life in middle America - recently divorced; two live kids and a dead child; a successful career writing sports instead of Pulitzer-winning prose - appeared in The Sportswriter, first in a trilogy by Richard Ford.
(Independence Day, book two, won the Pulitzer for real-life author Richard Ford)
Frank had seemingly snatched unexpected defeat from the jaws of life-long victory through a combination of personal tragedy, bad luck and poor judgement. Frankly, Frank gave me permission to be in a bit of a mess with the revelation that anyone can make mistakes, even when they apparently have it all; we are sometimes ahead, sometimes behind; your life can change in a heartbeat; everyone is bashed by the jetsam that floats around; no one has any plan for us because there is no plan, grand or otherwise. And that’s all fine, because it just is.
(My new Happiness guru, Derren, agrees)
“I believe I have done these two things. Faced Down regret. Avoided ruin. And I am still here to tell about it.” says Frank on page two. Now that’s not the most inspiring quote but I am sure Derren would love it. What I was drawn to is that, in intimate detail, with words so carefully crafted you know Ford considers every one, in stories packed with hilarity and horror and bathos, I am put in Frank’s seersucker shirt as he meanders through a life of every man (or every middle class man).
Frank turns his moderate talents to Real Estate in Independence Day (how snazzy a juxtaposition is sportswriter to realtor?) and over the course of a long holiday weekend emerges scathed but triumphant from a life that seems too surreally sad, mad and unbearable, where his best intentions beget the worst outcomes. He becomes a slightly startled actor in his own life when he takes his strange, estranged son to The Baseball Hall Of Fame and ends up in A&E, his ex arriving: by helicopter. With the middle classes in America and elsewhere feeling under the cosh this trilogy still resonates.
The final book is The Lay Of The Land, where Frank hilariously over-shares his treatment for prostate cancer (you can guess where much of the action is) and eventually settles down by the sea with second wife, serene Sally with the short leg.
How To Win Friends And Influence People was almost certainly, in 1987, the first book of its type I read. I still recommend it to anyone asking about relationship building. It’s not complicated but sincerity, remembering names, listening, smiling (though not at strangers on the tube), dressing well and being courteous never go out of fashion. More than the solid advice in its yellowed pages, though, I discovered, to my surprise, Carnegie had taught courses in these skills and Dale Carnegie was a sizeable American business that still did. It seemed that you could make a living teaching people this stuff. Bazinga…
When my perennially restructuring university was giving academics a cheque to be relieved of tenure, ambition met opportunity. I dusted off How To Win Friends And Influence People, made a plan and got out there with a public speaking programme called Kissing With Confidence.
The Snip and I have never looked back and the rest is history, still in the making.
My three books:
- Happy, Derren Brown.
- The Sportswriter, Richard Ford.
- How To Win Friends And Influence People, Dale Carnegie.
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