The path to less stress? Strategic pessimism.
The key to happiness is being less optimistic and accepting a certain amount of unhappiness.
Derren Brown began his UK television career in December 2000 with a series of specials called Mind Control. In the UK, his name is now pretty much synonymous with the art of psychological manipulation. Amongst a varied and notorious TV career, Derren has played Russian Roulette live, convinced middle-managers to commit armed robbery, led the nation in a séance, stuck viewers at home to their sofas, successfully predicted the National Lottery, motivated a shy man to land a packed passenger plane at 30,000 feet, hypnotised a man to assassinate Stephen Fry, and created a zombie apocalypse for an unsuspecting participant after seemingly ending the world. He has also written several best-selling books and has toured with eight sell-out one-man stage shows.
DERREN BROWN: So, I became interested in stoicism over the last few years I wrote a book called Happy, which was delving into stoicism. Stoicism was the dominant school of philosophy for 500 years before Christianity took over, so when it did it was the stoics they had to win round. And because of that they incorporated and appealed to a lot of stoic ideas so for that reason they still sound familiar to us nowadays. But when you look into them with the rigor that they were looked into 2000 years ago they provide I think a very useful and realistic as in really grounded in reality approach to happiness. What stoicism says there's sort of a couple of big building blocks. One is a familiar idea to us still that it isn't events in the world that caused our problems but is our reactions to those events, the stories we form about them, our judgments about those events that's where our problems come from.
And we know that to be true because if something is really upsetting us we can always imagine someone we know who would react to that thing differently and as long as we can always do that that's like a big clue that it's our reaction that's causing the problem not the thing itself. Once you've got your head around that the other big building block of it is, and I think this is where it's supremely useful, is that we can only control certain things in life. If we try and control things we can't we are going to frustrate ourselves and become anxious. The old idea of happiness that the stoic sort of enjoyed was that happiness was a sort of tranquility so this is really all about a recipe for avoiding unnecessary disturbance and anxiety so you don't try and control things that you can't. Now, the only things you can control are your thoughts and your actions and that is it. That's it. And if you accept the idea that everything outside of your thoughts and actions are fine, they're fine as they are and you let that idea really sort of drip into your soul then you have a very good template for avoiding unnecessary disturbance and anxiety.
[00:45:00] There are gray areas that immediately pop up like what about social injustice what if you really want to change the world? That's outside of my thoughts and actions, but it sort of isn't. What is outside of your thoughts and actions is an outcome that you can't control, but what is still within your thoughts and your actions is how much effort you put into changing the world so you can still spend your life trying to create change but your impetus is to do the very best that you can, the best that you can do, but you're not committing yourself to an outcome that is out of your control. And then, of course, you avoid, you just do a better job because you're not getting caught up in bitterness and frustration and anxiety. It's like if you were playing a game of tennis, if you're trying to win well you're going to get anxious that the other person is beating you, whereas if you're playing from a point of I'll play as well as I possibly can you're more likely to succeed and become less anxious you're going to play a better game and a tennis player will tell you that that's true. So, those are very helpful things and I find that notion of which side of the line is this thing that's upsetting me? Is it within my thoughts and my actions? It never is. Or is it something on the outside world that is actually out of my control? In which case what if it was fine? If I'm stressed because my partner handles stress badly himself and therefore is making me upset, well I'm getting caught up in a whole sort of thing, but what if my starting point was okay he handled stress badly in this situation, what if that's sort of okay or a separate thing I don't need to get caught up in that that's sort of his task. And once you've separated it then of course you can decide you're going to be more helpful or help change that or whatever, but you're just making those separations can be very helpful. If this person at work is upsetting me well that's something outside of my thoughts and my actions.
If you're in a creative business, Bryan Cranston talks brilliantly about this with auditions that your job at an audition is not to get the job. And I think this applies to a lot of creative work you're job isn't to get the job, your job is to present what you do in a compelling way, the other stuff you can't control. The Greeks thought of it as fortune and fate all the stuff you can't control. The opposite of all of this thinking is the American obsession, forgive me, with positive thinking and optimism that you can, by believing in yourself and setting your goals, crank the world up into line with your aims. And the reality is we just can't. And that sort of thinking can be very helpful for a while or short-term goals, but ultimately it's probably going to come crashing down and then you're adding failure to a whole list of problems that you've already got because you think you've failed, you've done something wrong as opposed to accepting that on one side of the graph there are your aims, on the other side of the graph there's fortune, there's stuff that life throws back at you that you can't control and that actually a happy life is about accepting a certain amount of unhappiness and living in easy accordance with both of those axis and not fooling yourself into thinking that you can crank this line up to where it doesn't belong. It's a Protestant work ethic that whole American obsession with optimism, as opposed to what I'm talking about which is a strategic pessimism, comes from the Calvinist. It was the reaction against Calvinism. But in the same way when you react against something often you sort of inherit the structure of that thing and you just change the variables within it so in trying to think against that religious model that Protestant work ethic was inherited. So, that idea of believe in yourself, set your goals, keep believing in yourself is still based on a lingering ghost of the protestant past.
- The centuries old philosophy of Stoicism may hold the key to a kind of happiness that is more grounded in reality.
- The two main ideas of stoic happiness are that problems are caused by your reactions to events not the events themselves, and the only things you can control are your thoughts and your actions.
- Choosing strategic pessimism over optimism and positive thinking is one way to avoid "unnecessary disturbance and anxiety."
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