Book review: Happy by Derren Brown

On writing book reviews

It is really weird writing a book review, especially on a personal blog. Why do it in the first place? What is the ultimate goal? Do I want to share my thoughts and start a discussion?

This question becomes weirder once you think about how many different book review exists. It would be an interesting research: how many average human lives there are required to read only reviews of every book in the world? XKCD author had a really great take on the question about number of books in the world in his series of “What if” answers. So what potential benefit, or risk, there of me telling you about this particular book that I have happened to stumble and finish reading?

I decided that I am going to write it for myself, it’s been a while since I finished reading “Happy” and it would be good to go through my highlights and see if I can somehow summarize my experience from this book in writing.


Happiness is a fascinating concept, somewhat from same domain as a concept of love: it is highly unlikely to find a definition of these phenomenas everybody would agree to. Yet, most of us “get” the concept of them and would like to be happy and to experience love. You can argue that everyone would be happy to be happy (Bazinga!). But what is happiness? How it can be achieved? Can being happy be developed as a skill?

Answers to these questions were searched by many different minds during mankind history and, undoubtedly, the search will continue even after everybody reading these lines cease to exist. A lot of areas of a human life were revolutionized in the last 2000 years. Our understanding of a human body, biology, genetics, space, time is very different. When we talk about happiness we do not see any qualitive change in mankind understanding of it over the years.

And it is not like people did not spend time or effort trying to crack “happines”. Since there was no “paradigm” change in the question of happiness over the last thousands years, there is a good chance that thoughts and arguments of early recorded thinkers are still valid today. That is why this book is worth a read.

“Happy” by Derren Brown can be a good introduction to the ideas of Stoicism. I did not know anything about stoicism before I read this book and it was a pleasant surprise to discover that Arthur Schopenhauer’s work are of the same movement.

The main point of Stoicism is realiasation that fundamentally there are two types of things in the world:

  1. things you can control
  2. things you can not control

Stoics argue that your thoughts and actions goes under pt1. Under the second point — goes everything else. It does not take an IQ of a genius to notice that this approach goes against the modern era of self built success stories, especially those of garage based startups. But wait, this idea is a bit deeper than it looks at first. Let’s take an example of starting a business: you have a great idea and want it to be a success. You can control your thoughts and actions. You can create a great business plan, an amazing marketing compaing and your product can sovle a very important problem. But at the end of the day it will be other’s Joe (or Mary) decision to buy it or not. Wont’t you agree? You can not control if he/she will transfer his/her money to you in exchange for your product.

The conclusion which Stoic school of thought is making here is simple: you should not worry about things which you can not control. It is important step on the path to happiness: to learn let go of things which you can not control.

And that is the reason why Stoicism approach to happiness is interesting. It is evolution of the idea that true happiness can only be found inside ourselves, but without completely rejecting all things from external world like Diogenes.

Derren Brown is very good in this book in highlighting the fact that even if you are not in control of a lot of things it should not stop you from achieving greatness and taking risks. He suggests to question our reaction to the events which we can not control. It easy to see how this logic can be applied to all aspects of life without preventing you trying: career success, illness, accidents, love, etc.

Perhaps love is the easiest example. Everybody would agree that you are not in control weather other person loves you or not. Right?


Why the book about happiness would talk a lot about Death? Well, because death is a very important part of everybody’s life and this is something each of us will experience. Thoughts about death can make us unhappy, therefore it is benefecial to explore death.

This is very interesting chapter with some arguments I did not hear about before. For example so-called Symmetry argument. First, it is reasonable to say that the fear of death contains two parts: the fear of dying and the suffering you experience during that process; and fear of what would come after your last breath. Let leave the first part out for now and focus on the last one.

What would be our experience after death? We experience things through our senses(eyes, skin, ears, etc…) and brain (hello Solipsism) — which won’t perform its function once physical body cease to exist. Symmetry argument goes like this: you have already experienced eternal non-existance. Eternity before you were born you did not exist and you have no negative experiences of that. So why should you worry about experiencing non-existance again?

Note that this is not an ultimate wisdom, just an example of thought process about about topic of death.

There is also another interesting thought which resonated with me: it is common to think about dying as having to leave a party while everybody else will stay and have fun. But what is alternative to that? Party which you can not leave and you have to have fun. Forever.

I found myself not necessarily agreeing with every thought in this chapter, but still consider it to be great part of the book.

Living now

Final chapters of the book are about living now, but not YOLO style. They are more focused on living in the past or in the future. There is no reason to spend any effort on what have happened in your life already, no point of iterating over and over embarassing moments or bad decisions. Likewise there is no point of worrying about the fuiture. You can not control the past or the future. Only things you can control are your actions now, in the present. Therefore they deserve the focus.

Everybody probably heard saying “You can not change past”, but ending of this book does not just give you 5 second slogan to quickly swallow. It builds a logical argument from sime statements which you can follow and chose to agree or to disagree. I find this usually gives you a better understandind of ideas behind words.

And maybe, will make your path happiness clearer.

Why I would recommend reading this book

Summary: I would definitely recommend reading this book, Here are reasons why:

You can buy Derren Brown Happy: Why more or less everything is absolutely fine: