How Rewriting Your Story Can Make You Happier

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Happy" by Derren Brown. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How can rewriting your story benefit you? What is deep self-examination? How can you begin?

Older eras have sought happiness through lives of virtue and intellectual pursuits, while the modern age places value on achievement, fame, and fortune. In Happy, Derren Brown suggests that by rewriting your story based on a philosophy of your own, you can lead a more thoughtful and generally happier life. 

Read on to learn Brown’s advice for rewriting your story through philosophical, deep self-examination.

Rewriting Your Own Story

Derren Brown is anything but the stereotypical self-help guru. In his native England, he’s famous as a stage and television magician who highlights the way stories can misdirect the mind. His book Happy was inspired by Brown’s interest in the narratives people use to make sense of their lives and how those stories can be consciously reshaped to help us live more happily in the here and now. In this article, we’ll explore Brown’s advice for rewriting your story—the goal is to base your well-being on your own thoughts and actions, which you control, rather than those of others, which you can’t. To do this, Brown suggests deep self-examination, not to fixate on the past but to balance the needs of the present with your concerns for the future. 

To begin, Brown says to question your thoughts and feelings, being careful not to blame others and fall into mental traps. Learn to recognize your feelings without elaborating on them with self-serving or self-defeating stories. For example, if a friend acts thoughtlessly toward you, you may feel angry or hurt. Stop right there. Acknowledge the feeling, but don’t elaborate on it. Don’t write a story that blames you or your friend. Allow yourself time and emotional distance, and you may find there was a reasonable explanation for your friend’s behavior. Even if there’s not, you may find your unhappiness isn’t as pronounced.

Feeling Is Hard Work

While the principles behind rewriting your story may not be hard to grasp, developing them as a practical skill takes time, energy, effort, and persistence. Practitioners of traditions such as Tibetan Buddhism can devote a lifetime to mastering their inner lives. 

In The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama emphasizes that cultivating a happier mindset requires a great deal of exertion. It takes energy to build a healthy sense of self-worth while fighting negative emotions such as anger and anxiety. The process involves first educating yourself about how and why your negative feelings affect you, then developing a proper motivation, such as one based on compassion and understanding, that will keep you on the path to positive change.  

To develop the skill of rewriting your story, practice self-examination when you’re not in a crisis, so you’ll be better prepared when one actually occurs. Acknowledge that you’ll inevitably experience difficulties in the future, and you’ll have primed yourself to react with poise and, if possible, compassion. Brown cites the example of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, who began every day by reminding himself that he would encounter challenges and unpleasant people. He’d remember that he’d faced these problems before, but that as long as he remained true to himself, then no other person could harm his character or spirit.

(Shortform note: A positive inverse to Marcus Aurelius’s “pre-meditation” is to practice gratitude at the end of each day. In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown recommends taking several minutes out of every day to list the things you’re grateful for. Doing so can fill you with a feeling of contentment and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. Both Aurelius’s meditation and Brown’s gratitude practice are normally performed outside of moments of crisis, but they can mentally prepare you to better respond when difficult events occur.)

Past, Present, and Future

During the self-examination necessary for rewriting your story, Brown says it’s important not to fixate on the past (which can bring up guilt and anger) or the future (which can lead to anxiety). When any of these emotions do come up, ask if what’s triggering them is in the present moment. If it’s about a past event, let it go. If it’s something in the future, worry about it when and if it happens. 

(Shortform note: Letting go of past trauma requires more than a simple attitude adjustment, as Brown suggests. In What Happened to You?, Oprah Winfrey and psychiatrist Bruce D. Perry explain that severe, prolonged periods of stress have a lasting impact on the brain and body. Recovering from a traumatic past involves learning to moderate your own stress response and treating yourself with compassion.)

This will, of course, take practice. Therapists, friends, and support groups can help, but Brown also suggests a novel approach—step outside yourself and look at the events in your life from a third-person point of view. This can help give you emotional distance from something particularly distressing. After all, if our perception of the past is a story we tell ourselves, then claiming authorship of our lives means we stop telling ourselves the same unhelpful stories.

(Shortform note: Psychologists use a similar technique in a process known as narrative therapy. The goal is to create distance between a person’s identity and the problems they’ve encountered. In narrative therapy, a person is guided to articulate the stories of their lives, which they can then deconstruct to find and reframe the underlying message. Instead of trying to change who a person is, this process aims at changing how they respond to life’s difficulties.)

As we reexamine the stories of our past, we need to remember that a good life balances the present and the future. It’s only in the present that we experience happiness, but looking forward to the future is what gives the present moment meaning. When we look at our stories about the future, we have to remember that it’s out of our control. Our thoughts and actions now can make a future we prefer more probable, but Brown insists we mustn’t attach our happiness to any particular version of the future. It’s sufficient to balance the joys of the present with our future aspirations and find a “good enough” compromise between them.

(Shortform note: The importance of looking forward to the future even when that future is uncertain is driven home by holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. In Man’s Search for Meaning, he identifies working to benefit your future self as key to making the most of the present. Frankl cites the example of his fellow prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps—those who had goals beyond their present horror were able to cope better than those who did not.)

As we do this, Brown insists that we mustn’t interpret unhappiness as a personal failure. Instead, we can learn from unhappiness: Perhaps it’s pointing out an unhealthy attachment, or highlighting a toxic story that we cling to. Pain exists for a reason, after all—it’s a warning sign that something needs to be addressed. Additionally, Brown says to consider Sigmund Freud’s theory that unhappiness is a natural part of the human condition and that fighting too hard against it is part of what causes neuroses. 

(Shortform note: The idea that unhappiness is fundamental to our lives is also a central tenet of Eastern philosophy. In The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama states that suffering is inherent to human existence, but his outlook toward it is more optimistic than Freud’s. He believes that you can escape suffering, but the first step is accepting the fact that you do suffer. After all, he says, we compound our pain by writing stories around it, either painting ourselves as victims or shaming ourselves for being hurt.)

How Rewriting Your Story Can Make You Happier

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Derren Brown's "Happy" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Happy summary:

  • The definition of happy, according to ancient Greek philosophers and Stoics
  • The importance of balancing desires with realities
  • How to overcome the three biggest barriers to happiness

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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