An odyssey into happiness from ancient Greece to the modern age

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.


In his extraordinary odyssey into theories of happiness from ancient philosophers to the modern world, the British mentalist and illusionist, Derren Brown, in his book Happy. Why more or less everything is absolutely fineillustrates that the pursuit of happiness is – and always has been – integral to the human psyche.

Brown’s book is what he describes as an “anti-self-help, self-help book.” He turns widely accepted contemporary theories, check lists, and outrageously intricate or simplistic systems and practices to help us to be the top dog or get rich quick in order to be happy on their heads and draws on the wisdom of ancient Greek and Roman philosophers.

Our judgements get in the way

The thinking of the  Roman slave, Epictetus, who belonged to the school of Stoic philosophy 2,000 years ago, has informed many contemporary therapies and philosophies such as Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT).

“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will.” ― Epictetus

Five hundred years before Christianity took the world by storm, Epictetus said: “What upsets people is not things themselves, but their judgments about these things.”

In other words, it is not the stuff that is happening in the world or in our lives that is the problem, but our reactions to it.

Only our thoughts and our actions are under our control, according to Epictetus.  Things like fame, power, other people’s behaviour and thoughts or beliefs, what people say about us, our property and our reputation are not under our control.

The Stoic fork

“Putting aside for the moment instances of social injustice that may greatly bother us even though we are not involved in them,” Brown says, “this division into what is and what is not under our control is known as the Stoic fork. For me,” Brown continues, ” I prefer to place an imaginary line down the centre of my vision, and when an issue is causing trouble, I check to see on which side of the line it falls.”

Epictetus puts: Under our control: Our thoughts and actions on one side of the line and Not under control: Everything else on the other side of the line.

Brown makes an elaborate NOT UNDER OUR CONTROL list and goes on to explore how and why to deal with some of these obstacles to our happiness.

What is not under our control?

  • What people think
  • How people behave
  • How well people do their jobs
  • How rude people are
  • Other people’s habits
  • Other people’s success
  • How well other people listen to us
  • How much our partner behaves as we wish him/her to
  • What our partner fears or finds stressful
  • Everything else

After reading the book, I made my own VERY LONG list of what makes me unhappy and what I have absolutely no control over. I found it extraordinarily helpful in shifting my priorities and disproportionate reactions.

It gave me insight into where I can exert some influence in a way that enhances my equilibrium and sense of wellbeing. Our lives are not stagant, of course; our circumstances, priorities and burning issues change, especially in today’s complex and unpredictable world.

In one of her workshops that I participated in a few years ago, the writer Dawn Garisch spoke about the kind of sacrifices she felt she needed to make as a writer. Cutting back on social media was one of them.

Understanding the nature of our service and doing something about it is within our grasp

We are all in service to someone or something, whether we know it or not. It is worth recognising and acknowledging the nature of one’s service. We can create all kinds of difficulties for ourselves and the planet if we do not.

Dawn Garisch

Bob Dylan’s song, written during his religious phase: Gotta Serve Somebody also speaks to this.

It seems almost obscene to speak about being happy in South Africa and the world today with the many – almost apocalyptic – challenges confronting us, but Brown is not speaking about narcissistic individualism, about getting and grabbing, so much as continuing to flourish and evolve as a human being rather being bogged down by circumstances we have no power to change.

UN World Happiness Report

The UN produces an annual World Happiness Report, and although the focus was much more on the impact of Covid in the 2021 report, it used the traditional indicators to evaluate human happiness. The report relies on subjective data and ranks countries by how happy their citizens consider themselves to be according to three main criteria: life evaluations, positive emotions, and negative emotions.

Mauritius was ranked the happiest country in Africa in 2021, with a score of 6.02 points on a scale from 0 to 10, and ranked 44th among 95 countries globally. Worldwide, Finland is considered to be the happiest country. South Africa is the sixth happiest country in Africa and the 49th happiest country in the world with a score of 4.95.

I have my doubts about the efficacy of the review but to go back to Epictetus; maybe we can do something about the things we can control – our thoughts and behaviour.

No matter what happens, we have control over our thoughts and behaviour

More writing by Melody Emmett can be found here, here and here

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


5 Responses

  1. I’ve read this article in so many forms over the years, Melody, and yet I still let that which is beyond my control sometimes organise my life. Thanks for this reminder and the practical advice. It also shows how our so-called wisdom of today was built on the foundations of thousands of years.

  2. Thanks Helene. I’m glad something has been triggered for you. But if you’ve read this article in many forms before, there is something you are not grasping. I suggest you read it again. Carefully. And set aside your resistance, whatever form it may take.

    1. Perhaps I didn’t express myself well. I meant principle and not article. And I should have been clear that my comment pertains to the principle that you interpreted from Epictetus, namely that ‘it is not the stuff that is happening in the world or in our lives that is the problem, but our reactions to it. Only our thoughts and our actions are under our control’.
      It struck me cold because I found the same principle in Victor Frankl’s work, Man’s Search for Meaning’ where he said: ‘We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.’
      In this context, the people Frankl talked about would have had to set aside the ‘stuff that happened to them and around them’ to a certain extent to even realise that they had this last freedom to choose their own way.
      I cannot remember where I’d read it, but Madiba said something along the same lines about his circumstances on Robin Island.
      I didn’t know, however, that the concept came from a Roman slave as far back as 2000 years. And yet, it makes perfect sense as it is well documented in what circumstances the slaves had lived and worked.
      This is the core of your article that I’ll take with me. It was an extraordinary addition to the bits of information that I have come across on the topic over the years. Thanks again.

  3. Great article, Melody, in its simplest form dealing with what we humans (huperchilds 🙂 ?) make into complex debilitating things.
    You have placed a name on a lot of how I (try to) conduct my life and monitor my thinking and actions – Epictetus. I am reminded of the meme, I don’t know the source: “Grant me the strength to change the things I can, the courage to accept the things I can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference”
    Thanks for the lesson. I am learning, and will apply my best efforts to continue doing so until I die.
    PS: I think that this calls for some follow-up articles. I hope that you will write them. Maybe that will be a part of your service to the world. It will certainly serve me in leading to growth.

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