If you’re not a philosopher, then Derren Brown’s new book, Happy: Why More or Less Everything is Absolutely Fine, may be a pleasant surprise. It’s an accessible foray into stoicism, an ancient greek philosophy that’s gaining momentum in the modern day amongst philosophers and non-philosophers alike. Returning to Hong Kong this week, one element of stoicism that he touched on seemed particularly poignant in the context of a year abroad: appreciating those things in our lives that we take for granted. I want to explore, briefly, how a year abroad can facilitate such reflexive activity.
Spending your life surrounded by the same people and things can give us a false sense of familiarity. Falling into this trap, we forget to exercise our appreciation for those individuals and objects that bring us the most happiness. Think for a moment about the things that you would really miss if they were to never happened again: that conversation with a parent which you take for granted, the possessions you fail to enjoy until you are deprived of them, or the six-o’clock drinks with friends where you de-stress after a long week – these and many more examples highlight how complacent we can become when we fail to examine our daily lives. Day to day, it’s these little things that make us ‘happy’. Although big events may stand out, they would have brought us little solace if it wasn’t for the background hum of contentedness that the people and moments you don’t notice can bring you.
Brown points to the Epicureans, who removed themselves from society and denied themselves all non-essential possessions from their lives. They did so to curb what they considered to be poisonous desires. Clearly, this is extreme. Rather than embracing the Epicurean view, he recommends that we consider them as one extreme, whilst recommending that we follow a more middle of the road, stoic teaching – ensuring that we value what we already have by imagining what it would be like not to have it. Distancing ourselves in this way from what we take for granted can have incredibly positive effects on our mental wellbeing. It might even make you realise that you value the wrong things in your life.
For example, whilst at first it may seem to be a morbid task, thinking about what you would say to a loved one if they were to die tomorrow, or evaluating what you would miss about them once they were gone will, in turn, help you to appreciate them much more in the here-and-now. This need not be a negative experience. As Brown stresses, you are not focussing on what it would feel like to lose them – that would be masochistic. Instead, you are appreciating the part they play in your emotional fulfilment by imagining the voids they’d leave in your life if their existence was halted. You’re reminding yourself how valuable they are to you. A year abroad, I argue, helps in this pursuit.
The vantage point of being many thousands of miles away achieves much the same effect. Although in the past the contrast would have been greater (communications technology has made it infinitely easier to be away from home, these days), disrupting your life by experiencing a new university, culture and group of friends will automatically make you reflexively evaluate what you may have previously have taken for granted.
This is similar to the nostalgia you might have felt for your school days during the first year of university. Once you fully comprehend that the experiences of your school days are behind you, lost forever, they can take on new value – you see something that you didn’t appreciate fully before in a new light. What you are trying to do by imagining a world without someone or something that gives you great pleasure (which a year abroad can facilitate) is to cultivate that process of savouring what you already have before it’s gone.
Seeing friends back at home enjoying nights out together, missing out on gossip or falling out of the loop can initially cause a pang of jealousy – you may fear that you are missing out. But, with time and proper practice of other stoic teachings (which I won’t cover here) those instinctive reactions that you have can be modified to be more positive and appreciative. You can’t control the fact that you’re not there, but you can control how you choose to react to it. Noticing not what you’re missing out on, but what you had and failed to appreciate when it was right in front of you gives you a chance to do better on your return. On your arrival back home, much will have changed: everyone will be a year older, friends will have graduated and freshers will have grown into second years, yet you will return with a new-found understanding of your life at home once it has been contrasted with your temporary life abroad. This is practical, everyday philosophy – and Derren Brown explicates it well.