Darren Kelsey is Reader in Media and Collective Psychology at Newcastle University’s School of Arts and Cultures. Darren’s teaching, research and publications have focused on storytelling, psychology and mythology in media, politics and popular culture. Darren currently lives in County Durham with his wife and daughter.
Darren’s forthcoming book, Storytelling and Collective Psychology: Ancient Wisdom, Modern Life and the Work of Derren Brown, is available for pre-order and will be published in the Spring.
How did you become interested in this area?
Serendipitously! Back in 2018, I was receiving Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for anxiety. CBT hadn’t really clicked for me straight away and I was still adapting to this unfamiliar world of counselling and therapy, which I had never been open to in the past.
It was then by chance that I stumbled across the magician and psychological illusionist, Derren Brown talking about Stoicism and ancient philosophy on a couple of podcasts. The connections Brown drew between CBT and Stoicism really intrigued me. So I read Brown’s book, Happy.
After learning more about Stoicism and understanding how it formed the foundations of CBT, Happy became a recurring talking point with my therapist. I found countless similarities between my thought patterns and Brown’s examples of the stories we tell ourselves and how deeply our stories affect us.
Brown’s work nudged me into a reading marathon on Stoic philosophy: I had soon read the works of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus followed by more recent Stoic endorsements from the likes of Massimo Pigliucci, Donald Robertson, William Irvine and Ryan Holiday. Reflecting on this experience, I wrote a book about Stoicism and Derren Brown in relation to storytelling and collective psychology – showing how Brown’s writing and other performances offer us personal and societal wisdom for modern life and wellbeing.
What’s the most important concept or idea that you teach people?
Drawing on what Socrates established prior to the Stoics, I share the principle that “street philosophy” is for everyone – it should help us live well and be taught beyond the corridors of academia. In terms of Stoicism, my teaching shows how philosophy can help us tell better stories for our collective psychology.
For example, the Stoics teach us to focus on the things that are within our control rather than worrying about what’s beyond our control – seemingly simple, but tricky in practice – give it a try! They also teach us that events themselves do not disturb us, but rather our perception of those events and how we interpret them.
These things all relate back to the stories we tell ourselves in order to make sense of the noise and confusion of daily life. Derren Brown describes the “infinite data source” that we are constantly bombarded by, and the only way to make sense of anything is through neatly packaged and well edited stories.
Those stories can cause us problems. The habits we form in our storytelling are where the Stoics critically intervene and make us rethink the narrative. This is one reason why ancient Stoicism bridges gaps between psychology and philosophy – because storytelling is a fundamental part of what makes us human.
Hence, I see the Stoics as ancient mentors who can help us to become better storytellers about our own lives and the lives of others.
What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we can derive from your work?
To be more sceptical about our stories – as people and societies. So often our personal crises and social conflicts are due to broken stories.
So much of my own anxiety was due to the fact that I was a terrible storyteller. I could pick apart the stories of others – in media, politics, work and play – but seldom would I stop to question my own stories that were making me so unhappy. Many of those inner stories about myself and my place in the world were unconsciously ruling my life in unhealthy ways.
Sure, my stories were often based on past experiences that formed my identity and perceptions of the world around me. But they weren’t the only stories that were possible, and my stories about what might happen in the future were nearly always wrong. I realised that my fears made me more uncomfortable than fate itself. In a real crisis I could fix things, but in a future crisis that I was creating in my mind, I was causing myself unnecessary discomfort.
There are also collective lessons to learn from the Stoics here. If we live in a society that constantly teaches us to be fearful of other social groups, then we live in a state of high alert that encourages tribalism. Instead, through our reason and virtue, the Stoics encourage us to rise above our tribal tendencies and approach other people as if every human belonged to an ideal city, which they called the cosmopolis.
Rather than allowing media and political stories to divide us, we need to find ways of telling stories that foster a sense of collective ownership of our future – and one that enables human flourishing.
Do you have a favorite quote that you use?
No, I don’t. The Stoics are so full of wisdom in many different ways. But there are a couple of standout quotes from Marcus Aurelius, which I think encourage kindness, tolerance and compassion in current times – especially when so many people might be struggling to reach out and ask for help:
Don’t be ashamed of needing help. You have a duty to fulfil just like a soldier on the wall of battle. So what if you are injured and can’t climb up without another soldier’s help?Marcus Aurelius
Reaching out for help doesn’t make us weak, it makes us stronger, and it’s our duty to support each other. As the courageous Helen Keller once said, “Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light”. It takes courage to help and be helped.
Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself.Marcus Aurelius
This is so important. You never know what someone else’s story might be or what baggage they are carrying. It is likely that the things that irritate you in others are characteristics you quietly resent in yourself.
It is better for everyone if we put more work into fixing our own faults and flaws than criticising them in other people. Easier said than done, I know. But well worth aspiring to.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?
Firstly, take advantage of modern Stoicism. We live in our own digital Athenian marketplace where some of the wisest minds mix among us on podcasts, YouTube, blogs and social media. Engage with this material and listen to conversations about the role of ancient philosophy in modern life, and discover what’s possible for the future. It’s exciting.
Secondly, of course, read the Stoics and enjoy those original texts and translations. Try applying Stoic toolkits in your daily life to learn more about the challenges of seemingly simple virtues that can be harder to stick to than you expect. Learn more about yourself in order to learn about how the philosophy speaks to you.
Thirdly, a shameless plug: my forthcoming book shows how we can analyse personal and societal stories to understand more about collective psychology in ways that are practical, applicable and evidently beneficial in daily life. Readers will learn how ancient philosophy can be combined with modern psychology to analyse stories and the role of celebrity mentors that we look to for wisdom in modern life.
Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy, in Athens.
I would be so excited that I would be anything but Stoic. It would be a great opportunity to explore positive aspects of popular culture and show how the wisdom of ancient philosophy is more accessible and applicable to modern life and future societies than ever before.
Click here for more works from Darren Kelsey, including published articles.
Darren’s previous books on media and mythology can be found here: