“Western cultures are almost trained to be unhappy,” Mo told me over the phone on May 7th, 2018.
“When you recognize Africa or India or Latin America – how people there find happiness in the harshest of circumstances, you realize there is something wrong with our Western upbringing.”
Mo Gawdat isn’t your typical author of a self-help or happiness book. Recently serving as the Chief Business Officer at Google X, Mo is a very successful business executive and entrepreneur who leverages his engineering mindset, fueled by a strong desire to make a positive impact in the world, to create a plan for generating lasting happiness.
After the passing of his son, Ali, due to an avoidable human error during a routine medical procedure, Mo set out on a mission to create an equation and process for creating and sustaining happiness – for himself and others.
“You get what you set your mind to,” Mo told me, indicating that happiness has much to do with intent.
“If you set your mind to money, you’ll be more likely to get money, but in the process – if happiness fell on you – you would miss it.”
His book, Solve for Happy, details the what, why, and how, of happiness, and allows the reader to understand deeply the factors that contribute to unhappiness – and how to create happiness for themselves.
Why Solve for Happy is So Powerful
Mo’s writing, like his character, is sincere. He writes from a place of truth and vulnerability – and his words come directly from the heart. Mo’s initial motivation was to figure out how he would live the rest of his life in a happy and productive manner – even after his 21-year old son died. Through deep introspection and reverse-engineering a model for happiness, Mo found what he was looking for.
To understand the value of Mo’s work, it is important to define a few terms.
What is happiness, and why is it so difficult for many of us to find? Why is happiness often so fleeting?
You might tell yourself that you will be happy once you get a promotion and buy a new car, yet a month after driving to your new job in your new car – you’re unhappy again. Why is that?
“Happiness,” as Mo explained to me during our phone call, “Is a peaceful contentment. It is saying, I am okay with life as it is. This doesn’t mean that I won’t try to make life become better – it means that I’m OK with how it is now.”
Q: How can you simultaneously be happy and content, yet also pursue your goals (clearly defined as things you don’t yet have?)
To answer this question, Mo used an analogy of successful stock traders, explaining that these people will only trade money that they are okay with losing. They don’t want or plan to lose the money, yet they will accept the result. When they make a bet, they want to receive as much of a return as they can get, but if they lose the money, they are okay. This is analogous to happiness: it’s ok to want more – but you must also accept life as it is now.
Q: If I accept life as it is, how can I be productive and achieve things?
While Western culture has taught many of us that being dissatisfied is the way to achieve our goals, the opposite is true: Being content with life as it is enables you to be in the right mindset when you make strategic decisions.
The most successful entrepreneurs don’t dwell in sadness when something goes wrong; they make changes quickly and swiftly to reposition themselves towards success. Happiness is the ideal state of mind for success.
In fact, research has shown that people are 12% more productive when they are happy. Being “unhappy” is similar to being physically ill. You are not supposed to be unhappy in the same way that you are not supposed to have the flu. When you have the flu, you do something about it. Even at the very first signals of getting a flu, you should act in a way to prevent it. Similarly, if you start to feel unhappy, you should try to change your state.
While acute emotional and physical pain has utility, self-induced pain and suffering does not. Immediate pain informs us of a threat and leads to beneficial action, but worrying for extended periods of time is not productive. Thus, the reason why most people suffer from unhappiness is because they allow themselves to dwell in it.
What is Unhappiness, and Why Does it Exist in the First Place?
Mo explains that unhappiness is an important survival mechanism. When an event occurs which your brain perceives as a threat, your brain creates thoughts and emotions to get you to avoid the perceived threat or change your circumstances. These thoughts, in the short term, can be helpful – to the extent at which they cause us to change our behavior in a beneficial way. However, if your brain is triggered by something it perceives as a “threat” which is not truly a threat (example: your girlfriend forgets to respond to your text,) this defense mechanism can send you into a spiral of fear, regret, anger, sadness, and anxiety, which causes unhappiness and doesn’t contribute anything productive or positive to your life.
Thus, while acute pain and unhappiness can drive positive change, lingering emotional unhappiness is damaging.
What is the Happiness Equation?
Mo’s happiness equation states that your happiness is equal to or greater than your perception of the events in your life, compared with your expectations of how your life should be.
Q: Does this mean that if you lower your expectations, you’ll become happy?
Yes – but that’s not a bad thing. Think of it more as “increasing appreciation and gratitude,” rather than “decreasing expectations;” these are two sides of the same coin.
Here is the example Mo gave to illustrate this:
“People in India who are accustomed to eating one meal a day, if they get one-and-a-half meals they will be very happy. People in France – if they expect the meal to come out perfectly and it isn’t – they will be unhappy.”
Lowering your expectations makes you happy. Of course, lowering your expectations consistently makes it difficult to achieve goals in life. The answer to achieve both happiness and productivity is in setting your expectations as high as you can to succeed, but handling your missed expectations in a way that keeps you happy; being focused on the action and not the outcome.
Three Things You Can Do Every Day to Increase Your Happiness:
Check in with yourself; be hyper-alert to any change in your feelings (in the same way you are to physical sensations.) Ask yourself how you feel. When you feel anything besides happiness, you must ask yourself “what is the thought that generated this unhappiness?”
Most people believe that emotions are irrational; this is false. Emotions are hyper-rational; they are created by thought – yet the thoughts are sometimes irrational. If you can track down the thought, then you can find the source of the emotion.
Let’s suppose that someone cuts you off in traffic. Some people might get angry, thinking “that driver disrespected me by cutting me off.” The thought, “he disrespected me,” is what causes the unhappiness; not the action of the driver cutting you off. Recognizing that it is your thought which causes you unhappiness, and not the driver himself, can recover your happiness.
If you are still frustrated, then evaluating the situation objectively. Think: “Is this true? Did he truly mean to disrespect me?” In most cases it isn’t true, because people typically don’t go out of their way to outwardly show disrespect towards someone they don’t know. But, if it is true, then think: “Can I do something about it?” If you can, then great: do something about it. If you can’t do anything about it, then think: “Can I accept my new reality?” Whether or not you like it – you will eventually have to accept reality.
Meditation and mindfulness are powerful tools to help anchor you into the present moment, and help you avoid harmful perseverating thoughts and repetitive negative thought patterns, while staying present to what matters: the present.
As Mo told me, “We should live in the moment with the attempt to do our absolute best in every moment. This includes looking back to learn, but not looking back to regret, and this includes looking forward to plan, but not looking forward to worry and fear.”
“All of your actions – without exception – happen in the present moment.” If you can take action in the present moment, and focus your attention on that action – you won’t be unhappy.
When perception is your only reality, then reality becomes your perception — and your perception is subjective.
You can choose what to feel grateful for, and what to appreciate.
If you are in an undesirable situation, much of what qualifies it as “undesirable” is your perception of it (specifically: your perception of it compared with your expectation of how reality should be.)
By accepting your reality, and by finding things to value and appreciate about it – you will become happy.
If you can change something – then change it. If you can’t – then appreciate it.
Mo brings to light the three core types of thought, and he shows that while two types of thought are essential to our happiness and functioning, one type is harmful.
“Research shows that there are three types of thoughts. There is incessant thinking – which is the kind of thinking that locks us in a room to cry and feel unhappy; this happens in the mid-area of your brain. Then there is experiential thinking – experiencing life as it is in the present moment, and then there is (problem solving. Problem solving and experiential thinking happens in pre-frontal cortex of your brain – not midlines of your brain like incessant thinking.”
By acknowledging unhappiness and then moving one’s self to the correct part of the brain – analyzing and acting on it- you skip unhappiness. If you can try to stay present – whether that is solving problems or meditating or singing a song – you will be better off than if you are perseverating about the past or ruminating about the future.
What Makes Solve for Happy So Valuable?
While Mo’s book possesses tremendous intrinsic value, it contains equally impressive comparative value.
Most self-help books today (Think: The Sublte Art of How to Not Give a F*ck, or The Power of Now), lack a logical structure and sequence of arguments that yield a defendable conclusion. Moreover, they are highly repetitive and offer only one or possibly two unique insights which are regurgitated throughout the text. Mo’s book is unique because it details, on a very granular and technical level, the components which contribute to or against our desired state of being. By doing so, Mo’s book is more than just a collection of loosely-tied ideas; it is a compelling step-by-step case for how you can change your life.
A Few Important Thoughts to Leave the Reader With:
“The promise we were given as young children is that unhappiness is the tax you have to pay for success. This is actually not true at all. You can become the Chief Business Officer at Google X, and you don’t have to pay unhappiness as the price.”
Finding and creating happiness is a life-long practice. Mo continues to read, to learn, and to practice finding happiness.
“If you work out hard and eat healthy for a month – you will become fitter… but it won’t last.”
Happiness is the same way; It requires routine and practice.
“Some people invest an hour a day at the gym, and others invest an hour a day watching Netflix. How many of us invest an hour a day for our own happiness? What you don’t prioritize, you don’t find.”
Join the movement and become part of 1billionhappy.