17 Nov Solve for Happiness (MO GAWDAT) | Part A’
Mo Gawdat is the Chief Business Officer at Google’s [X], an elite team of engineers that comprise Google’s futuristic “dream factory.” Then he solves for happy.
Seventeen days after the death of my wonderful son, Ali, I began to write and couldn’t stop. My topic was happiness—an unlikely subject given the circumstances.
Ali truly was an angel. He made everything he touched better and everyone he met happier. He was always peaceful, always happy. You couldn’t miss his energy or how he affectionately cared for every being that ever crossed his path. When he left us, there was every reason to be unhappy—even miserable. So how did his departure lead me to write what you’re about to read? Well, that’s a story that started around the date of his birth—perhaps even earlier.
Since the day I started working, I have enjoyed a great deal of success, wealth, and recognition. Yet through it all, I was constantly unhappy. Early in my career with tech giants like IBM and Microsoft I gained an abundance of intellectual satisfaction, plenty of ego gratification, and, yes, I made a bit of money. But I found that the more fortune blessed me, the less happy I became.
This wasn’t just because life had become complicated—you know, like that rap song from the 90s, “Mo Money Mo Problems.” The issue was that, despite the rewards both financial and intellectual, I was not able to find any joy in my life. Even my greatest blessing, my family, didn’t give me the joy they might have because I didn’t know how to receive it.
The irony was that as a younger man, despite the struggle to find my path in life and often just trying to make ends meet, I’d always been very happy. But by 1995, when my wife and I and our two children packed up and moved to Dubai, things had changed. Nothing against Dubai, mind you. It’s a remarkable city whose generous citizens, the Emiratis, truly made us feel at home. Our arrival coincided with the breakout point of Dubai’s explosive growth, which offered astounding career opportunities and millions of ways to make yourself happy, or at least try.
But Dubai can also feel surreal. Against a gleaming landscape of hot sand and turquoise water, the skyline is crowded with futuristic office buildings and residential towers where multimillion-dollar apartments are snapped up by a steady stream of global buyers. In the streets, Porsches and Ferraris jockey for parking spaces with Lamborghinis and Bentleys. The extravagance of the concentrated wealth dazzles you— but at the same time it tempts you to question whether, compared to all this, you’ve actually achieved much of anything.
By the time we arrived in the Emirates, I’d already fallen into the habit of comparing myself to my superrich friends and always coming up short. But those feelings of one-downs-man-ship didn’t send me to the shrink or to the ashram. Instead it made me strive harder. I simply did what I’d always done as a geek who’d read obsessively since childhood: I bought a pile of books. I studied technical analyses of stock trends down to the basic equations that plotted every chart. And by learning them I could predict shortterm fluctuations in the market like a pro. I would come home after finishing my day job at just about the time the NASDAQ opened in the United States and apply my math skills to making serious money as a day trader (or more accurately in my case, a night trader).
And yet—and I expect I’m not the first person you’ve heard tell this tale—the “mo’ money” I made, the more miserable I became. Which led me to simply work harder and buy more toys on the misguided assumption that, sooner or later, all this effort was going to pay off and I’d find the pot of gold—happiness—thought to lie at the end of the high-achievement rainbow. I’d become a hamster on what psychologists call the “hedonic treadmill.” The more you get, the more you want. The more you strive, the more reasons you discover for striving. One evening I went online and with two clicks bought two vintage Rolls Royces. Why? Because I could. And because I was desperately trying to fill the hole in my soul. You won’t be surprised to hear that when those beautiful classics of English automotive styling arrived at the curb, they didn’t lift my mood one bit.
Looking back at this phase in my life, I wasn’t much fun to be around. My work was focused on expanding the business of Microsoft throughout Africa and the Middle East, which, as you might imagine, had me spending more time in airplanes than not. In my constant quest for more I’d become pushy and unpleasant even at home, and I knew it. I spent too little time appreciating the remarkable woman I’d married, too little time with my wonderful son and daughter, and never paused to enjoy each day as it unfolded.
Instead I spent most of my waking hours being driven, nervous, and critical, demanding achievement and performance even from my kids. I was manically trying to make the world conform to the way I thought it ought to be. By 2001 the relentless pace and the emptiness had led me into a very dark place.
At that point I knew I couldn’t go on ignoring the problem. This pushy, unhappy person staring back at me in the mirror wasn’t really me. I missed the happy, optimistic young man I’d always been, and I was tired of trudging along in this tired, miserable, aggressive-looking guy’s shoes. I decided to take on my unhappiness as a challenge: I would apply my geek’s approach to self-study, along with my engineer’s analytical mind, to digging my way out.
Growing up in Cairo, Egypt, where my mother was a professor of English literature, I’d started devouring books long before my first day of school. Beginning at the age of eight, I chose a topic of focus each year and bought as many books as my budget could afford. I would spend the rest of the year learning every word in every book. This obsessiveness made me a joke to my friends, but the habit stuck with me as my approach to all challenges and ambitions. Whenever life turned tough, I read.
I went on to teach myself carpentry, mosaics, guitar, and German. I read up on special relativity, studied game theory and mathematics, and I learned to develop highly sophisticated computer programming. As a kid in grade school, and then as a teenager, I approached my piles of books with single-minded dedication. As I grew older, I applied that same passion for learning to classic car restoration, cooking, and hyperrealistic charcoal portraits. I achieved a reasonable level of proficiency in business, management, finance, economics, and investment mainly just from books.
When things get tough we tend to do more of what we know how to do best. So, in my thirties and miserable, I submerged myself in reading about my predicament. I bought every title I could find on the topic of happiness. I attended every lecture, watched every documentary, and then diligently analyzed everything I’d learned. But I didn’t approach the subject from the same perspective as the psychologists who’d written the books and conducted the experiments that had made “happiness research” such a hot academic discipline. Certainly I didn’t follow in the slipstream of all the philosophers and theologians who’d struggled with the problem of human happiness since civilization began.
In keeping with my training, I broke the problem of happiness down into its smallest components and applied an engineering analysis. I adopted a facts-driven approach that would be scalable and replicable. Along the way, I challenged every process I’d been told to blindly implement, tested the fit of every moving part, and looked deeply into the validity of every input as I worked to create an algorithm that would produce the desired result. As a software developer, I set a target to find the code that could be applied to my life again and again to predictably deliver happiness every time.
Oddly enough, after all this hyperrational effort worthy of Mr. Spock, I found my first real breakthrough during a casual conversation with my mother. She’d always told me to work hard and to prioritize my financial success above all. She frequently invoked an Arabic proverb that, loosely translated, meant “Eat frugally for a year and dress frugally for another, and you’ll find happiness forever.” As a young man I’d followed that advice religiously. I’d worked hard and saved and I’d become successful. I’d fulfilled my side of the bargain. So one day I went to ask my mom: Where was all that happiness I now had a right to expect?
During that conversation, it suddenly hit me that happiness shouldn’t be something you wait for and work for as if it needs to be earned. Furthermore, it shouldn’t depend on external conditions, much less circumstances as fickle and potentially fleeting as career success and rising net worth. My path till then had been full of progress and success, but every time I’d gained yardage on that field, it was as if they moved the goal posts back a little farther.
What I realized was that I would never get to happiness as long as I held on to the idea that as soon as I do this or get that or reach this benchmark I’ll become happy.
In algebra, equations can be solved in many ways. If A=B+C, for example, then B=A–C. If you try to solve for A, you would look for the values of the other two parameters—B and C—and if you tried to solve for B, you would be taking different steps. The parameter you choose to solve for drastically changes your approach to the solution. The same is true when you decide to solve for happy.
I began to see that throughout all my striving I’d been trying to solve the wrong problem. I’d set myself the challenge of multiplying material wealth, fun, and status so that, eventually, the product of all that effort would be . . . happiness. What I really needed to do instead was to skip the intermediate steps and simply solve for happiness itself. My journey took almost a decade, but by 2010 I’d developed an equation and a well-engineered, simple, and replicable model of happiness and how to sustain it that fit together perfectly.
I put the system to the test and it worked. Stress from losing a business deal, long security lines at the airport, bad customer service— none of it could dim my happiness. Daily life as a husband, parent, son, friend, and employee had its inevitable ups and downs, but no matter how any particular day went, good or bad—or a little of each—I found that I was able to enjoy the ride of the roller coaster itself.
I’d finally returned to being the happy person I recognized as the “me” when I first started out, and there I remained for quite a while. I shared my rigorous process with hundreds of friends, and my Happiness Equation worked for them as well. Their feedback helped me refine the model even further. Which, as it turned out, was a good thing, because I had no idea just how much I was going to need it.
Solve for Happy