The man who created a formula for happiness

Mo Gawdat, VP Business Innovation at X, Explains How to be Happy in the Social Media Age


A serial entrepreneur tackles social media alienation, the importance of connections and working through grief to achieve happiness. 

When I began working for Google ten years ago, I quickly found that on the Internet everything is measured in billions. Billions of people asking billions of questions in our search box, billions of people trying to send billions and billions of emails to their friends.

I also discovered that, while the Internet was extending our reach enormously, it was, occasionally, reducing the quality of that reach. Of course the Internet is still growing and while the nature of its first phase may have reduced the quality and the humane side of our connections, future phases may make them super human.

But today many people still try to fit in and build an ego that makes them part of the crowd and more often than not the manifestation of that ego is a ‘V’ mark in front of your eye and a selfie.

My daughter, who is now 22, has already bounced in and out of Facebook several times, partially because of the need to fit in, while also feeling alienated by the pressure and the shallow social environment.

Yet surprisingly, many of those who grew up with the Internet don’t know any better. The majority of their time spent on social media is a hunt for ‘likes.’ While you might have written an informative five page article about the mistakes of the recent US presidential election, or a certain candidate’s agenda, such work may not gain you popularity in today’s Internet as the attention spans of those who browse may not extend to capture such depth. It is easier just to say, ‘Hey this candidate or the other is an idiot!’. If you take the latter, you are almost certain to get enough people who dislike that specific candidate to give you a thumbs up. With no effort at all, you would have hundreds of ‘likes’.

This causes an inflationary environment, where the currency of the Internet, -‘likes’ – is available in abundance while becoming worthless. As we keep hunting for them, we lose the value of a real connection in a human environment.

In the same way, you will be advised to post videos on YouTube that don’t exceed three minutes to get viewers to engage, while the average length of videos that go really viral is even shorter.

The length of such conversation diminishes any value we can get from it. It makes me inclined to think we are breeding a generation where Attention Deficit Disorder is a needed skill.

In my own life I first began contemplating the value of my own happiness in 2001. I happened to become very successful at a young age, but I was finding that, the more wealthy I became, the more unhappy I was. Despite attempting to fill the hole in my happiness with ‘big boys’ toys’, I could not seem to find a cure.

This came to a head one evening when I simply clicked twice on eBay and bought two vintage Rolls Royces. It should have been a cause for celebration, but even when the cars were delivered two months later, they did not lift my spirits even a tiny bit.

At that time in the Middle East it was unthinkable for a senior successful male to go and seek therapy. So instead I followed my own approach. I decided to research happiness, not in the way of a psychologist, guru or spiritual teacher, but as an engineer.

I bought every book I could find on the topic. I attended every lecture and watched every documentary I could find. I told myself, ‘You were born happy and then you grew out of happiness. Something goes wrong with the machine as it engages in the modern world’. It’s almost the same experience you would observe when you buy a new mobile phone: it works well when you take it out of the box, but a few weeks later you install a bad application and the battery life starts to dwindle.

So I tried to dismantle our human thinking, observing the way we engage in life, to find out what went wrong, resetting the faulty parts to their default setting and putting it all back to together in a way that works as it should – happy.

As a software developer, I wanted to build a well engineered model that would predictably work every time you follow it. I wanted a model I could repeat every time I wasn’t happy.

By 2010, I had found my model and I followed it to a tee. Nothing could put a dent in my happiness any longer, the long security lines in an airport, a lost deal or a rude waiter, all went by with a big smile firmly planted on my face. The model worked. And it’s good that it did because, more than any time in my life, I was about to need it.

In 2014, my wonderful son Ali, who was a student in Boston at the time, came to visit us in Dubai for a short vacation. He suffered an acute belly pain and was prescribed a surgical procedure, an appendectomy. However during surgery one of Ali’s main blood vessels was punctured. Within hours, my beloved son (and best friend) left this life.

Losing a child, they say, is the hardest thing a parent should ever endure. Losing a kind, loving son like Ali is hard, and losing him in his prime is harder still.

In the days that followed, however, we found that, as a family, we were not angry at the world. I would not say that we were happy, but we were calm and peaceful.

Our approach as a family was so noticeably different, that a lot of my friends told me: “You need to tell us how you are doing this Mo. You need to tell us how you are getting through this unbearable pain in such a positive way?” So, 17 days after Ali’s loss, I started to write.

Four and half months later, I had a very well formed manuscript and slowly serendipity started to take hold. I met one of the best agents in business, who introduced me to the top 17 publishers in the world and, a month and a half later, I had several global contracts for Solve for Happy, promising a reach extending to hundreds of thousand of readers.

I still have no idea how it all happened, except that when Ali left I had one of two choices: to decay and die, or try and make something out of this to honour him. I chose the latter. I felt that the memory of my wonderful son would live if, triggered by losing him, our approach to happiness was shared with as many people as I can reach. So I set myself an ambitious target to reach 10 million people with our model of happiness and I went to work.

Happiness is surrounded by myth, the biggest of which is that it comes from outside of you. But the truth is happiness is found inside you. It is your default setting. You find it when you connect to yourself and to the real world.

The minute you get dazed or disillusioned by our modern world and what we think is the reality of life, or how it is relayed to us – that is where the machine breaks.

You find happiness when you see the events of your life for what they really are.

Happiness results from the difference between your perception of the events of your life and your expectation of how life should behave.

Our perceptions of the events taking place in our lives, however, are often distorted by modern day illusions of the world and several blind spots that are the inheritance of our survival programming.

Our expectations, on the other hand, are often unrealistic. As a result, the difference between such distorted perceptions and inflated often leads to unhappiness. Connecting deeply with the reality of your unfolding life, you will notice that life often behaves predictably. Even if harsh, most of life’s events would not fall outside the range of realistic expectations.

There is another interesting truth about happiness – if you truly make others happy, you make yourself happy too.

There is a considerable scientific research to back this up. The University of British Columbia ran a thorough study and found that if they gave someone $20 and asked them to spend it on themselves, or to spend it on someone else, the results were unmistakable – those that spent the money on others felt happier.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be giving money. You could give time. You could give a smile, an encouraging word, but the more you participate in that, the more life makes you happy, and the more you don’t have to take life on yourself.

That simple process helps connect you to a functioning machine, rather than fighting it on your own, and is enough to put you in charge of your own happiness.

Western educated culture is highly focused on the self and considers that, whatever is out there it is there to serve oneself. This is a notion that is almost like saying: “It is me against the world. I am going to grab as much of the world as I can to make myself successful.” But I don’t think that approach is working for us any more.

Various eastern cultures, however, believe in an element of oneness – and in my view you really don’t need to think about things in a spiritual way to appreciate that.

Of course I’m not a guru, I’m not a sage and I’m not sitting in an ashram somewhere. I still fight in meetings, I get stuck in traffic, and persevere to try and leave an impression. I’m not even always happy. But what I discovered is, there is a model and if you apply it, it works!  When you actually find the reasons why you’re unhappy, it is so easy to fix. Whenever I shared that model with others, it worked for them too.

Now it’s time to reach out. While it will not bring Ali back, if 10 million people can know Ali’s way of happiness and send him a happy wish at the same time then, perhaps, it was not for nothing that he left our world.