Do you need reasons to be cheerful? Simply changing your thoughts will help

A successful and wealthy Google engineer had little joy in his life so he set out to formulate an equation for happiness, writes Helen O’Callaghan.

Faced with the question of how to be happy, what else would a Google engineer do than devise an equation? Which is exactly what tech entrepreneur Mo Gawdat did, when — despite enjoying lots of success, wealth and recognition — he couldn’t find any joy in his life. 

“Even my greatest blessing, my family, didn’t give me the joy they might have because I couldn’t receive it. In my constant quest for more, I’d become pushy and aggressive — even at home. 

"I spent little time appreciating the remarkable woman I’d married, little time with my wonderful son and daughter, and never paused to enjoy each day as it unfolded,” he writes in his book, Solve for Happy, Engineer Your Path to Joy.

Dubai- and California-based Gawdat decided to apply his “geek’s approach to self-study”, along with his engineer’s analytical mind to digging his way out of his misery. 

Google engineer Mo Gawdat used his mathematical knowledge to formulate an equation that would bring him happiness.
Google engineer Mo Gawdat used his mathematical knowledge to formulate an equation that would bring him happiness.

It took 10 years of research — he read every title he could find on happiness, attended every lecture, watched every documentary and diligently analysed all he learned — until he found a code he could apply to life that predictably delivered happiness every time.

It boiled down to something apparently simple: happiness happens when life seems to be going your way. 

Gawdat’s ‘Happiness Equation’ is this: if you perceive the events of your life as equal to or greater than your expectations of how life should behave, you’re happy. But the key point is: it’s not the event that makes us unhappy — it’s the way we think about it that does.

As an example, he cites one of the happiest moments of his life — when his “beautiful, classic Saab got totalled in a crash”. 

How could this be a happy moment? Because in the head-on collision with a truck, “airbags, safety-belts and all other safety features deployed exactly as planned” — and his wife, Nibal (they have since separated but remain close), who was driving the car, walked out without a scratch.

“I lost my car. So what? My beloved wife was spared.” 

But, he says, if Nibal had parked the car somewhere and then it was smashed he’d have been devastated. 

“The results would have been the same — wrecked car and safe Nibal — but my experience of it would have been different. The event itself was irrelevant. It was the way I looked at it that mattered.”

Do you need reasons to be cheerful? Simply changing your thoughts will help

So he asks what he calls the $50 million question — ‘could we become happy by simply changing our thoughts?’ — and he answers it: Of course.

But 13 years after formulating — and living contentedly by his Happiness Equation — Egyptian-born Gawdat’s algorithm got the ultimate test. 

His son, Ali, 21, was having a routine appendectomy when a needle punctured his femoral artery — a major vessel carrying blood from the heart – and within a few hours his beloved son was gone.

Despite profound grief, Gawdat writes in his book (begun 17 days after Ali’s death) that his happiness model worked for the family. 

“Even during the moments of most intense grief, we were never angry or resentful of life. We didn’t feel cheated or depressed. We went through the most difficult event imaginable — in peace.”

In brief, Gawdat’s happiness model asks us to remember three numbers — no surprise from a self-professed maths lover — six-seven-five. 

To be happy, he says we need to dispel six Grand Illusions that keep us confused, fix seven Blind Spots that distort our judgment of the reality of life and hang onto five Ultimate Truths.

Do you need reasons to be cheerful? Simply changing your thoughts will help

His six Grand Illusions (hinder our ability to make sense of the world)

  • Thought — in fact, you are not the voice in your head
  • Self — in fact, you are not the star of the movie: most of what happens around you isn’t about you at all
  • Knowledge — reset your definitions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’; every moment of your life is neither all good nor all bad
  • Time — life is now and now is amazing
  • Control — all we can control is our actions and our attitude
  • Fear — it’s our actions and not our fears that keep us safe.

His seven Blind Spots (affecting the way our brain processes information)

  • Filters — when we obsess about something that makes us unhappy, we filter out any positive signals that could change our frame of mind
  • Assumptions — we assume information that seems to be missing, but assumptions are nothing more than brain-generated stories. They’re not the truth
  • Predictions — we predict to fill in future gaps but predictions are nothing more than brain-generated future possibilities
  • Memories — these are just descriptions of what we think happened
  • Labels — when we label, we collapse the diverse possibilities of how events actually are into, at best, an approximation
  • Emotions — our perceptions of truth are often distracted by our irrational emotions
  • Exaggeration — when a negative event is exaggerated, we worry about it even if, statistically, it’s unlikely to happen to us.

His five Ultimate Truths

  • Now — all of life is here and now. “So why do most of us live there and then instead?” asks Gawdat. Why do we let our absence from the present — ruminating on the past and bracing ourselves for the future — cause us so much suffering?
  • Change is real — the one thing we can accurately predict is that the world tomorrow will be different from the world today
  • Love is all you need — true love is real. All other emotions are temporary.
  • Death is real — learn to let go, eg, attachment to physical possessions, and enjoy every experience. But let nothing own you and you find life rich with variety and free of fear
  • Design — Gawdat believes it’s freeing when one surrenders to a design that’s beyond one’s ability to grasp.

Gawdat’s book is full of stories — quite a few from Arabic folk culture — and studies that bear out his happiness model. 

He cites research by Matt Killingsworth of www.Trackyourhappiness.org of more than 15,000 participants who reported — sometimes minute by minute — how they felt and what they were doing at the time. 

It found, no matter what they were doing at any given time, they were noticeably happier when they were fully present in the moment.

Gawdat’s exposé of our brain’s bias towards pessimism — it tends to criticise, judge and complain more often than not — is an eye-opener. 

Obsessed with keeping us alive, the brain tends to ignore the obvious which, he says, is that negatives we encounter are the exceptions interrupting a norm of constantly-flowing positives.

“You don’t believe me?” he asks. 

“Then, answer this: what’s the norm, health or illness? Good weather or typhoons? How often do you have to live through an earthquake compared to walking on solid ground?” 

He gives his golden rule for happiness — choose to believe in the side that makes you happy: “That side is more likely closer to the truth. Choosing the side that makes you suffer, with no evidence to prove your view, is not a very smart thing to do. When nothing is certain — and nothing ever is — choose to be happy.”

Dr Mark Rowe, GP and author of A Prescription for Happiness, says about 50% of our potential for happiness is inherited — “we all have a genetic happiness set point” — only about 10% comes from our life circumstances (once you’re not living in war-torn Syria, have a roof over your head and enough to eat), while 40% of happiness potential is down to the choices we make for contentment/fulfilment/peace.

“We’re incredibly resilient and can overcome all sorts of adversity,” he says, citing ‘post-traumatic growth’ — being able to grow from adversity.

“It’s a choice, no matter what’s going on in your life, to become more of a leader in your own wellbeing.”

In his book, he outlines his 10 commitments to a healthier, happier life. They’re not, he says, “a rigid prescription but a menu of possibilities — science suggests that doing these things works for many”.

They include gratitude (natural antidote to negativity), kindness and compassion (live to give) and goals that allow you to grow.

Everybody has adversity, points out Rowe: “We all have fires in our lives, in our careers, relationships. Everything that brings life must endure burning. But it’s how you make your story that matters, how you join the dots in your own life. Every experience can be an opportunity to learn and grow.”

In keeping with one of Gawdat’s Ultimate Truths, clinical psychologist Dr Eddie Murphy says understanding that change is constant sets us up for contentment. 

“How we cope with change impacts our happiness. We can either change the situation — or change how we think about it. People who struggle with change create stress and distress,” says Murphy.

For Gawdat, the most challenging adversity was losing Ali. Is there anything worse, he wonders? And he decides, yes, there is – if his son died from cancer after months of harsh treatment or if he died of a drug overdose.

“I choose to feel grateful for the 21 wonderful years he blessed us with his presence. Instead of feeling resentful he died, I feel grateful he lived.”

* Solve for Happy by Mo Gawdat is published by Bluebird and costs €17.75.

Control the inner voice

Mo Gawdat says modern culture drastically overvalues logic and thought. 

“But you are not your thoughts. You are not the voice in your head — that endless stream of chatter that argues, fights, debates, criticises, compares and rarely stops to take a breath.”

He suggests the following techniques to control the voice in your head:

* Observe the dialogue. Don’t resist the thoughts that pop up. Keep watching them as they roll through. Observe a thought — then let it go. Remind yourself this thought isn’t you. Thoughts come and go. They have no power over you unless you give them power.

* Observe the drama. No one’s able to let go of every thought. Occasionally, an idea will stick. When you notice this happen, acknowledge how you feel, the emotion triggered by the thought. Don’t resist it — let it be. Ask why you became angry or agitated. What thought led you here? Why did you get this angry? What association is your brain making? Once you see the reason for your feelings, they become easier to navigate.

* Get your brain to bring you a better thought. An untamed brain needs a thought to cling to. But your brain can be primed — to focus on anything you want — so tell your brain to think about something happy. Any happy thought will short-circuit your brain’s negative chatter.

* Train your brain to find what’s good about any situation. What do I like about it? What’s the full half of the glass?


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