How to solve for happy?

Mo Gawdat, former Chief Business Officer at Google X, was at the top of his career. Financially well off, with a job many would kill for and a loving family. And yet, despite all this, he wasn’t happy. Why? In the book “Solve for Happy: Engineer Your Path to Joy”, Mo Gawdat explains the path to happiness or sort of.

Like many others before him, Gawdat grappled with this question for years and, when suddenly losing his 21 year old son during a routine procedure at a hospital in 2014, it deepened into a quest to discover what truly constitutes human happiness and how to stave off disappointment in life. By applying his analytical mind to the problem, and examining key ideas from many of the world’s religions, Gawdat finally arrived at his own happiness formula.

Let’s start by trying to understand what happiness is. Look at the semi-permanent joy of small children and toddlers and you could see that it is, in fact, our default state. Sure, it’s not all roses, but as long as they aren’t hungry or in pain, kids are generally happy. You could say that happiness is merely a lack of unhappiness.

But where does unhappiness come from? According to the author, it comes about when life doesn’t behave the way you expect it to. Here’s the formula that he came up with:

“Your happiness is equal to or greater than your perception of events minus your expectations of life”

This means that when you regard life’s events as the same or better than your expectations, then you’ll be happy because the twists and turns of life don’t frustrate you. But if your expectations are greater than the reality, they’ll subtract from your capacity for happiness.

Naturally, it’s not as clear-cut as this. You’re much more complicated than just happy or sad! Depending on the thoughts you allow to determine your expectations, your state of mind can range from total confusion to negativity and suffering, to positivity and happiness, all the way to absolute joy. The goal is to make that journey from the bottom to the top.

The world is always shifting, and in ways you can’t predict. Like Forrest Gump – who let himself get carried away regardless of what life’s box of chocolates threw at him – you need to open yourself up to the potential of change, and this is the second ultimate truth. Remember, it’s not about controlling your surroundings but controlling yourself. But how can you achieve this?

Rather than trying to control every tiny variable in your life, step back and allow each event to find its own natural balance. The Chinese philosophical idea of yin and yang is a well-publicised image, where two seemingly opposite forces are in balance and bound to one another. The same idea can be applied to your life.

If you focus too much on work, you’ll cease to enjoy living. But if you focus too much on trivial activities, you might feel like you’re worthless. Instead, try and balance the two: enough work to feel like you’re doing something, but enough freedom to make it all worthwhile. The upside of this is that should things change, such as losing your job, you won’t be overly committed to one specific thing. Rather than hopelessly resisting, move with it and allow things to find their balance.

Also, learn to focus on yourself and what you have, rather than comparing yourself to others. As things find their balance, you may see someone else as having something you don’t have, but it’s likely that you’ll also have something they do not. Before suffering the envy of something else, focus instead on what you do have. As things continue to find their balance, change may at any time cause you to lose it, or perhaps even find something more!

In a study of over 15,000 participants, Matt Killingsworth from pieced together more than 650,000 reports of how people felt during certain activities and at different times. He found that it did not matter who they were, where they were or what they were doing, people were happier when they focused on the present, while those thinking of anything else were much less happy. This is the first ultimate truth.

This connects to what we said earlier about the illusion of time, and how emotions felt in the present are generally positive, while those in the past or in the future tend to be negative. So how can you focus on the present moment in your life? The answer is by developing awareness.

This sounds easier than it is. To live as a human you have to find the balance between being and doing, but in the modern world, everyone’s overly occupied with doing – whether it’s going for coffee, incessant meetings or exercising. Yet, all these activities ignore the potential of stopping and becoming aware of the moment and the possibilities of doing nothing and simply being.

This can be found in the Taoist idea known as wu wei: where doing nothing can be the best course of action. Imagine someone is growing a plant – they allow it sun, water and fertilizer, and nothing more.

So how can you develop awareness in your day-to-day life? You might not have the time or the surroundings to meditate like many practices suggest, but you could start by simply trying to notice specific things in your environment – the different types of trees you encounter or how much water you drink a day. It doesn’t matter what you’re looking for, so long as you’re paying attention.

You could also try to limit the distractions around you, most notably technologies like smartphones, TV and computers, or just enjoying an activity without any clocks around at least once a week. Whether it’s going for a walk or being in a quiet room, enjoy a bit of space and freedom from the constant ticking of time.

The important thing is to focus: when you have to do something, make sure you only do one thing at a time and fix your attention on it so that you do it well.

Happiness is much easier to achieve than people generally think. All it takes is understanding and honoring the truth about the world and ourselves. As long as you keep in mind the six grand illusions and the seven blind spots, and the ways that they can distort your reality, you can remove unfair expectations and therefore unhappiness from your life. Proceed to follow the five ultimate truths – whether you take the author’s or find your own – and pursue them to retain your happiness, living a life of simplicity and joy.

Check out my related post: How to avoid the comparison trap?

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