Mo Gawdat is the chief business officer at Google X – the “moonshot factory” responsible for some of the company’s more audacious projects, such as self-driving cars and a balloon-powered global internet. Before he joined Google, while working as stock trader and tech executive in Dubai and in response to a period of depression, he used his engineer’s mindset to create an “equation for happiness”. The equation says that happiness is greater than, or equal to, your perception of the events in your life minus your expectation of how life should be.
When his 21-year-old son Ali died during a routine operation, Gawdat turned to the equation, which they had worked on together, in an attempt to come to terms with his tragic loss. Gawdat’s book, Solve for Happy, explains the theories underpinning the equation and how it helped him sustain his life after Ali’s death.
To an outsider you were a successful, wealthy individual with a loving family; not an obvious candidate for someone who felt the need to devote themselves to developing a theory of happiness. You say the more money you had, the less happy you became.
That is correct and it’s not uncommon among many of my successful and wealthy friends. The scientific research will tell you that the more income you get the more happy you will become, but once you get to average income your happiness plateaus. Moreover, I found that when you go even higher, wealth starts to work against you – people start to treat you differently; you start to feel a constant disappointment.
You mention that while you were on the “hedonistic treadmill” you bought two Rolls-Royces online on a whim.
That truly was a turning point. This was again the attempt to fill that gap in my soul. When they arrived I was completely disappointed, they were pretty, I sat in them for 20 minutes but then I went back to my unhappy thoughts, and once you go back to the things that make you unhappy it doesn’t matter what’s parked in the garage. That was a turning point, that nothing material will solve this stuff.
Do you still have them?
I’ve been trying to sell them, I’ve tried giving them to charity. They are in showrooms waiting to be sold. I rent cars now.
You weren’t able to find joy in your life. Is finding joy a skill that should be taught?
Absolutely. Happiness is very much like staying fit. You start with the decision that you are going to get fit, you find out how – but knowing that is not enough, you have to go to the gym to work out and eat healthily. To me the whole topic of happiness is exactly the same. First you understand that happiness is a choice, that you can actually achieve it and that there is a method to make it happen. Happiness is not a coincidence, it is not given to you by life, it’s entirely our responsibility.
When your son died, did you feel like jettisoning your theories? Are you surprised that your equation held up in such tragic circumstances?
You know how there are five stages of grief? We started with acceptance. My wife at the time made an insightful comment when they asked to do an autopsy on Ali’s body: “Will it bring Ali back?” The realisation that nothing we could do, including crying in our rooms for the next 17 years, would ever bring him back… we started from there.
I then went through a rollercoaster. But I would sometimes imagine talking to Ali and if you knew him, his first reaction would be: “Papa I’ve already died, there’s nothing you can do about it, so what are you going to make out of it?” When I started going through this dialogue it made me realise that this can be for a reason, for good can come out of it.
Do you ever wonder how you would have responded to your son’s death if you hadn’t developed your happiness equation?
I would have definitely left life, I wouldn’t have killed myself, but I would have found a corner somewhere and shut the door and sat there until they came. Ali was not just my son, he was my mentor, best friend, confidante, my teacher, he truly was “it”, basically. I can’t imagine I would have handled it at all without the model we built together.
You talk about how happiness is a human’s default state. Where’s your evidence for this?
That was one of the eye-openers for me. The first observation was I was a very happy young man until around 25, and then something went wrong, and I became very unhappy. To me, an engineer, that means you have a highly optimised machine that began to misbehave. So I started to go back to all the points where I was happy. If you go back to childhood, you observe that if a child’s basic needs are met their default state is happy – they don’t need an iPhone, they can play with their toes and be happy.
You say that the voice inside your head isn’t you. If we aren’t the voices inside our heads, what are we?
We have a set of illusions. One of them is that we associate so strongly with the voice in our head when the reality is that it is just a biological function; it is exactly like your heart pumping blood around your body. It’s your brain’s way of delivering survival functions to you – its job is to scan the world around it using sensory input and then coordinate your muscle responses and take action so that you survive.
Thoughts have truly propelled our civilisation, and we think of the voice inside our heads as us. But that isn’t remotely true once you realise that you don’t have to obey your thoughts – I can accept them, I can reject them, I can ask the brain to go and get me a better one. You can do what people do in meetings: you ask me a question, I give you an answer, but you can say to me: “Mo, can you get me a better answer?”, and I go back to my brain and I say, give me a better answer. Treat your brain as a biological function and understand he is not the boss – you are the boss.
Can you explain what you mean by the illusion of time?
We deal with time every day, yet no one really knows what time is, including the master of the science of time Albert Einstein. He’ll tell you that past, present and future is nothing more than a stubborn persistent illusion. We have created machines that measure mechanical movement in such a way, yet we have no idea what it is that we are measuring and we are very happy to torture ourselves with it.
If you ask a Buddhist what time it is, their answer will be “the time is now”. Like a Buddhist, the only time you have ever lived is a moment of now. You’ve never lived in the past, you will never live in the future; when the future comes it will be a moment of now. Yet we never give ourselves the luxury of living in now; instead, we are constantly living inside our heads looking in the past and the future, and as you do that you constantly suffer.
Could you turn your equation into an app?
Absolutely. I believe that the book is just the start of a very big initiative. I am trying to create a movement that doesn’t depend on me or the book. I’ve set myself a target of 10 million people happy, and I’m hoping that everyone will set themselves a target of 25 people or 25 million happy, depending on their reach. I’m not about selling books, I believe I’ve been paid by life already.
In what sense was your quest to develop an equation for happiness informed by Google X’s moonshot philosophy, to set audacious rather than incremental goals?
Absolutely, our CEO Larry Page teaches us to set an audacious target but while you may miss it, what you achieve is greater than if you set a low target.
You are on a sabbatical from X?
I have a tremendous respect for a company that does things that make the world a better place. Although public opinion sometimes attacks Google, imagine a life without search. I am one of the top execs in Google and I can tell you it is truly not a place about the money, this is a place that is truly about changing the world.
When you go back to X what will you be working on?
I can tell you but then I’d have to flash you like the Men in Black.
• Solve for Happy by Mo Gawdat is published by Bluebird (£14.99). To order a copy for £10.49 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
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