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Is there an algorithm for happiness?

You can’t buy happiness, but can you calculate your way to joy? Sharon Stephenson asks an engineer turned happiness guru who says, “Yes!” And an Auckland psychology professor who says, “Not so fast…”

Dubai, early spring 2003, a couple of weeks shy of Easter. Mo Gawdat, an engineer moonlighting as a financial trader, sits at his computer. With one click, he buys two vintage Rolls-Royces, one a 1972 Silver Shadow, the other a midnight-blue 80s model.

“I couldn’t decide between them, so I bought them both,” says Gawdat.

He figures they’ll go nicely with the 14 other luxury vehicles – BMWs, Audis and a $NZ309,000 Bentley GT – parked in the garage of his sprawling villa, with its large gates and even larger swimming pool, the touchdowns of his financial success.

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But when the vehicles arrive, he feels nothing. “I realised they’d never make me happy,” says Gawdat, a slight man with a wide smile, who looks much younger than his 51 years. “Expensive cars might be beautiful objects, but the road you see is the same from every vehicle.”

He’d been borderline depressed for some time. “Like everyone, I was born happy, but around the age of 23, when I really started to engage with the world, that’s when the unhappiness started.”

Success had arrived early: Cairo-born Gawdat followed his father into engineering, firstly at IBM, then Microsoft and eventually in California for Google X, the famously secretive “moonshot” R&D facility where he worked on projects such as the self-driving car and wifi delivered by balloons. He had a loving wife, Nibal, two adored children – son Ali and daughter Aya – and the formula he’d developed for his side hustle as a day trader earned him piles of cash.

“I’d ticked all the boxes: career, family, house and life. But it didn’t give me any joy because I couldn’t receive joy. Instead, I was controlling and aggressive,” says Gawdat by Skype from Montreal where he’s visiting Aya, now 24 and an arts student. “I bought cars, spent money and tried to fill the gap in my soul any way I could.”
When Gawdat saw how his unhappiness was affecting his children, he resolved to change, approaching it the way he approached everything in life – with logic. He tried to read his way out of his funk, spending years devouring self-help and wellness manuals.

“The first step was to define happiness,” he says. “In the West, we think happiness is the pot of gold at the end of some high-achieving rainbow, that it’s something outside ourselves we have to strive for and earn. But happiness is our default setting, it’s within each of us.”

What his research didn’t scratch was his engineer’s itch for a tidy, mathematical algorithm that would deliver happiness. So Gawdat took a data-driven approach: plotting on a graph those times in his life when he’d been happiest. It boiled down to something pretty obvious: happiness occurred when life seemed to be going his way.
It was a short leap from there to Gawdat’s formula – that happiness is equal to or greater than your perception of the events of your life, minus your expectations of how life should behave. In other words, it’s not what happens in your life that makes you happy, but how you view it. Do that positively, rein in your unrealistic expectations, and happiness can be yours.

It sounds both irresistibly simple and difficult to put into practice. Rubbing his beard, Gawdat explains how his happiness hack works in the real world.

“Last week, I met with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who’s my happiness idol, and it was an hour and a half of pure joy. Afterwards, while flying from Delhi to Dubai, there was a major issue with my ticket which meant they had to cancel it and issue another one. Yes, it was annoying, but I had two hours until my flight and I could either spend that time being angry with the airline employees or I could understand the truth in life – that there are occasional hiccups – and calmly deal with it.

“The event itself is irrelevant, it’s the way I looked at it that mattered.”

Our brains, he explains, are single-threaded processors. In engineer speak, that means they can only do one thing at a time. “So if you’re genuinely concentrating on positive thoughts, your brain can’t possibly focus on the negative.”

And it is possible to train your brain to think positive thoughts, adds Gawdat with the enthusiasm of someone who first drank the Kool Aid a decade or so ago and has been addicted ever since.

During nights and weekends, Gawdat extrapolated his theory, developing a “6-7-5” model that sets out the six illusions, seven blind spots and five truths he believes are stumbling blocks to happiness. They include focusing too much on the past or future, being fearful and/or controlling, and believing the negative voice in your head.
Depending on your view of the world, it might seem a little New-Agey; bumper stickerish even. Gawdat doesn’t mind – his algorithm was for his eyes only. 

And it was working well, until July 2014 when his 21-year-old son Ali died unexpectedly during a routine appendectomy. A needle punctured Ali’s femoral artery – a major blood vessel in the leg carrying blood from the heart – and within a few hours he was gone.

Mo Gawdat. "In the West, we think happiness is the pot of gold at the end of some high-achieving rainbow," he says. "But happiness is our default setting."
Naturally, it put his theory to the test in the most painful way. “As a father, you torture yourself with the thought you could have changed the outcome, maybe taken him to another hospital or done something different.”

When the authorities requested an autopsy, Gawdat’s wife asked if it would bring Ali back. “That’s when I realised I could cry for the rest of my life, but it still wouldn’t bring him back. We went through the most difficult event imaginable, but we were never angry or resentful of life, we didn’t feel cheated or depressed.

“Losing a child is a horrible experience but remarkably we got through it with a sense of peace – even happiness and joy – because we held onto the truth that we’d had Ali in our lives.”

At his son’s memorial, guests remarked on his composure. When Gawdat explained how his algorithm had helped (“I don’t allow my brain a single thought that isn’t joyful or useful”), they encouraged him to share it with others.

So 17 days after he lost what he describes as “the sunshine of my life”, Gawdat sat down and started writing. The result was 2016’s best-selling book Solve for Happy: Engineer Your Path to Joy. He front-loads the 352 pages with how his scientific approach helped during the worst time of his life.

“Happiness is finding peace and choosing to be peaceful with what you can’t change. Working through the illusions, blind spots and truths of my situation is what kept me afloat after Ali’s death. And I believe it can help everyone.”

Gadwat isn’t the first to sail down this particular river, and he probably won’t be the last. Type the words “mathematics + happiness” into Amazon and you’ll get hundreds of books, most of them published in the past five years. With titles such as The Calculus of Happiness: How a Mathematical Approach to Life Adds Up to Health, Wealth and Love and Geekspeak: How Life + Mathematics = Happiness, they offer various ways to apply equations to happiness, from satisfaction-of-life scales to genetic makeup and gratitude experiments.

Happiness, it appears, is big business, not least in the corporate sphere where it’s estimated a happy workforce can be up to 12% more productive.

But here’s the rub: most of us in the developed world have never been healthier or wealthier in historic terms than we currently are. We live longer, in better conditions and have more disposable income and time than ever before; if you’re reading this in New Zealand, for example, you’re in the eighth happiest nation in the world, doing better than the Swedes and Australians but still a way behind the Finns and the Swiss. In theory, most of us should never be in less need of a mathematical formula for happiness.

A grimace from Gawdat: “The number is something like one in four people in the West is clinically depressed. With progress comes the natural tendency to expect more from life. Add in the influence of advertising promoting endless things we don’t really want or need, and social media which promotes others’ seemingly flawless lives, and you have the perfect storm for creating expectations that reality cannot meet.”

He also bats away questions on how a one-size-fits-all mathematical equation can be applied to human beings, who are intrinsically different and unpredictable.

“Ah, but we’re not. Humans are very sophisticated and complex organisms, but for most of us happiness works in exactly the same way – we constantly compare our reality to our expectations and often come up short. Given that around 60-70% of an adult brain’s thoughts are negative, it can be a challenge to turn this around. But you can train your brain to choose happy thoughts.”

Gawdat admits his maths won’t add up for everyone, particularly those with depression and mental health problems, or those happy being unhappy. “Mental health and depression, which are very real issues, are beyond my skill set. And if you’re comfortable being unhappy then there’s nothing I can do for you. You have to make the choice to be happy.”
Around 60 - 70% of an adult brain's thoughts are negative. Photo / Getty Images
Alison Anderson* is someone who made that choice. The Christchurch mother of two first heard about Gawdat’s approach when she was visiting her son Greg in the US.

“Greg had seen Mo speak on campus and was raving about the book. So I borrowed his copy and was immediately taken with the idea that you can have such a logical, conceptual approach to cracking the happiness conundrum,” says Anderson, who’s spent the past five years teaching geography to “bored kids who’d rather be anywhere than my classroom”.

You don’t have to squint too hard to see Anderson’s life hasn’t been easy. She’s been married twice (both times it ended badly), raised two sons largely on her own and worked several part-time jobs to put herself through university. She’s also suffered from depression most of her adult life.

“It was never bad enough to seek professional help or medication, more a low-lying hum of dissatisfaction, that something wasn’t quite right. But everyone I knew was also walking around with holes in their lives, so I put up with it and got on with it.”

When a friend recommended Anderson read The Secret, Australian author Rhonda Byrne’s 2006 publishing sensation about the laws of attraction and changing the world with thoughts, she was hooked. “You should see my bookshelves,” laughs the 50-something. “I’ve read almost every self-help book that’s ever been written. Friends and colleagues think they peddle a load of snake-oil rubbish to unsuspecting fools, but these books have really helped turn my life around. I would never have been able to do things such as staying in the moment or training my brain to think positive thoughts without them.”

Certainly, talking to Anderson is a little like plugging into a positive hard-drive: she’s peppy, chatty and lines her sentences with phrases such as “Dreams don’t work unless you do” and “If you can see it, you can change it”.
“I’m increasingly interested in proven, mathematical formulas that outline how to achieve happiness, which is probably why I clicked so well with Mo’s book. He comes at it wearing his engineer’s hat and believes that happiness is a conceptual problem, where the default setting for the human brain is happiness. So when life throws us curve balls, we can reboot, reframe and regain our natural state.”

If Gawdat can do that after the death of a child, then Anderson reckons she should be able to deal with traffic jams and a class of misbehaving 15-year-olds. “Besides”, she adds, “how can you argue with maths?”

Quite easily, says Nathan Consedine, a psychology professor at the University of Auckland. “I haven’t read Solve for Happy but I have read quite a bit about Gawdat’s mathematical approach to finding happiness.”

He’s also spent a considerable amount of time digesting other scholars’ posits on happiness, given his 20-plus-year career as an emotions researcher. Currently, that involves wrestling with the role of emotions in health and the way people adjust their emotional response to situations, such as smiling when they’re not happy.
“Emotions are complex things and have nothing to do with the experience at all. That’s why you can show an emotion without experiencing it.”

Consedine believes Gadwat’s theory of happiness is “hypothetically possible”, if a little simplistic. “It could work, in theory, but I don’t think the formula is the right one.

“In the scientific world, we’re not even close to understanding happiness, to be able to develop a formula for how to achieve it. And if we were, it would probably be an enormous formula, because the science of happiness is incredibly complex.”

Mention happiness being humanity’s default state and Consedine’s laugh bounces off the cream-coloured walls in his cramped Viaduct office. “I’m calling bullshit on that one.

“Reverting to a fixed state of happiness isn’t supported by data or theory. And at the end of the day, evolution doesn’t care if you’re happy or not, evolution cares if you’re genetically able to reproduce. Happiness, like the other emotions we have, evolved because it contributes to our inclusive fitness, the spread and success of our genes in the broadest sense. Happiness may well be important but it isn’t our default.”

Consedine, who spent 10 years teaching at New York’s Centre for Studies of Ethnicity and Human Development, also isn’t convinced a single formula can be applied to everyone, given the things that make each of us happy are so different.

“Humans are idiosyncratic, and don’t have a fixed response to happiness. Basically, all species have evolved a way to organise their response, so if a group of meerkats sees a kite flying overhead, they don’t stop to ask if it’s a kite or a hungry eagle, they run because that’s their adaptive response.

“Humans, however, haven’t evolved a response in the same way. Instead, we evaluate events and then respond to them in terms of what the event means for us individually. So pain, for example, can be interpreted by some humans as a good thing – i.e. the no pain/no gain exercise ethos, or sexually perverse pain. What makes you happy – and the way you respond to those stimuli – can be very different to what makes me happy and the way I behave.”

Cast your mind back to 1998, he says, when a motivational book called Who Moved My Cheese? became an international sensation, selling more than 26 million copies in 37 languages. Its core message, delivered by two cartoon mice and a tonne of dairy products, was how to cope with unfavourable or unfair change in a positive way.

It’s a good example of how using mathematical formulas to produce happiness can fall short, says Consedine.

“Measuring expectations when things are going well in someone’s life isn’t a bad way of assessing happiness. But what it doesn’t take into account, as clearly illustrated by Who Moved My Cheese?, is that happiness is a constantly moving target. For most of us, it’s a question of ‘Am I doing better than other people?’ So you might get the big house or car, but then you’ll notice your neighbour has an ever bigger house or car and your expectations and happiness goals will naturally shift.”

The paradox, he says, is that setting people up to be happy can actually cause them greater unhappiness. It’s a theory supported by American psychologist and researcher Iris Mauss, who believes the more you value happiness, the less you have. “Her research shows that valuing happiness can actually lead to less happiness under ‘normal’, low-stress conditions. So in that sense, actively pursuing happiness can be counterproductive.”
Instead, Consedine believes it would be better to focus on building a kinder, better society.

“Rather than setting people up to be happy, it would be more positive from an evolutionary point of view if we were kinder to others and to ourselves. That way, no one’s happiness is predicated on anyone else’s unhappiness, which is a far better approach for everyone.”

Another slight grimace from Gawdat. He knows he has his detractors but, by his estimate, his deep dive into happiness has reached more than 160 million people both via the book and online, far surpassing his initial target of 10 million. An interview Gawdat did with Britain’s Channel 4, for example, was viewed by 18 million viewers, becoming one of the network’s most downloaded videos. He’s now shooting for more and has started a movement, One Billion Happy, a not-for-profit initiative he describes as a “positive Ponzi scheme”.

“It’s basically about people prioritising their happiness, practising what makes them happy and paying it forward. So you tell two people and they tell two people and so on. My hope is to reach one billion people in five years.”
This year, Gawdat left Google to focus on spreading the happiness message and now spends his days writing books (there are five in the works, including one about finding happiness by balancing the heart and the brain) and flying to speaking engagements all over the planet. He’s as surprised as anyone that people from Seoul to Copenhagen lap it up. “I thought I’d be an engineer all my life. I never thought I’d spend my days doing this. But there’s such an overwhelming need for happiness, and the tools to achieve it, that I’m honoured to be able to spread this message.”

He’s of no fixed address, bouncing between Canada, Dubai and New York, where his girlfriend Anahita Monga, a wellness coach/happiness evangelist, works with CEOs and entrepreneurs (Gowdat’s marriage ended after the death of his son but he and his former wife remain good friends). “I go wherever my loved ones are and wherever I’m invited. When you’re happy, it doesn’t matter where you are.”

Last year, while speaking in Australia, Gawdat was invited by Google to visit New Zealand – but an administrative snafu saw him refused a visa. “Sadly it didn’t work out that time, but I hope to get to New Zealand one day.”

Gawdat squirms when talk circles back to his garage of luxury cars and says he’s since sold most of them. “There are a couple left I want to auction for charity. I’m embarrassed I spent so much on cars in the mistaken belief they could make me happy. These days, I hire a car if I need it and wear $20 T-shirts. And I’m happier than I’ve ever been.”

The 6-7-5 model of happiness

Mo Gawdat believes the key to happiness involves six grand illusions, seven blind spots and five ultimate truths.

“Eliminate the six illusions, fix the seven blind spots and hang onto the five ultimate truths, and happiness can be yours,” he outlines in his book Solve for Happy: Engineer your Path to Joy.

Gawdat’s six illusions, which he claims hinder our ability to make sense of the world, are thought, self, knowledge, time, control and fear. His seven blind spots, clouding our understanding of the reality of life: filters, assumptions, predictions, memories, labels, emotions and exaggeration.

The five “ultimate truths” he believes we should hold fast to if we want happiness to last are: the present, change, love, death and design.