Engi­neer­ing happiness

How do you live after los­ing a child? This fa­ther be­gan the process by writ­ing a book about joy.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Reads - By SANDY CLARKE star2@thes­tar.com.my

MO Gaw­dat had it all. He was a high flyer in his home­land of Egypt who earned a lot of money from as early as his late 20s, which helped to sup­port his lov­ing wife and two chil­dren. It could be said that his life was the epit­ome of happiness.

But de­spite ev­ery­thing, Gaw­dat was com­pletely mis­er­able for years in his 20s and 30s. As an en­gi­neer, he had de­vel­oped a mind-set of try­ing to con­trol ev­ery­one and ev­ery­thing around him, and would con­stantly com­plain when life didn’t go his way.

Putting his prag­matic brain to good use, Gaw­dat – who is cur­rently the chief busi­ness of­fi­cer at Google X – de­cided to de­vote as much time as he could to dis­cov­er­ing how happiness could be at­tained as a last­ing state of be­ing – in fact, he spent 10 years read­ing about happiness. But, as he says in a talk he gave at Google (tinyurl. com/star2-gow­dat), he “didn’t get it”. So, like any en­gi­neer worth his/her salt, he ded­i­cated him­self to solv­ing the prob­lem of happiness by sci­en­tific means.

“The way I did it was by lit­er­ally tak­ing as many data points as I could find of sit­u­a­tions where I felt happy, and try­ing to find the thread line that ran be­tween them,” he tells Star2 in an e-mail in­ter­view.

“You can ask a mil­lion peo­ple around you, ‘What is happiness to you?’ and peo­ple will say things like, ‘Happiness is to see my daugh­ter smile’, ‘Happiness is to be in na­ture’, ‘Happiness is to have a good cup of cof­fee’. All of those things are not con­clu­sive – they’re rea­sons for happiness, but they’re not the pat­tern of happiness.”

Even­tu­ally, he came up with an equa­tion that, in his opin­ion, can be used to main­tain happiness re­gard­less of what’s hap­pen­ing in your life. Happiness, says Gaw­dat, 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, if you per­ceive the events in your life as be­ing equal to or greater than your ex­pec­ta­tions, you’ll be happy – or, at least, not un­happy.

This equa­tion for happiness is ex­plored at length in Gaw­dat’s book, Solve For Happy: En­gi­neer Your Path To Joy (Blue­bird Books for Life, 2017). In the book, he ex­plains his “6-7-5” model, which we need to un­der­stand if we’re to achieve happiness on de­mand.

First, there are the “6 Grand Il­lu­sions”, which are the il­lu­sions of thought, self, knowl­edge, time, con­trol, and fear. Next, we have the “7 Blind Spots” of our fil­ters, as­sump­tions, pre­dic­tions, mem­o­ries, la­bels, emo­tions, and ex­ag­ger­a­tions. Fi­nally, we are en­cour­aged to re­flect on the “5 ul­ti­mate truths” of now, change, love, death, and de­sign.

So what’s the first step we need to take on the path to last­ing happiness?

“It starts by re­al­is­ing that, some­times, things that make us un­happy are just go­ing to hap­pen and there is noth­ing you can do to change that,” says Gaw­dat.

“When such things hap­pen, what do you want to do? Do you want to re­main in that state of un­hap­pi­ness for the rest of your life, to have no im­pact on the world or no mo­ti­va­tion to find happiness again? Or do you want to ac­cept the fact that some­times life will get tough on oc­ca­sion, and com­mit to mak­ing life a lit­tle bit bet­ter to­mor­row than it is to­day?”

In 2014, Gaw­dat’s happiness equa­tion was put to the ul­ti­mate test when he lost his 21-year-old son, Ali, fol­low­ing com­pli­ca­tions dur­ing a rou­tine op­er­a­tion. The lov­ing fa­ther de­scribes his son as “the light of my life”, and told a touch­ing tale of how friends came to pay their last re­spects with tears in their eyes, which quickly trans­formed to joy and a cel­e­bra­tion of a cher­ished friend who en­riched their lives in so many ways.

The loss of his son in­spired Gaw­dat to put his thoughts on happiness down on pa­per as a trib­ute to the wise young man who helped his fa­ther to put the equa­tion to­gether. And so Solve For Happy be­came, in part, Ali’s legacy, with Gaw­dat hop­ing that it will help to bring happiness to peo­ple around the world.

“When I lost Ali, of course I had the right to crum­ble and cry for the rest of my life – but what dif­fer­ence would that have made?” says Gaw­dat. “Would it have made my fam­ily hap­pier? Would it have made me work bet­ter – would it have made Ali come back? Life was amaz­ing with him around, and it got worse when he left. But now, it’s get­ting a lit­tle bet­ter again and I hope that he’s proud of me, that I’m do­ing this.”

Not that Gaw­dat didn’t feel dev­asted; he felt all the crush­ing dev­as­ta­tion and pain that comes with los­ing a child, and he ad­mits that the pain is still with him to­day. How­ever, he be­lieves that, while pain is a nec­es­sary part of life, we don’t have to add to it by suf­fer­ing need­lessly.

“The dif­fer­ence be­tween pain and suf­fer­ing is paramount. Pain comes from out­side you: it’s the world telling you that you need to be alert. Suf­fer­ing is when you re­call the pain over and over in your head, which causes you the psy­cho­log­i­cal tor­ture that you feel from this.

“When I think about my won­der­ful son Ali, I don’t re­mem­ber los­ing him, I re­mem­ber hav­ing him. I can think of the same event and think how I was blessed to have 21-and-a-half amaz­ing years with this young man who com­pletely gave me love and knowl­edge and wis­dom. He was the light of my life and so, in­stead of re­mem­ber­ing him with sad­ness, I can re­mem­ber him with happiness.”

Happiness is when we’re at peace with life and we wouldn’t mind if it didn’t change much. Even though most of us would like to be hap­pier, we nev­er­the­less strug­gle to cul­ti­vate happiness be­yond fleet­ing mo­ments of joy that arise from time to time.

To de­velop happiness, says Gaw­dat, it has to be pri­ori­tised in the same way that we might pri­ori­tise a healthy life­style. When we be­gin go­ing to the gym or ditch­ing junk food for health­ier op­tions, it can be dif­fi­cult at first, but it soon be­comes eas­ier and we are able to en­joy the ben­e­fits that come with our new habits.

“You are in charge of your life: if you make some­thing a pri­or­ity, you make it hap­pen,” he in­sists.

“For ex­am­ple, if you make be­ing paid at the end of the month a pri­or­ity, you show up to work ev­ery day to make sure you get paid. Un­less you make happiness a pri­or­ity, there’s noth­ing any­one can do to help you.

“When you make it a pri­or­ity, it might be dif­fi­cult at the be­gin­ning, but then it gets a lit­tle eas­ier. The 10th time you go to the gym, it be­comes a lot eas­ier, and by the 20th time you start to won­der how you ever lived without go­ing to the gym.

“I think that’s the mes­sage for ev­ery­one to take on board: If you pri­ori­tise happiness, it be­comes easy and you can make it hap­pen. If you don’t, then you’ll al­ways have your prob­lems.”

Gaw­dat be­lieves that happiness can be pri­ori­tised and prac­ticed, just like ex­er­cis­ing or eat­ing healthy. — Pans­ing

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