This Way to Happiness

The comedian Jim Carrey once asserted that “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”

Chief Business Officer of Google X Mo Gawdat knows whereof  Carrey speaks. For years, Gawdat struggled with his own personal happiness despite his over the top material success. To give you a picture of how materially successful he is, Gawdat could easily pull off  the following as far back as 2001, “One evening I went online and with two clicks bought two vintage Rolls Royces. Why? Because I  could. And because I was desperately trying to fill the hole in my soul. You won’t be surprised that when those beautiful classics of English automotive styling arrived at the curb, they didn’t lift my mood one bit.” (p. 3) Alas, this realization apparently extended to the rest of his life as he reflected that “In my constant quest for more I’d become pushy and unpleasant even at home, and I knew it. I spent too little time appreciating the remarkable woman I’d married, too little time with my wonderful son and daughter, and never paused to enjoy each day as it unfolded.” (p. 3) When it came to a point where he could no longer bear this state of mind, Gawdat resolved to apply his engineering expertise to resolve his personal crisis. Thankfully, after a decade he was able to develop an equation for happiness and how to sustain it in one’s life. But it took the death of his beloved son Ali in 2014 for him to share his equation with the rest of the world by way of  his book Solve for Happy.

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True to his engineering background, Gawdat formulated the following equation for happiness:

“Happiness = your perception of the events in your life – your expectations of how life should behave.”

In other words, it is not the events that happen in our life that make us happy but rather how we think of these events.  To prove his point, Gawdat challenges his reader to think of an unhappy event in his/her life.  As you think of the unhappy event, purposely replace it with another thought.  Once you do, the painful insult loses its power. The rude remark no longer hurts. As he would put it “once the thought goes, the suffering disappears.” (p. 27)

Gawdat further argues that happiness is our default state. He cites the case of children anywhere in the globe. “They may live in a hovel, but as long as they have food and a modicum of safety, you’ll see them run around hooting with joy” (p 18.) It applies to us as well. We are happiest when nothing annoys us, when nothing worries us, when nothing upsets us. How then does one get to that point? His answer: one can only be happy if he/she chooses and decides to be happy.

Easier said than done, of course. One could easily argue that Gawdat has obviously not heard of how terrible our situation is in Manila which was recently ranked as the 10th most stressful city in the world –  where a 4km commute takes 2 hours to complete, where drug suspects are executed before their families, where  corruption co-exists with government. Gawdat’s incisive differentiation between pain and suffering is instructive here.

Pain is something short-lived and serves a crucial, practical purpose. Since the traffic is long, one inevitably adapts by getting up early.  Injustice compels people to take to the streets so that it  will one day come to an end.  Corruption inevitably provokes media expose’ thus leading to its eventual end.  “As much as we hate it, pain and the discomforts of life are useful.” (p. 30.) Suffering though, points out, Gawdat is something else. “When we let it, emotional pain, even the most trivial kind, has the capacity to linger or resurface again and again, while our imaginations endlessly replay the reason for the pain.” (p. 31.) The way out is the way in: we can choose to let the suffering persist or we can choose to stop it. Thus, he writes: “Happiness starts with a conscious choice” (p. 33) He offers his personal tragedy to prove his point. He could choose to condemn his life to despair  or he could choose to grieve but honor his son’s memory by how he lives the rest of his life. Neither option would bring his son to life but only one will bring him back to our default state. He chose b.

In 347 pages, Gawdat introduces us to the path that would help us make such a choice as our way of life: 6-7-5.  6 is for the 6 grand illusions that confuse us and distract us from happiness. 7 stands for the 7  blind spots which if fixed, will lead us to happiness. Most importantly, 5 refers to the 5 ultimate truths which guarantee a lifetime of happiness. If we follow his thought process through these 3 numbers, we would be able to make sense of his son’s enduring message: “The gravity of the battle means nothing to those at peace.”  Like the character of Neo in The Matrix, like the father in Life is Beautiful, like the character of Walter Mitty, we can indeed come to a point where nothing can trouble nor disturb us.

This book has so much explanatory power that it invites a second and even a third reading.  Among its many incisive insights what resonates the most to me is his chapter on control.  Control, reflects Gawdat is an illusion. Ultimately, there are only two things that are within our control, how we look at things and what we do with what is before us. I particularly liked how he contrasted the attitude of Tim and Tom who both woke up late for a scheduled appointment but ended their day differently, Tim in prison and Tom in date.  “We’re each handed a set of cards – some good, some not so good. Keep focused on the bad ones, and you’ll be stuck blaming the game. Use the good ones, and things become better; your hand changes and you move forward.” (p. 156)

Gawdat’s inspiring reflections offer a logical grounding to what has hitherto been my faith-based response to despair and hopelessness.  There is St. Therese’s wise counsel: “Let nothing disturb you, let nothing frighten you, All things are passing away: God never changes. Patience obtains all things; Whoever has God lacks nothing; God alone suffices.” Fairly recently, there is St. Pio’s more contemporary advice: “Pray, hope and don’t worry. Worry is useless. God is merciful and will hear your prayer.”  Both of these, of course, flow from the assurance shared by the carpenter’s son from Nazareth 2,000 years ago: “…do not worry about your life, what you will ear or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air: they do not sow or reap or gather into barns and yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his lifespan?” 

After reading Gawdat, I now appreciate better why Jesus warned that unless we become like little children, we will never enter the Kingdom of God. For only those who choose and decide to be happy can truly forgive others and entrust themselves to God.   His son Ali would have approved.

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