When the tech guru’s son unexpectedly died, he turned to an equation they had devised together to get through the grief
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.