Happiness expert, Mo Gawdat reveals how small and simple changes can have a huge impact on our happiness levels
Mo Gawdat used to have the auspicious job title of Chief Business Officer at Google X, overseeing the development of projects like self-driving cars and space elevators. But when his 21-year-old son, Ali, tragically died in a routine operation in 2014, he decided to dedicate his life to finding the equation for happiness. Now 56, he's an expert in the field; author of best-selling book Solve for Happy: Engineer Your Path To Joy, £8.99, and creator of podcast, Slo Mo.
So what is the magic formula? "Happiness is equal to or greater than the difference between the events of your life and your expectations of how life should behave," he says. An example is rain. “Rain never makes you happy or unhappy, it doesn’t have that kind of intrinsic value. But how rainy weather affects what you wanted to do on the day it rains does.” In short, it’s not an event that makes us unhappy, it’s how we think and respond to it.
And Gawdat makes a key distinction about what happiness is: “We have mistaken happiness as fun. True happiness is peacefulness, a calm inside you when you are ok with life as it is.” When you are really happy Gawdat says you will be more productive, more engaged and more loved by other people. So it’s definitely worth doing everything you can to be happier. This, however, is no mean feat during these dreary January days.
So Gawdat has given us his top five tips to bring more happiness into our daily lives. And don’t worry, these aren’t highfalutin, unachievable, expensive things - they're simple and easy to fit in to a busy schedule (a bit like these top tips from mindset coaches). Let's do this!
1. Log your gratitude
“Gratitude is one of the biggest weapons we have against unhappiness” says Mo. “You might ask yourself, what is gratitude? The answer to that is that gratitude is the forced practice of teaching your brain to look for what’s right. And the reason I say it’s forced is because we are born with brains that naturally have a negativity bias and that are looking out for what’s wrong to keep us safe. But then what happens is we train our brain to become really good at negativity so then we’re looking for everything that’s wrong in life. The practice of gratitude trains our brain to focus on what’s going well and the more you do it, the more you realise things aren’t that bad after all and because of that you will find happiness a lot more frequently.”
And how to practise gratitude? “Gratitude journals, where you write down what you are grateful for, are a great place to start. It doesn’t have to be a specific type of book but what is important is making it into a repeated ritual that you do at the same time of day, every day.” If writing is not for you then another practice he recommends is keeping a collection of photos so that when you’re feeling disgruntled with life you can look at them. “Revisiting what you’re grateful for is a very powerful manifestation because by observing it you will get more of it.”
2. Wake up 30 minutes earlier
This might not be what you want to hear but Mo recommends waking up a bit earlier in the morning after a good night's sleep so you can spend the start of each day “meeting your self first.” What does that mean? “Don’t rush for your phone first thing, instead take 30 mins spending time with you. Do a body scan. Find the aches and pains you need to work on. A lot of people will say ‘but oh my kids wake up, I have to do the school run, I have to go to work’ or whatever. Honestly, I promise you can wake up 30 mins earlier and meet yourself first. Take your time, do things slowly whether it’s stretches or making your tea or coffee but spend time on it, do it well and reflect on the day ahead and what you need to do.”
3. Make a happy list
Another happiness exercise that involves pen and paper is writing a happy list. Sit down and write ‘I feel happy when…’ five times and think about what makes you happy. Again, these are not big momentous moments, rather things that happen in your everyday life that bring you happiness. It could be having a cup of coffee in silence, going to a yoga class, walking the dog. Whatever it is Mo recommends looking at the five things in your happy list and scheduling them into your life on a daily or weekly basis so that you have more of it.
4. Do things the happy way
“With everything in life there is a formal way to do things and the happy way to do things. Choose to do the latter,” recommends Gawdat. “When I was at Google, I used to go to the London office a lot. London can be quite an uptight place. I realised on the second day there was a massive balcony at the front of reception. The balcony didn’t feature as a meeting room but I started to have all my meetings on that balcony. The first thing people would say is that they didn’t know we had a balcony. To me, it was simply about sitting out in the sun with some nice plants - it’s the same meeting and the same conversation but people felt a lot better and I felt a lot better.That’s the happy way to do something.”
Other examples Mo often uses is connecting with the people around you. When you go into a coffee shop, instead of just handing over your order to the barista, look them in the eyes and speak to them properly. Gawdat says by doing these small interactions with other humans your mood will shift, their mood will shift and you’ll be less grumpy and irritated and more happy.
5. Use technology for good
A huge topic for Gawdat and his work on happiness is the role that technology plays. “Everything has a good side and a bad side. With technology, let's use the good side and drop the bad side.” Gawdat recommends measuring how much time you’re spending on technology. “Question what is good for you and what isn’t. If you are mindfully engaging with the technology and what it is serving you then great but if you’re mindlessly swiping, liking or typing then the technology is invading space for happiness.”
There are some simple actions Gawdat recommends. “Switch off all your notifications. This will be quite hard to do as the app creators don’t want you to do it so they will have hidden the ‘switch off’ button layers beneath.” He then goes further to recommend switching off your phone entirely for a few hours a day. “Unsubscribe from everything that’s not absolutely necessary. And resist the urge to participate in the conversation as much as you can. Before you send an email or message just take a moment to think about whether you have the capability to deal with the 7+ messages that might come back.”
Ultimately, and perhaps ironically for a man who built his first career in a tech company, Gawdat’s main tip for boosting happiness is to connect with humans without using technology at all. Of course, that’s not always possible in today’s world but if you can humanise the way you use it - he suggests sending voice notes instead of written messages so that the person can hear your voice - then that is the sweet spot of using technology for good and in a way that hopefully will make you happier.