When things get tough, we tend to do more of what we know how to do best. So, in my 30s and miserable, I submerged myself in reading about my predicament. I bought every title I could find on the topic of happiness. I attended every lecture, watched every documentary, and then diligently analyzed everything I’d learned. But I didn’t approach the subject from the same perspective as the psychologists who’d written the books and conducted the experiments that had made happiness research such a hot academic discipline. Certainly, I didn’t follow in the slipstream of all the philosophers and theologians who’d struggled with the problem of human happiness since civilization began.
In keeping with my training, I broke the problem of happiness down into its smallest components and applied an engineering analysis. I adopted a facts-driven approach that would be scalable and replicable. Along the way, I challenged every process I’d been told to blindly implement, tested the fit of every moving part, and looked deeply into the validity of every input as I worked to create an algorithm that would produce the desired result. As a software developer, I set a target to find the code that could be applied to my life again and again to predictably deliver happiness every time.
Oddly enough, after all this hyperrational effort worthy of Mr. Spock, I found my first real breakthrough during a casual conversation with my mother. She’d always told me to work hard and to prioritize my financial success above all. She frequently invoked an Arabic proverb that, loosely translated, meant “Eat frugally for a year and dress frugally for another, and you’ll find happiness forever.” As a young man, I’d followed that advice religiously. I’d worked hard and saved, and I’d become successful. I’d fulfilled my side of the bargain. So one day I went to ask my mom, “Where was all that happiness I now had a right to expect?”
During that conversation, it suddenly hit me that happiness shouldn’t be something you wait for and work for as if it needs to be earned. Furthermore, it shouldn’t depend on external conditions, much less circumstances as fickle and potentially fleeting as career success and rising net worth. My path till then had been full of progress and success, but every time I’d gained yardage on that field, it was as if they moved the goal posts back a little farther.
What I realized was that I would never get to happiness as long as I held on to the idea that as soon as I do this or get that or reach this benchmark I’ll become happy.
In algebra, equations can be solved in many ways. If A=B+C, for example, then B=A–C. If you try to solve for A, you would look for the values of the other two parameters — B and C — and if you tried to solve for B, you would be taking different steps. The parameter you choose to solve for drastically changes your approach to the solution. The same is true when you decide to solve for happy.
I began to see that throughout all my striving I’d been trying to solve the wrong problem. I’d set myself the challenge of multiplying material wealth, fun, and status so that, eventually, the product of all that effort would be happiness. What I really needed to do instead was to skip the intermediate steps and simply solve for happiness itself.
My journey took almost a decade, but by 2010, I’d developed an equation and a well-engineered, simple, and replicable model of happiness and how to sustain it that fit together perfectly.
I put the system to the test, and it worked. Stress from losing a business deal, long security lines at the airport, bad customer service — none of it could dim my happiness. Daily life as a husband, parent, son, friend, and employee had its inevitable ups and downs, but no matter how any particular day went, good or bad — or a little of each — I found that I was able to enjoy the ride of the rollercoaster itself.
I’d finally returned to being the happy person I recognized as the “me” when I first started out, and there I remained for quite a while. I shared my rigorous process with hundreds of friends, and my Happiness Equation worked for them as well. Their feedback helped me refine the model even further. Which, as it turned out, was a good thing, because I had no idea just how much I was going to need it.
Mo Gawdat is the Chief Business Officer at Google’s [X]. In the last ten years he has made happiness his primary topic of research, diving deeply into literature and conversing on the topic with thousands of people in more than a hundred countries. He is also a serial entrepreneur who has cofounded more than twenty businesses. He speaks Arabic, English, and German. In 2014, motivated by the tragic loss of his son, Ali, Mo began pouring his findings into his first book, "Solve for Happy." To find out more, go to solveforhappy.com