Solve for Happy

By: Mo Gawdat.

Published: 2017.

Read: 2019.


A former Chief Business Officer at Google X tries to formulate an algorithm for happiness in the wake of the tragic loss of his college-age son. An attempt to find meaning in the wake of a severe setback.

The book’s main argument is that we don’t have to pursue a constant state of happiness, but we should try to be better at dealing with the things that make us unhappy. We can try to do this through a better control and awareness of our thinking patterns.

The book identifies five thinking patterns, from low (confusion) to high (joy or flow). The goal of the book’s algorithm is to help get you to the highest level.

Six illusions are explored that keep you down at the lowest thinking pattern level (in confusion) and seven blind spots that keep you away from the highest level (flow). Finally, there are five truths that help you to maintain the highest level.

Worth Reading:

A clearly structured and practical book that is likely to be most useful to those seeking help with specific issues. In this context, it has proven to be beneficial to many (a dedicated website provides additional tools and resources).

The scope of the book is perhaps necessarily narrow and concepts are sometimes twisted in order to fit and support the algorithm developed here.

In many cases, it would perhaps be more helpful to talk about the need for balancing certain behavioral patterns that are mostly, but not always, good, rather talking them in terms of illusions that should be banned. Instead of talking about the illusion of self, why not point out that it’s beneficial most of the time to have a fairly stable set of beliefs, but you shouldn’t form beliefs that are overly rigid. Similarly, in discussing “the illusion of time” (avoid the past and future, be in the here and now), instead, acknowledge the benefits of being in the past (learn from past experience), the now and the future (develop productive longer-term goals), but be wary of being overly anxious about the past or worried about the future. 

Many of the behavioral patterns that this book labels problematic are often adaptive, useful responses to challenges in the environment and productive as such as long as they are used at the right time and in moderation. Perhaps it’s assumed that the target audience of the book has trouble calibrating these behavioral patterns. 

I did not finish the book. Its final part (on the universe being created by design) felt unnecessary, unconvincing and detracted from the overall value of the book.

Practical Takeaways:

  • Interrupt unproductive thinking patterns linked to negative emotions.
    • Three states of thinking:
      • Narrative thinking: telling yourself stories.
      • Experiential thinking: linked to perception.
      • Logical thinking: patterns.
    • The mind can get trapped in prolonged, unproductive narrative thinking.
      • Especially following a negative event.
    • Can be productive to force a switch in thinking and break the chain of chatter.
      • Use meditation to shift to experiential thinking.
      • Focus on internal or external stimuli.

Key Concepts:

Five states of thinking:

  1. Confusion:
    • Negative illusory thoughts.
  2. Suffering:
    • Negative thoughts rooted in reality.
  3. Escape/fun:
    • Suspended thoughts in reality.
  4. Happiness:
    • Positive thoughts rooted in reality.
  5. Joy:
    • Rising above thoughts.

Six illusion that keep you in state of confusion:

  1. Illusion of thought.
    • Danger of identifying with your thoughts.
    • Three types of thought in distinct parts of the brain:
      • Logical (reasoning).
      • Experiential (senses).
      • Narrative (chatter).
    • To escape ongoing chatter about negative events:
      • Switch from narrative to logical (by questioning the negative narrative)
      • Or, more effectively, switch to experiential (by flooding the mind a focus on certain type of sensory stimuli).
    • Since the brain can’t multi-task, this stops the chatter.
      • Essence of meditating or mindfulness.
    • Forms of meditation:
      • Observe inner thoughts,
      • Observe associated emotions (and their half-life),
      • Prime with positive thought,
      • Prime with nothing (focus on breathing, objects, etc.).
  2. Illusion of self.
    • Danger of identifying with physical form or persona.
    • Tested based on perception:
      • Subject-object relationship: if you can observe something, it’s not “you”.
    • Tested based on permanence:
      • If something stops existing and you don’t, it’s not the real “you”.
    • Examples of illusion of self:
      • Your body, beliefs, tribe, achievements, job, etc.
      • The real you is “the observer”.
    • The ego (how you want to be seen) triggers many behavioral traps.
      • Including misconceptions about your place in the world (at the center).
  3. Illusion of knowledge.
    • We are more certain about our beliefs than we should be.
      • Half-life of facts.
      • Limitations of the senses, language.
      • Confirmation bias.
      • Under estimation of long-term effects.
  4. Illusion of time.
    • Clock time.
      • Related to planned and specific events.
    • Brain time:
      • Undirected, not in the present moment.
    • Most unhappy thoughts are anchored in past or future.
      • Not in the here and now.
    • Focus on here and now.
  5. Illusion of control.
    • Excessive drive to eliminate uncertainty.
    • Need to acknowledge limits of control.
    • Allow for adjustments when circumstances change.
  6. Illusion of fear.
    • Accept and examine your fears.

Seven blind spots:

  • Filters, assumptions, predictions, memories, labels, emotions, exaggeration.
  • All highlight the human tendency for negative thought.
    • Evolved over time.
    • Limited cost of false positives: being wrong about potential threats.

Five truths:

  1. Here and now.
  2. Change.
  3. Love.
  4. Death.
  5. Design.


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