1) Mo Gawdat, former Chief Business Officer at Google X. He was at the top of his career, financially well and yet, despite all this, he wasn’t happy. Why? Also, he suddenly lost his 21-year-old son during a routine procedure at a hospital in 2014.
He decided to discover what truly constitutes human happiness and how to stave off disappointment in life. By applying his analytical mind to the problem, and examining key ideas from many of the world’s religions, Gawdat finally arrived at his own happiness formula. Here is the result:
2) Happiness is the absence of unhappiness, caused by the misrepresentation and misunderstanding of reality.
Let’s start by trying to understand what happiness is. Look at the semi-permanent joy of small children and toddlers and you could see that it is, in fact, our default state. Sure, it’s not all roses, but as long as they aren’t hungry or in pain, kids are generally happy. You could say that happiness is merely a lack of unhappiness.
But where does unhappiness come from? According to the author, it comes about when life doesn’t behave the way you expect it to. Here’s the formula that he came up with:
“Your happiness is equal to or greater than your perception of events minus your expectations of life”
This means that when you regard life’s events as the same or better than your expectations, then you’ll be happy because the twists and turns of life don’t frustrate you. But if your expectations are greater than the reality, they’ll subtract from your capacity for happiness.
To prevent yourself from becoming confused and unhappy due to the gap between your expectations and reality, you’ll first need to discard the six grand illusions that leave you misinformed, which we’ll unmask in the following blinks.
3) You are not the voice in your head, but the observer of your life.
In the Matrix, the main character, Neo, suddenly breaks through the illusion of the world around him and sees it as it really is – long green columns of ones and zeros – and is able to take control of himself and his environment. Like Neo, if you can see past the illusions, then you too can take control of yourself and your happiness.
Start by shattering the first illusion which is that the voice in your head – the one that questions your actions and intentions – is the real you. The voice in your head is actually your brain talking to you as it tries to understand the world around you and make the best possible decisions. But it isn’t you.
So when listening to your negative thoughts, remember that rather than being what you feel, they’re just the brain throwing out possibilities as it tries to understand the world. And here’s the thing – you don’t have to listen. Instead, try to minimize the chatter in your head. If you spend more time recognizing when it’s there, you can start to push back – swapping your negative thoughts for positive ones!
So if the voice in your head isn’t you, then who are you? To find out, you should mentally strip away all the things that change over time. This includes everything you can observe; your possessions, your family, and even your body! What’s left at the very bottom? The real you is the observer of the world, who sees life but can’t be seen.
Instead of trying to fabricate an identity to affirm your place in the world, accept your position as the observer and focus on that as your identity. If you expect nothing more from yourself than this, you’ll soon be surrounded by people who love you for who you are, and you won’t even need to pretend to be something else.
4) It’s important to understand that you really know nothing, and that time is, in fact, a human invention.
In 1687, Sir Isaac Newton laid out his laws of motion and completely changed the way people saw the world. However, since the nineteenth century, a string of discoveries have shown that Newton wasn’t right about everything after all.
One idea of Newton’s that has since been disproved was his definition of time. Newton believed that it existed independently of any observation and was an unshakable part of reality, but this is actually the fourth illusion. Not only has Einstein shown that Newton’s idea of time was incorrect, we also have a greater understanding today of time as a human invention that has been gradually refined throughout history.
Instead of being a slave to time, you should strive to ignore the past and future and focus yourself on the present moment instead.
In fact, it might be safer to presume that you know nothing! Your idea of the world could very easily be incomplete, and that’s something you need to be ready for. If you accept your ignorance, then you’ll always be searching for, and open to, the truth.
5) You don’t actually have much control over your life, and your fears are often unfounded.
In his book The Black Swan, Lebanese-American scholar and author Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains how seemingly unlikely events such as 9/11 and WWI are much more common than we’d like to think.
Meanwhile, the meteorologist Edward Lorenz has coined the concept, Butterfly Effect – based on the idea that even the tiniest event can end up having major consequences far away – such as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil causing a hurricane in Florida.
If you combine these ideas, then you undermine the fifth illusion of having control of your life, and ,instead have an unpredictable and unstable world where anything could happen at any time.
Instead of hopelessly trying to maintain the illusion of control, shift your attitude to deal with what actually does happen. When events change beyond your control – and they will – keep control of yourself so that you too can move forward calmly.
It’s also worth seeing through the sixth and final illusion, and remembering that most fears don’t run as deep as you might think.
But even if your fears are mostly irrational, they’re still real. To deal with them properly means admitting to them. Rather than sticking your chest out like a puffer fish, remember that they only inflate like that when they’re afraid. If you can face your fear, you can begin to conquer it.
When you understand what your fears are and where they’re coming from, you can face and defeat them, preventing them from limiting your existence in the present.
6) Our brains tend to see the negative side of things, applying too many filters, assumptions and predictions.
Do you ever feel like you have a tendency to expect the worst in every situation? Rest assured, you’re not alone. That’s because your brain is essentially out-of-date technology, built for a very different world than the one we live in today.
In prehistoric times, survival was key – our early ancestors’ aim was to find food and not get killed, and if you were lucky, reproduce. As a result, our brain makes quick judgments with an inclination to assume the worst and see the downside in everything, since it’s better to be wrong than dead.
To survive today, you need to be aware of the blind spots leading you toward negative thoughts so you can counteract them with more positive thoughts.
First are the filters. There’s so much information to take in from your surroundings that you simply couldn’t cope if you tried to process it all, so a lot of it gets filtered out. Imagine going to the cinema – at first, you can’t help but notice the other people, the smells and the lights, but once the film begins everything except the movie screen disappears. But if you’re not always seeing everything around you, how much of the world might you be missing?
Next are assumptions. If you can’t see the whole picture, your brain fills in the blanks. These could easily be false, however, as they’re simply there to form a “complete” narrative. Let’s say you notice that your boss has missed her sales target for the month. As a result you might assume she’s threatened by your better numbers and is out to get you – but what is that really founded on?
Tied to this is the third blind spot: predictions. Say you’ve predicted your partner is going to cheat on you. You give them the cold shoulder, pushing them away, and so they cheat. Does this mean you were right? A prediction is something that has yet to happen, so why act as if it has?
Now let’s press on and look at the four other blind spots...
7) We tend to elaborate our memories, apply too many labels, succumb to our emotions and exaggerate things.
Imagine you’re on a romantic getaway with your partner on a beautiful tropical island, but you have an enormous fight while you’re there, spoiling the trip. You’ll remember the island as a sad place, and if you go back there it will contaminate your perception of it, potentially building another sad memory.
This is a classic case of the fourth blind spot: memories. When you remember something, it’s not necessarily the truth but your own personal record of it. Your partner, for instance, might remember your time on the island in a completely different way.
Next are labels. To make sense of things, we tend to put them in “boxes” we can easily understand based on preexisting associations – but without any actual context, they may not be true at all. Think of how quickly people might label wet weather as miserable or a tanned, thin woman as rich. If you were somewhere in Africa, rain could be a blessing, while a rich woman is more likely to have a fuller figure and lighter skin since they wouldn’t be out working in the sun so much. Labels don’t take context into account, often bypassing the truth.
Then you have emotions. While you may believe you are a rational human being, you’re still completely at the mercy of your emotions. People often act on their emotions first and look for logical reasons to back them up later. Watching the speech of an opposing political party for example – your opinion is emotionally predetermined to dislike what is being said, and you will be actively looking for flaws in the speech as a result.
The seventh and final blind spot is that you might also exaggerate. If you inflate your ideas of reality and imagine the worst case scenario, then you lose sight of the genuine truth. Take humans’ fear of sharks, terrorism or plane crashes – statistically, these things will almost certainly never endanger you, and yet many are more afraid of these than they are of traffic accidents, despite them being much more likely to cause harm. If there’s a definite risk, the brain often exaggerates the probability.
All of these blind spots aren’t going to be cleared up overnight, but what’s important is that you’re aware of your brain’s limitations. With that in mind, let’s now look at the five ultimate truths.
8) Modern life is overly concerned with action and speed, but a calm awareness of the present moment will keep you happy.
In a study of over 15,000 participants, Matt Killingsworth from trackyourhappiness.org pieced together more than 650,000 reports of how people felt during certain activities and at different times. He found that it did not matter who they were, where they were or what they were doing, people were happier when they focused on the present, while those thinking of anything else were much less happy. This is the first ultimate truth.
So how can you focus on the present moment in your life? The answer is by developing awareness.
So how can you develop awareness in your day-to-day life? You might not have the time or the surroundings to meditate like many practices suggest, but you could start by simply trying to notice specific things in your environment – the different types of trees you encounter or how much water you drink a day. It doesn’t matter what you’re looking for, so long as you’re paying attention.
You could also try to limit the distractions around you, most notably technologies like smartphones, TV and computers, or just enjoying an activity without any clocks around at least once a week. Whether it’s going for a walk or being in a quiet room, enjoy a bit of space and freedom from the constant ticking of time.
The important thing is to focus: when you have to do something, make sure you only do one thing at a time and fix your attention on it so that you do it well.
9) Things are and always will be changing, so relinquish your sense of control and go with the flow.
The world is always shifting, and in ways you can’t predict. Rather than trying to control every tiny variable in your life, step back and allow each event to find its own natural balance. The Chinese philosophical idea of yin and yang is a well-publicised image, where two seemingly opposite forces are in balance and bound to one another. The same idea can be applied to your life.
If you focus too much on work, you’ll cease to enjoy living. But if you focus too much on trivial activities, you might feel like you’re worthless. Instead, try and balance the two: enough work to feel like you’re doing something, but enough freedom to make it all worthwhile.
Also, learn to focus on yourself and what you have, rather than comparing yourself to others. As things find their balance, you may see someone else as having something you don’t have, but it’s likely that you’ll also have something they do not.
10) Unconditional love is the most important emotion, as it has no expectations, and therefore no disappointments.
The Beatles sang it. You probably already know it. And according to the author, it’s the third ultimate truth: all you need is love. So how can you make sure you’re getting it?
Let’s start by understanding that we’re talking about unconditional love.
So how do you fill your life with it? Well, it turns out that the more love you give, the more you get back, so it’s important to do loving things for others whenever you can. A Harvard Business School study found that when a selection of people were given money and told to either spend it on themselves or someone else, those who spent it on others felt happier by the end of the day than those who had spent it on themselves.
As long as you keep love flowing, it will flourish. Think of it like a river compared to a still pond: the first is full of fresh and lively water, the other is stale and stagnant. Which would you rather be a part of?
11) Death is a fundamental part of existence. Acceptance rather than fear will allow you to properly embrace life.
The biggest lesson, and the fourth ultimate truth, is that you can’t hide from death – from the day you’re born, you die a little each day. For example, all 25 trillion red blood cells currently in your system will die in the next four months. Take that analogy into the food chain: to sustain the life of one thing, something else must die. Death brings life, and in turn, life dies to make way for the new. Think of how new plant life blooms in graveyards, taking nutrients from decaying bodies.
Instead of hiding from it, we should accept death’s place in all our lives. As with all the other illusions, if you pretend that you have control over your life, death will eventually diminish it and lead you to unhappiness.
Sadly, this is a lesson the author had to learn the hard way after the sudden death of his son, Ali. During a routine procedure, a few small medical errors led to the loss of this bright and promising 21-year-old. Despite the tragedy, Gawdat was able to look at Ali’s life and realize that he had embraced it, lived it to the fullest despite its all-too-brief span. Understanding the limitations of your life will allow you to make the most of it while you can.
Gawdat found that by keeping life in focus instead of worrying about his final rest, he could instead learn to live in peace.
12) In the absence of proof and the surprisingly overwhelming odds, perhaps there is a design to the Universe…
Do you believe in a God? Gawdat, having applied his analytical mind to the question, feels that the fifth and final ultimate truth is that it might make sense that there is a higher power, one which we’ll refer to as the designer.
Let’s begin with the idea of proof: it’s easy to prove that something exists, you just need the evidence. You know that monkeys exist, for example – you’ve probably seen them at the zoo, or pictures and film of them on TV. But can you prove that something doesn’t exist?
Well, no. You’d have to know absolutely everything to know that something doesn’t exist somewhere, and as we saw earlier, our knowledge is limited.
Which brings us to the idea of probability: Imagine trying to roll one die and scoring a six: your chances are a simple one-in-six. But for each die you add, the odds get squared. Try rolling ten dice and the odds rocket up to 1-in-60 million!
Looking at the huge variety of complex life in the world, you may wonder about the odds of it all developing naturally. According to evolutionary theory, there are approximately 8.74 million different species on Earth, developed by random mutations over time to reach the point they’re at now. Entirely probable given enough time, but since life only began on Earth roughly 3.7 billion years ago, the likelihood of this happening actually gets a lot smaller.
So if it’s a question of probability, the odds are actually in favor of some sort of intelligent design. If you, like the author, accept the design of the Universe, you can become aware of the complex and amazing marvel that it truly is and find happiness in the beauty of existence.
The key message is:
Happiness is much easier to achieve than people generally think. All it takes is understanding and honoring the truth about the world and ourselves. As long as you keep in mind the six grand illusions and the seven blind spots, and the ways that they can distort your reality, you can remove unfair expectations and therefore unhappiness from your life. Proceed to follow the five ultimate truths – whether you take the author’s or find your own – and pursue them to retain your happiness, living a life of simplicity and joy.
Actionable advice: Ask yourself if it’s true.
Whenever you look at the things you take for granted or come up against a new piece of knowledge, don’t unquestioningly accept it as true. Instead, ask the most important question about it before allowing it to govern your thinking. As long as your expectations are founded on truth, you can be sure to stay happy.