The tricks that can help turn any heartache into HAPPINESS: Former top Google boss has found the magic formula after the tragic death of his son
- Mo Gawdat, 51, lost his son Ali, 21, on the operating table after surgical blunders
- Former chief business officer at Google explains he was consumed with rage
- Mo has concluded that material possessions only drain you and has devised a happiness chart for dealing with grief and difficult emotions
It was the darkest night of Mo Gawdat’s life. His son, Ali, 21, a student, had gone into hospital to have his appendix removed (‘The most straightforward of operations,’ Mo sighs) only to die a few hours later on the operating table after a series of surgical blunders.
‘The four hours between my wife Nibal, daughter Aya and I hearing something had gone wrong and the moment we lost Ali were the hardest I’ve ever known,’ says Mo, 54.
‘The anticipation — not knowing if he would live or die — was insanely difficult. We were so fragile, weeping. For hours I kept hoping, pleading, praying he would recover.’
Hooked up to machines, Ali’s vital organs began failing, one by one. Eventually, the couple had to make the terrible decision to have his life-support switched off. ‘We were allowed into intensive care to say our goodbyes. I kissed his beautiful face. It was impossibly painful to comprehend this amazing person had been healthy one minute and a few hours later he was gone.’
Mo Gawdat, 51, lost his son Ali, 21, on the operating table after surgical blunders. Mo has now revealed how he has turned his heartache to happiness
Over the following days Mo was consumed with rage both at the doctor who’d made these fatal errors and at himself for taking Ali to that particular hospital in Dubai, where the family were then living. His voice cracks and he dabs tears from his eyes. ‘The role of the parent is to protect your child. My brain attacked me viciously every minute saying, “That doctor murdered your son and you drove him to his death.” I was tormented by the desire for revenge, for justice. I couldn’t see the point of living without him.’
But after a few days of these agonising recriminations, Mo began to speak back to the voice in his head. ‘I said almost out loud, “Yes, Brain, but I can’t change anything now, so why are you torturing me?”
‘Because before Ali died, I’d made a contract with my brain that it should only be allowed to bring painful thoughts if they’re useful. If they’re not useful, then at least they should bring joy. I asked, “Do you have a better idea we can act upon?” A few days later, my brain came back and said, “Maybe you should share what Ali taught you with the world?” ’
So was born One Billion Happy, Mo’s project which has since consumed him — a plan initially to teach a million people the secrets of happiness, something he and Ali had long been working on. The hope is each convert brings in two more, ‘like a positive Ponzi scheme’ — until eventually a billion people benefit.
Mo with son Ali as a child. Ali was both Mo’s role model and sounding board. Together, they calculated a mathematical formula that instantly transformed Mo’s outlook and was to prove invaluable when tragedy struck
As the chief business officer at Google, who had already made a fortune from the stock market by his late 20s, Mo’s life appeared perfect — loving wife, two children, vast house and more money than he could ever spend.
He had, he explains, personally started close to half of Google’s worldwide operations and was worth, at a guess, hundreds of millions of dollars. Yet he was ‘completely depressed’, demanding with colleagues, snappy with his family. ‘I was so driven, putting all this energy into business, things that honestly don’t matter.’
A self-confessed ‘geek and nerd’, he decided to turn things around by analysing the components of happiness. Ali — ‘such a wise man’ — was both his role model and sounding board. Together, they calculated a mathematical formula that instantly transformed Mo’s outlook and was to prove invaluable when tragedy struck. ‘I can’t imagine how I’d have handled his loss without it.’
Seventeen days after Ali’s death, Mo started to write his first book, Solve For Happy, to share with the world their equation — ‘your happiness is equal to or greater than the difference between the events of your life and your expectations of how life should behave’.
Simply put: if you live in a decent house and earn a reasonable wage, you’re perfectly content until your friends start earning bigger wages and buying fancier houses, whereupon dissatisfaction strikes. The book became an international bestseller. This was in 2014.
Afterwards, Mo jacked in his Google job to tour the world, spreading his philosophy. Again, intent on turning negatives into positives, when lockdown grounded him, he used the time to launch his super-popular podcast Slo Mo and write two more books, Scary Smart and his latest, That Little Voice In Your Head.
‘There’s no denying losing a child is the hardest thing ever. But I could hit my head against the wall every day for the rest of my life and Ali would still be gone. So I’ve used his loss to make my world and the world in general a bit better.’
Mo is friendly, funny and humble. It’s hard to imagine him as he used to be, a humourless workaholic who spent his life on aeroplanes and shopped compulsively.
‘I had a hole in my soul I wanted to fill. I went on fancy vacations, bought designer suits, had all the gadgets and 16 cars in my garage. One evening I went online and bought with two clicks two vintage Rolls-Royces. I was thinking, “Why am I working so hard if I cannot give myself some joy?” When the cars came I looked at them for 20 minutes, then without even opening a car door I went back to my unhappy thoughts.’
Mo said that before Ali died, (pictured) he’d made a contract with his brain that it should only be allowed to bring painful thoughts if they’re useful
Compare that to today’s Mo, who has concluded that material possessions only drain you. ‘So many billionaires are the unhappiest people I know — i t’ s quite shocking.’
Still, at least the billionaires can pay their heating and food bills.
‘It’s not great we’re going through this period of extreme economic disruption. But the only way to deal with it is to accept the situation is there and say, “Look, my unhappiness is not going to make things right.” Then maybe when you’re calm, you can re-do your finances, figure out a way to make slightly more money, maybe stand up to the Government and get them to help us out.’
Mo’s living proof we can all live simply. Much of his money — apart from a sum bestowed on his daughter — has gone to charity, while the rest is ploughed back into his happiness mission. ‘I’m not taking any dollars with me. By the day I leave the earth it will all have gone.’
Today, he doesn’t even own a house, preferring to flit from country to country (mainly the UK and Canada). ‘I have a target that’s the opposite of the modern world’s common framework. I try to train myself to live with less, so I rent the smallest apartment possible and every time I challenge myself to find somewhere even smaller.
‘My lifestyle is definitely lower than the average person in the UK,’ he continues. ‘But I’m not depriving myself. I only eat salads, I honestly love them, I don’t want caviar.’
If he buys something new, he chucks something else away, only ever owning as much as he can fit into a 23 kg (50 lb) suitcase. ‘Because that’s the limit on checkin luggage for most airlines.’
Having donated all his cars to charity, he gets about in Ubers or on foot. Mo’s determination to jettison ‘everything that doesn’t bring joy’ also applies to friends.
If a buddy becomes no fun, he has a chat with them, giving them a month to shape up, then, if they’re still draining, he ditches them. ‘I tell them lovingly that we tried and it didn’t work,’ he says.
Still, I’m shaken to find the same ruthlessness Mo would apply to a pair of too-small jeans also applies to his marriage. Mo had been with Nibal since both were students in their native Egypt, but 17 months after Ali died they separated. Surely splitting from your wife can’t bring joy? Mo shakes his head.
‘One of the biggest reasons for unhappiness in our modern world today is draining romantic relationships. There’s a honeymoon period where everything’s wonderful, but then, after a while, if it’s not working really well, the incompatibilities start to show. So what do we do? We stick around and try to fix it.
‘But if we reach a point where we realise the incompatibility is real, you owe it to yourself to say, “I tried, it didn’t work and I owe it to myself to live in a peaceful, calm state, with the opportunity to explore life and maybe find someone who’s more compatible.” ’
Nibal, he says, is ‘still the most incredible woman I’ve ever seen’. ‘But after Ali left our world, I went to Canada to focus on One Billion Happy and she rightly said, “Look, I cannot keep chasing you across the world as you speak and write, I want to now focus on me.” But it’s beautiful. We may have lost our sexual intimacy, but we have a deep soul connection that is unconditional, everlasting love.’
Was Aya, 27, now an artist who lives half the time in London, half in Dubai with Nibal, so zen about her parents’ split? ‘No, her immediate answer was, “I lost Ali and now I’ve lost my family.” But six months later, she said, “This is the best thing you’ve ever done.”
‘We often think keeping things together for the kids is better, but if you have a civilised separation it’s a much better situation for your kids than living with constant negative thinking. Our brains are trained to take for granted and ignore positive stuff, but with Ali we had 21 years of incredible bliss.
‘Today, two or three times a week, I still feel like shouting and screaming, “Ali died!”. But I’ve trained my brain to say, “Yes, but Ali lived!” It’s just the opposite side of the coin, but it’s also such a joyful thought. My brain remembers the games we played together, the laughs we had, the amazing things he taught me.’
In Mo’s books, there’s an awful lot of hardcore science. ‘Our brains are the best machines on the planet. But even with the best computers, if you run the wrong software through them you’re going to be doing badly very quickly. Run the right software and everything becomes better.’
Mo has written books, which include hardcore science saying that our brains are the best machines on the planet but you have to run the correct software through them
There’s also plenty of common sense. Stop comparing yourself to others by avoiding social media. If the news upsets you, turn the radio off. End each day, whenever possible, by watching a comedy show.
Above all, Mo says, help others and you will get a buzz that no amount of bling can ever bring. Just four days before his death, when the family were oblivious to the heartache about to engulf them, Ali had a long conversation with his family, telling each one what he loved about them. ‘He was like an old grandpa dictating his will, it was really strange.
‘I was about to retire, because I wasn’t really interested in technology any more. But he said to me, “Papa. I want you never to stop working, but there’s something I want you to do differently. I want you to do more things that depend on your heart.” And that’s the summary of my life.
‘I was so cerebral. Now, I’m completely connected to my heart. I still work 12 to 14-hour days, but I don’t feel I work at all. I love every minute of my life, even though I lost my son. Because of my loss I get thousands of texts from people every week, saying, “Thank you for opening my eyes.” Many also say, “Thank you, Ali.” His love has been replaced with all their love.’
Mo smiles again, blissful and serene.
NOW FIGHT BACK TO BEAT NEGATIVE THOUGHTS
No one is always happy. The trick is to minimise the time you remain stuck in suffering so that you can bounce back to a state of happiness as quickly as possible. Believe it or not, when unhappiness attacks me, I bounce back within seconds.
In 2020, bar three times when I remained unhappy for a few hours, my average bounce-back time was seven seconds.
You can do that too. The secret is a systematic way of solving the problem, which I have summarised in my Happiness Flow Chart. Start with a simple question that you should in your head play on repeat.
Are you happy? If you are, then the objective is achieved! Enjoy your happiness fully.
But if your answer is ‘No’, then you need to answer the second question: What do you feel? Acknowledge how you feel and sit with it. You may be feeling a storm of emotion or there may be emotions that are harder to detect. Connect to them all and embrace them.
Then move on to the third question: What’s the trigger? Finding those thoughts is tricky because your brain does not tell you the truth. Your brain isn’t evil. It’s your closest ally. It wants what’s best for you always — it’s just not an impartial witness.
Suppose your date hasn’t called after a lovely dinner. It could be they’re in meetings or they’ve lost your number or they’re taking time to reflect on what to say. None of those would make you unhappy. No, the triggering thought would sound something like: ‘That’s it then. I’ll never find someone. I’ll spend the rest of my life alone.’
Now you’ve found the trigger, it’s checkmate! You’ve won. You are almost guaranteed to move to happiness in just three more steps.
First, ask yourself: Is that true, brain? And, of course, in our example, it’s not: there’s no way of knowing whether you’ll be alone for the rest of your life. Once you’ve worked out it’s false, you can drop the thought and bounce straight back to happiness.
But what if, having identified your triggering thought and crossexamined it, you find it is true?
Take action. Just do something. If you’ve had a row, pick up the phone, send an email, say sorry, ask for an apology yourself. Or maybe decide that it’s time to move on. Whatever you do, taking action will stop the sirens of your thoughts.
Time for the last question: Can you accept and commit? What if there’s nothing you can do about your situation? What if you were diagnosed with a nasty illness? Or lost a loved one? Or someone stole from you?
I’ve experienced every one of those, including the loss of my wonderful son, Ali. When life overpowered me, I resorted to my ultimate defence against unhappiness: Committed Acceptance.
Harsh overpowering events are a fact of life. It’s part of the rules of this game. Accepting them is the most powerful thing you can do because that way you choose your own destiny and state of happiness.
Once convinced that you have the freedom to choose your reaction, you find resilience. Committing and accepting brings clarity, and clarity brings peace.
- Adapted from That Little Voice In Your Head: Adjust The Code That Runs Your Brain by Mo Gawdat (£14.99, Bluebird), which is out on May 26. © Mo Gawdat 2022. To order a copy for £13.49 (offer valid until June 7, 2022; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit mailshop.co.uk/ books or call 020 3176 2937.
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