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Between the 28th and 30th of October, Mo Gawdat did what he promised to do when he quit Google in February 2018: “To make 1 billion people happy.” To accomplish this ambitious mission, Gawdat created the #onebillionhappy NGO and went around the world with his book “Solve for Happy: Engineer your Path to Joy” and arrived at thecamp this October.

The idea behind giving a seminar in the woods, was to offer a group of happy participants the chance to learn “the step by step means to creating an approach to positive innovation”, with Mo Gawdat and Anahita Moghaddam (Y2X co-founder) as guides. Participants got to hear of Mo Gawdat’s progress in Google but also about the key factors that led to the set up of such an innovative company as Google. “Understand why and how corporate culture and personal happiness are as critical to innovation as technological breakthroughs.” announces the conference page.

The Algorithm

Mountain View’s campus in California, regularly welcomes “Talks at Google”, conferences organised by the famous American company. But in March 2017, Google X’s Chief Business Officer and mastermind behind some of the craziest projects at Alphabet Inc. did not come to talk about market shares and business development. He came to talk about happiness. Because Mo Gawdat is also the author of Solve for Happy, a book where he presents the solution for happiness as an algorithm that took him many years of research to create.

Despite success and renown, despite money and vintage cars, and despite a loving family and a cushy life between the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates, Mo Gawdat was “constantly depressed” when he started studying happiness. “Because I come from the Middle-East, psychotherapy was not really an option, so what I did what I knew best” he explains.

“I used my experience as a business, or more my experience as an engineer to treat my depression from a very very different perspective. I started looking at happiness from a mathematical and scientific point of view, and saw that if I was happy until 25 and then sad, there was something broken in the machine.”

After compiling as much data as possible on what made him happy, Mo Gawdat saw that the only common denominator was that they all corresponded to his own expectations. He thus came to the conclusion that “happiness is equal or superior to events in our lives, and is less about our expectations of how life should unfold.” In other words, the question isn’t whether we see the glass half full or half empty, but what do we expect to happen with that glass and how we react to what we will obtain from it. If we are waiting for life to hand us a full glass and we get a glass half full, we won’t be able to enjoy the water we drink.

With his serene and relaxed stance, the 49 year old man who stood on the Mountain View stage that day would like us to guess that the water is actually always delicious. Wearing runners, faded jeans, and a Pink Floyd t-shirt Mo Gawdat punctuates his theory with light hand movements which betray a man that is at the same time energetic and calm. His sharp gaze resting behind glasses as round as John Lennon’s, he speaks with a clear and composed voice. Even when he recounts the terrible event that led him to write Solve for Happy and share his algorithm with the world.

In 2014 his eldest son, Ali, is 21. He is studying at Boston and is described as an “honest”, “funny”, “amazing”, “kind”, and “wise”boy who makes Mo Gawdat very proud. In July he arrives in Dubai for an improvised family holiday, four days later he complains of stomach aches. Mo and his wife Nibal drive him to the hospital for a normal appendicectomy. But the surgeon makes five mistakes. They never see their child alive again. “In four hours, our lives went from organising one of the best moments of our lives, to organising the saddest day in our lives.”  

This is a truly cruel test for the theory of happiness, who nonetheless managed to show through this tragedy. “It would be an exaggeration to say that we were happy, but we weren’t sad, we weren’t angry, we weren’t destroyed. We didn’t want to kill the surgeon and we didn’t feel guilt over bringing him to that particular hospital.” This is perhaps because according to Mo Gawdat, happiness has nothing to do with magic and instead is about accepting five truths: the present, change, love, fate, and death.

But Google X’s Chief Business Officer is not the only one who is trying to solve this existential problem using mathematics.

The Equation for Happiness

On August 2014, researchers from the University College London published mathematical equation able to precisely predict the happiness levels of an individual at any given time. This equation was successfully tested on 18,000 people using The Great Brain Experiment app. But in order to build the app, researchers asked for only 26 people, aged between 20 and 40, to play a little game.

At each step, participants had to choose between two options: earn a certain sum, or bet for a bigger sum but risk losing it all. During the experiment, researchers asked players when they were happy, and linked their response with their brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging. According to the results, happiness is influenced by dopamine, the neurotransmitter that is linked with motivation and pleasure.

And just like the ex-Googler Mo Gawdat, the University College London researchers discovered that people’s expectations have a lot of influence over how they feel. It could even have more influence over real gain and loss. “Happiness is not about success, it is about succeeding better than before” says Robb Rutledge, who is the researchers’ leader. The equation they presented in 2014 takes into account three elements: certain rewards (CRs), expected values (EVs) of certain gambles, and the difference between experienced and predicted rewards (RPEs).

Two years later, researchers added a fourth element to the equation: our relationship to others. This is all because a new study showed them that the gains and losses of other participants also had an impact on the subject’s levels of happiness. Based on the same game as the first experiment, the research had 47 participants who were all warned that another participant had placed the same bet they had. On average, the subject’s feelings of happiness diminished either because they felt guilty for winning over the “other” participant or because they felt jealous at having lost.

But what was interesting was that this reaction varied tremendously from one person to the next, which according to Robb Rutledge, allowed researchers to predict each subject’s selflessness levels: “the way in which happiness is affected by the fate of others tells us if the person is generous or selfish.” This intuition was verified by a test which allowed subjects to share their winnings: those most affected by guilt gave 30% of their money, and those most affected by envy only gave 10% of their money.

Yet goodwill too was thought of in a mathematical manner as early as the 1960s. At the time, the American scientist George Price was interested in evolutionary biology. His equation – wΔz = Cov(wi, zi) + E(wi zi) – explains the emergence of behavioural traits by the fact that they produce a benefit on a certain level of biological organisation, be it a social group, family, an individual or a gene. This is the case for altruism, which according to his calculations is selfish act: when we think we are acting in a friendly way, we are actually acting for our own interests.

By giving such a bad image to the idealism that is goodwill, this equation definitely contributed to George Price’s downfall, who cut his carotid artery with nail clippers in January 1975 after losing all his money and having wandered the streets of London among the marginalised members of society. Altruism, however, does play an important role in achieving happiness. That is at least what Mo Gawdad is saying by insisting on the importance of unconditional love, meaning being good to those around us.

And what about the conclusion of the biggest investigation ever conducted on this subject? The one from the prestigious Harvard University which lasted 75 years.

The Ultimate Investigation

Altruism seems to be at the very heart of the procedure of the researchers mobilised by Harvard bent on the question of happiness. In fact, four directors followed each other as the head of research and the first two were not able to gain from the latest results. The psychiatrist Robert Waldinger introduced them to the world in 2015 during a TED talk organised by Sapling, the American organisation. The psychiatrist told the audience “The founders of this study would have never imagined, in their craziest dreams, that I would be standing here 75 years later.”

All of it began in 1938 with the efforts of the psychiatrist George Vaillant. Participants are selected based on socio-demographic traits. 268 of them belong to Harvard’s 1939-1944 graduation class, a sampling which included John F. Kennedy among others. The others were selected from Boston’s poor districts. In all, the daily lives of 724 men were observed by researchers. The latter regularly interrogated them about their family, work and health. They also analysed their medical record, took bloods, scanned their brains, and even autopsied the participants who died during the study.

“And so, what have we learned? What is the result that comes out of the tens of thousands of pages of information that we collected on all these lives?” Robert Waldinger pretends to ask at the 2015 TED talk. “Well, this lesson does not focus on riches, fame, or work. The most evident message that we have taken out of this 75 year study is this: good relationships make us happier and healthier. That’s it.”

The study does indeed show that individuals who are more connected to their family, to their friends and to their social circle are not only only happier, but also healthier. The opposite is also true “the people that are more isolated than they would like to be from others are less happy, their health declines earlier in life, their brain capacities falter more quickly, and they have shorter lives than people who are not alone.”

The study equally shows that the quality of relationships is more important than the quantity of relationships. Participants who lived through personal conflicts had worse health than participants who had not. “For example, confrontational marriages, where both partners lack affection, are very bad for our health, maybe even more so than divorces.” But “good relationships not only protect our bodies, they protect our brains.” Octogenarian couples where each partner knows they can rely on the other, tend to have better memory than other couples the same age.

Robert Waldinger maintains that, for lack of diving into mathematics, happiness is based on a formula that is at once obvious and complicated, re-assuring and discouraging: that we need to invest in our relationships. “What we would like is an easy solution, something that would make our lives beautiful and keep them that way. Relationships are messy, and the work that goes into holding on to friends and family is neither sexy nor glamourous. All through life, it never ends.” It would seem that Harvard’s adventure is also not finished. Or in any case, it doesn’t end here.

Waldinger has started the second phase of the study, with the 724 participants’ children. And this one should be just as long as the first study.

The longest study ever made about happiness.