Mo Gawdat: from top technologist to happiness advocate

Mo Gawdat, former Chief Business Officer of Google X, has dedicated himself since his son died to spreading a message about happiness and resilience.

 

Grief and the desire to keep a person’s spirit alive has been the motivation for many books, art works, charities and other activities.  For Mo Gawdat it has been the impetus for an enormous challenge – to spread happiness to one billion people around the world in honour of his son Ali who died, aged 21, as the result of medical error.

His ideas can be applied more generally to resilience, particularly at this moment in time when the world is coping with all the implications of Covid-19, from job insecurity, financial collapse and isolation to health-related anxiety and also bereavement.

Mo, the former Chief Business Officer for Google X, writes on his website: “Seventeen days after the death of my wonderful son, Ali, I began to write and couldn’t stop. My topic was happiness – an unlikely subject given the circumstances.

“Ali truly was an angel. He made everything he touched better and everyone he met happier. He was always peaceful, always happy. You couldn’t miss his energy or how he affectionately cared for every being that ever crossed his path.

“My hope is that by sharing Ali’s message – his peaceful way of living – I may be able to honour his memory and continue his legacy. I tried to imagine the positive impact spreading this message could create, and I wondered if maybe it is not for nothing that I have a high-profile job with global reach. So I took on an ambitious mission: to help one billion people become happier, a movement (#onebillionhappy) that I ask you to join so that together we can create a small-scale global pandemic of Ali-style joy.”

From control to committed acceptance

Mo is author of Solve for Happy and was speaking this week at a webinar hosted by the Jesus College Intellectual Forum at Cambridge.  His book works on the equation that happiness is greater than or equal to your perception of the events in your life minus your expectations of how life should behave.

In the webinar, he spoke of how he used to be a control freak, how – as a technologist leading Google’s premier ‘moonshot’ innovation arm – attention to detailed coding had turned him into a perfectionist, but that he had realised through the loss of his son that it was impossible to control everything. He added that Covid was another good example of that. Instead he suggested what he called “committed acceptance”. “You accept that life will get out of control and you try to control the things you can control.”

When Covid struck, Mo, who, as a public speaker, used to travel a lot to get his message across, had to use technology to get his message across instead. He started a podcast – Slo Mo – which is described as “a series of extraordinary conversations with everyday people”. It has become an instant hit, attracting a global audience and getting his message out to a lot more people than he would have been able to before.

For Mo resilience is about how you look at things – whether you see them as purely negative or whether there is some way you can find an opportunity in them. He spoke about “the illusion of fear”. He said fear, for example, fear of the future, the ‘what if’ scenario, is often an exaggerated and fairly useless  response. “Any statement that starts with ‘what if’ ends with something that has not happened yet,” he said. “The important thing is to look at what is going right rather than always focusing on what is going wrong. That way life will be more rewarding.”

That doesn’t mean ignoring problems, however, but Mo’s argument is that fear often stops action.

The problem is, he says, that negative experiences capture the brain’s attention more than positive experiences because the brain’s primary role is to keep us alive. Focusing on the negative should be like a fire alarm to take action. If no action is taken it is a waste, he says.

Grief 

Mo spoke in depth about his grief. He said the pain never goes away even six years on, but he said he faced a choice: either he grieved for Ali for the rest of his life even though that grief would not bring him back or he continued to feel the pain of his loss, but removed the suffering through moving towards committed acceptance and spreading what Ali taught him about happiness so that he would not have died for nothing. That also would not bring Ali back, but it would make the world better, he said. “Pain is out of our control,” he said, “but suffering – being stuck in that pain – is a choice. My brain tells me Ali died, but also that Ali lived and that it was such a blessing. Would I have changed that to avoid the pain? I had 21 years of blessings because he came. It was a magnificent deal – a magic gift with a bit of a price to pay.”

He added that every phase of a child’s life ends and will not happen again and should be celebrated. Although his ambition is to reach one billion people with his message about happiness, he says he will not be disappointed if his ambition is not met because the outcomes of an ambition “are not entirely in our control”.

He was asked about religion. Interestingly, for a technologist, Mo said science could itself be a kind of religious dogma if it did not admit what is not known. He said science often focused on observable, measurable phenomena, but he added that we are not primed to observe some phenomena and many are not easy to measure, such as love.



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