Mo Gawdat experienced a lot of success in his professional life, working at the C-level for Google. Yet, in the earlier stages of his career, he had trouble finding happiness. Eventually, he learned some techniques and viewpoints for maximizing his happiness — which he was sadly forced to put to the ultimate test when his son, Ali, passed away at age 21, due to human error during a surgery.
Mo’s insights are powerful, especially when contextualized with the grief he faced in the wake of his son’s death. What follows are some of my five favorite takeaways from his book.
1) Be aware of three types of thoughts
When a thought enters our mind, it is most likely to be one of three types: 1) experiential, 2) problem solving, or 3) narrative.
Experiential thoughts are reactions to an environment or event — taking in a sunset or savoring conversation with friends. Problem solving thoughts are oriented towards resolving a conundrum — thinking through an email response, figuring out how to pack for a trip, or solving a math problem.
Narrative thoughts, though, are where we run into trouble. These are thoughts that smack judgments and labels onto our experience, weaving stories and spinning out negative chatter. These types of thoughts are incredibly toxic. In response, whenever Mo has a negative narrative thought, he tells his brain “no — go get me a different thought.”
2) The Eraser Hypothetical
It’s easy to look back on past experiences and mistakes and to think “I wish that had never happened.” What Mo encourages us to do is to consider what really would have happened if certain events could be “erased” from our past — and in so doing erase all the experience that came with it. While my own mistakes and missteps have certainly been painful, they have truly made me the person who I am today. If erasing those experiences would mean erasing important parts of me (that have ultimately made me better), I wouldn’t erase most events.
3) The Fast Forward Hypothetical
I think most of us have had experiences that we wish we could have fast forwarded through. Sitting in traffic. A boring lecture. An endless, tedious yoga class.
Mo proposes: what if there was a magic button you could press to fast forward through unpleasant times of your life. It is good for 75 years. Once you reach the end of the 75 years though, you die.
Applying this theorem and paradigm, it made me see life as more valuable than I had before. Sitting in traffic might be boring, but there are ways (a good audiobook for example) to savor that time, which is ultimately unrecoverable.
4) What Version Makes You Happy?
So much in life is uncertain, mysterious, or unknown. For example, for work I threw my hat into the ring to take on a fun and challenging project. I wasn’t chosen. Someone else was. In thinking about why I wasn’t chosen, there were two reasons I considered:
- I wasn’t good enough, so they chose someone else. I have to work hard to prove myself.
- I’ve already been involved in a number of work projects, and the company wants to make sure everyone gets a chance to be involved — which is why I wasn’t picked this time. I should keep working hard to show that I should be involved in important projects.
I don’t know which reason is the real reason I wasn’t chosen. But regardless of which reason I choose to believe in, my response is the same: work hard.
Ultimately, it’s better to choose the version that makes you happy. And for me, that would be reason #2.
5) Looking Up Versus Looking Down
It was good to hear Mo break down the futility of jealousy. There will (almost) always be someone better than us at something, but we may be better than that person at other things. Mark Zuckerberg might be better at coding than I am, but maybe I’m better at counseling students on their curriculum — since that’s my specialty. And I might be better at Excel than my yoga teacher, but she’s way better at yoga than I am. If we are looking up, our necks will crane and pinch. There is no point to being stuck in jealousy.
As Louise C.K. said, “The only time you look in your neighbor’s bowl is to make sure that they have enough.” You shouldn’t be looking up at people with jealousy, but only down to see if you can help.
6) Don’t Be Afraid
Fear was built into our systems as a survival mechanism – and it still serves that function today. But, when we have fear even when our survival isn’t threatened, that is better describes as anxiety. We should be mindful that while fear serves a function, it can also be debilitating.
7) The Universe as a Divine Enterprise
Mo gets into some quantum physics in thinking about the universe. How likely is it that a series of atoms coalesced to create the world that we live in? Mo ventures — not likely — and that perhaps there is a divine enterprise behind our existence that we don’t fully understand. Spirituality is a connection to that force, while religion is a middleman that tries to wield that force for its own purposes.
Mo theorizes that the divine force simply is responsible for the world and that events that transpire are simply abiding by the laws of physics within the world. For example — tectonic plates move and cause earthquakes. This is the result of the natural laws of the world that we live in, not an external force of a grand creator.
8) Gravity of the Battle Means Nothing for Those at Peace