Controlling for Happiness

I just finished Mo Gawdat’s brilliant book called Solve for Happy. Gawdat’s premise is: “Happiness is greater than or equal to your perception of the events in your life, minus your expectation of how life should behave.” It is profound for me because he grounds a lot of what he suggests in research and, being an engineer, in mathematics. Gawdat is the Chief Business Officer for Google X. He has a lot of money. He is successful. It’s easy at first glance to dismiss his ideas like they are coming from Bill Gates or Warren Buffet. None of these guys are worried about making the monthly mortgage payment. What could he possibly know about happiness when his bank account is overflowing? The thing is that Gawdat lost his 21-year-old son to a mistake made in an appendectomy. He suffered a loss that I would not wish on anyone. Despite this enormous loss, he has found the formula for happiness.

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I have never suffered a loss as profound as a child. Gawdat doesn’t grind an axe about the hospital. He doesn’t blame a divine power. He takes it as a lesson from his son, Ali. He brings us into his enlightenment. Gawdat had already solved for happy many years before Ali’s death. He at one time had purchased two (yes, two) Rolls Royce’s on the same day and found that he was empty. All the money in the world could not taper the stress he felt from trying to control and plan everything in his life. I have a ton of clients who suffer from this over-planning. I have suffered from trying to control all the variables in my life. This is an illusion of control. You and I really don’t have any control over those outside of us.

Here are the only two things you can control:

Your Actions.  Gawdat struggled with trying to control everyone and everything in his life. Every employee, family member and outcome. Have you done that? I have. I’ve tried to control the perceptions of my neighbors, co-workers and family members. I made sure my kids were dressed in name brand clothes, got the best grades and created the impression of the perfect happy family. That whirlwind of effort and control was exhausting and unfulfilling. It left me empty. Invariably, something would go wrong. My son didn’t want to go to my Alma Mater, my daughter wanted to spend her Spring Breaks hiking in the Blue Ridge mountains instead of coming home, and 50% of the students in the class I was teaching at the time would fail the exam. Ugh. That illusion that you can control others weighs you down. You are lugging a giant sack of expectations and it is making you suffer.

As Gawdat writes, “My first breakthrough came when a friend taught me about the Hindu concept of detachment, when you strive to achieve your goals knowing that the results are impossible to predict. When something unexpected happens, the detachment concept tells us to accept the new direction and try again. There is no sadness or regret, and no grief over the loss of control.” I love this because it’s not like you throw your hands up in the air and say, “Oh well” and give up. You continue to take action and you just realize that the outcome will be, for the most part, unexpected. I think of every weightlifting competition I have attended to watch my son compete. I want him to win. I want him at the top of the podium with a gold medal around his neck. I show up. I envision success. I wear my lucky t-shirt. The outcome is out of my control. No amount of wishing and hoping can change the outcome. It will be what it will be.

The lesson is to take action. I’ve recently lost a bunch of weight from some lifestyle changes. Now I need to work on my muscle mass. I need to do push ups and lift weights. I need to take action. I have control over whether or not I take action. What the outcome will ultimately will be is up to forces outside of my control. Whether my son qualifies for the World University Championships this year is up to variables way outside of my control. I can show up and support him. Ultimately, the outcome is outside of anyone’s control. Act and detach from the outcome.

Your Attitude. As Gawdat writes, “While actions are the visible levers of achievement, attitude is the true game changer.” I know a lot of folks who suffer from external locus of control. This is the belief that whether or not you have a good day is dependent on the world around you. So, if it’s raining outside or if there is an accident on the way to work, It’s going to be a bad day. I know you have worked with someone like this, or perhaps, are even married to someone like this. They cannot accept responsibility for anything that happens. There is always someone or something to blame.

The secret is having an internal locus of control. Owning the fact that you have complete control of how you respond to anything whether it’s the rain, bad news from the IRS, or a devastating loss. This doesn’t mean you can’t grieve. In fact, you should grieve a profound loss. The worst thing you can do is ignore or numb out the pain. What you resist persists. The majority of setbacks are magnified or diminished based on your attitude toward the setback. I play some memory games every morning. I mess up. I can cuss myself out or just say “Oops.” The acceptance that I am not perfect and make mistakes, but not letting it bring me down is important. Keeping a positive attitude is critical for happiness.

Gawdat’s outrageous audacious “moonshot” goal is to create one billion happy people #onebillionhappy. There are three steps. The first is to make happiness your first priority. The second is invest in developing your happiness skills. The third is to tell two people who will tell two people. This is my step three. Now you go tell two people.

2 thoughts on “Controlling for Happiness

  1. Scott

    Cathy, again you hit my nail on the head. As college looms ever closer for my kids, I find myself wanting to plan out the next 8 years of our lives. It’s maddening and impossible of course. Thanks for the reminder to just LET IT BE.

    Liked by 2 people

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