How to be happy: Exercise from Mo Gawdat of Alphabet’s X
Every day on his walk to work, Mo Gawdat snaps a photo of
something beautiful. Sometimes it’s a butterfly; sometimes it’s a
But “it’s not about the picture,” Gawdat said. “It’s about the
process of searching for it.”
Gawdat is the chief business officer of Alphabet’s moonshot
lab, X. After his son Ali’s untimely death, he published
for Happy,” a book in which he applies his engineer’s
mentality to the problem of unhappiness.
In August, I attended a free “Solve for Happy” workshop that
Gawdat led in New York City, where he shared some of his best
practices for getting and staying happy on a daily basis. The
beautiful-photo exercise is one such practice.
The idea behind searching for one perfect photo is that it
prevents Gawdat from thinking distressing thoughts, since he’s
fully engaged in searching for beauty.
“Your brain is a single-threaded processor,” Gawdat told the
group of about 25 people who’d showed up to the first day of the
two-day workshop. In engineer-speak, that means your brain can
only do one thing at a time — unlike the device on which you’re
reading these words.
So if you’re genuinely concentrating on the surrounding scenery,
you can’t possibly concentrate on your anxieties.
Gawdat calls it a
form of meditation. Instead of focusing on his breath, or a
spot on the wall in front of him, he’s focusing on the world
He uses a similar exercise when he’s driving, he said — he never
listens to a song he doesn’t like. In other words, he’s never
mindlessly listening to music; he’s always actively aware of
whether the song suits his taste.
To be sure, these exercises can seem like a Band-Aid for whatever
problems are plaguing you — instead of trying to unravel them,
you start looking for butterflies instead.
Yet Gawdat told the workshop attendees that 90% of the time, your
upsetting thoughts aren’t based in reality, or simply aren’t
worth your time. In other words, at least in his opinion, it’s
okay to ignore those thoughts about whether your boss decided she
hates you or whether your outfit isn’t fashionable enough.
It’s about “choosing your thought battles,” Gawdat said at the
workshop. At a certain point, mentally replaying the conversation
you had with your boss is just making you nuts. Better to focus
on butterflies instead.