Happiness is commodified. Advertisers have always toyed with our emotions – only the hardest hearts have not, on occasion, been brought to bewildered tears by a manipulative car advert. But the modern iteration of the happiness economy is unprecedented. Amazon’s virtual shelves heave under self-help books with zeitgeist titles; apps promise mindfulness, which is just contentment by its own zeitgeist name. Indeed, Headspace, the world’s most popular version, has been downloaded more than 11 million times and, according to one estimate, has made mindfulness a $250m-dollar industry, from which experts – or "experts" – emerge, sage and reassuring, to promise us the prize of happiness, though their methods are usually opaque.
In other words, it’s a noisy conversation and it’s reasonable to stop listening. But this week’s guru seems to have collected an unusually captive audience. On Sunday evening, Mo Gawdat, Google’s chief business officer, was interviewed by by Channel 4 News chief correspondent Alex Thomson about his book, Solve For Happy, which is centred on his "algorithm for happiness". The interview has duly gone viral and his book is, at the time of writing, the bestseller in the psychology and psychiatry genre on Amazon.
This Google executive says he has the secret to happiness, a discovery he says was tested when his young son died suddenly on holiday. pic.twitter.com/Pqjgi2bLrR— Channel 4 News (@Channel4News) April 12, 2017
Granted, Gawdat’s legend might explain some of the hype. The executive had been working on an “algorithm for happiness” for more than a decade, applying the rigours of physics to the elusive secrets of the human mind – and then, suddenly, became his own ideal case study, after his 21-year old son Ali died during routine surgery. He started writing the book 17 days after Ali’s death in 2014 and, in four months, he had his first draft.
“I developed it because I could not really define what happiness was,” he told Thomson in his television interview. “So, I took as many arbitrary points of data where I felt happy and tried to find what was common between them. And it was this: happiness is equal to or greater than the difference between the way you see the events of your life, [versus] the expectation of how life should behave.”
So, according to Gawdat, you are happiest when life serves you few surprises, which means that happiness is on some fundamental level about control – or at least the illusion of control. Or, as Gawdat put it, “happiness is that peaceful contented feeling of I like the world as it is right now. Happiness is not about what the world gives you. It is about what you think about what the world gives you.”
The idea that an algorithm could be repurposed for good – rather than enabling a company to learn all about how best to harvest our data – is a singular happy ending in an otherwise rather unremittingly joyless story
Certainly, it’s insightful and all the hubbub suggests it’s also substantiated by the sort of data sets you’d expect from a Google employee – moreover, one with previous caps for IBM and Microsoft. But nonetheless, the reaction is disproportionate – why this theory, over all the others?
Granted, his personal story is compelling. The loss of his son – who, says Gawdat, urged his father to “never stop working” – overlays the book with a compelling narrative of Gawdat’s triumph out of tragedy. Humans are drawn to these stories – Gawdat could probably come up with an algorithm for that, too – and it undeniably adds a personal dimension to the science. But the science is also relevant – there’s more to this than a fascination with a man’s remarkable resilience.
For, while it’s so obvious it almost feels hackneyed by now, we’re all feeling a bit delicate and threatened at the moment. Rightly so – there’s plenty to worry about – and we are grasping for certainty. Accordingly, an algorithm for happiness sounds reassuringly straightforward, like the calm voice of reason that silences all the other disordered wails. Ultimately, an algorithm suggests a controlled metric and also suggests that if we follow a plan, we can make ourselves happy. “I can either choose to suffer or I can choose to sort of accept life, as harsh as it has become, and try and make it slightly better than it is today,” Gawdat told Thomson. “And make it slightly better tomorrow.”
And, lastly, there is a sense at the moment that technology is outsmarting us. Indeed, it's one of the pervasive anxieties of the age. We invented everything, but technology is no longer under our mastery – indeed, it is turning against us. Social media is famously making us all miserable; allegedly, the robots are poised to take all of our jobs (one day). The idea that an algorithm could be repurposed for good – rather than enabling a company to learn all about how best to harvest our data – is a singular happy ending in an otherwise rather unremittingly joyless story.
Gawdat has appeared when we are at a rather desperate ebb and he seems to offer certainty where other self-help assistants offer platitudes. Happiness isn’t necessarily “solvable” – but his appeal to reason, amid all the hyperactive emotion, feels like a reason to be cheerful.