Engineering Happiness

[This is a book summary and reflection on Mo Gawdat’s Solve For Happy]

Mo Gawdat’s masterpiece manual on how to engineer your way to happiness starts with the premise that “happiness is our default state”: imagine “children with dirty faces using little pebbles as toys or holding a cracked plastic plate as the steering wheel of an imaginary sports car” – they don’t have anything, but they’re still smiling, still happy.

Instead of chasing external metrics of success which we believe will make us happy in the future, happiness starts right NOW, internally.

We have a hard time getting our heads round this because, back when we were evolving, sitting around being happy would get you eaten…whereas worrying about the future, striving for more food and spying for predators increased your chances of survival.

But Gawdat offers a very practical way to override our evolutionary programming and just be happy.

It all revolves around the Happiness Equation:

Happiness = Reality – Expectations

So, for instance, if your reality is amazing (job you like, loving family, close friends), but your expectations are higher (sports car, travelling the world, supermodel wife), the equation will turn out a negative result. You’ll be unhappy because your reality doesn’t match your expectations.

We see this all the time: if we’re expecting fast service (5 minutes) at a restaurant, but end up with slow service (20 minutes) we complain and nag…if we’re already expecting slower service, however, like at a fine dining restaurant, we’ll be quite alright with a 20 minute wait.

The corollary of this is that if we can change our internal expectations, we can change our happiness!

Manual Expectation Adjustment

This has helped me immensely in getting through some really tough personal sh*t but here is a lighter example of what I’ve decided to call manual expectation adjustment (which brings in some ideas I got from cognitive behavioral therapy to make Gawdat’s idea more practical).

There are three steps: identify the automatic thought that is making you unhappy about an event, identify the expectation you have for that event, realistically adjust your expectations.

Here’s an example from New Year’s day:

Automatic thought: fuck, it’s 2pm, I’m still in bed – great way to start the New Year, aimless and hungover. 2019 is going to be a disaster.

This thought made me feel like a failure, dragging down my happiness. But rather than letting this thought fester or beating myself down, I noted it and identified the underlying expectation.

Expectation: everyday should be super productive and full of life, and you should start the New Year as you plan to go on.

After identifying this expectation, I manually adjusted it, I corrected my expectations to be more compassionate and in line with real life, reality.

Manually adjusted expectation: actually, bro, everyone is hungover on New Year’s Day, you were out until 6am, you shouldn’t expect to get anything done today. It’s a day off.

With my expectations adjusted, I was able to accept that today wasn’t going to be the most productive or interesting day. I cut myself some slack, and anything interesting or productive I was able to do that day suddenly became a big win, increasing my happiness!

This same process of manual expectation adjustment works for thoughts much more destructive – but the steps remain the same.

Any suffering or unhappiness is ultimately just a choice…a choice to hold on to unrealistic, selfish expectations of the world: “I should’ve got the job”, “She should want to go out with me”, “My children should treat me with respect”.

The longer you hold onto these thoughts and expectations, the longer your suffering.

But if we adjust our expectations to respect reality, the twists and turns of life become a lot more manageable:

“I should’ve got the job” becomes “I didn’t get the job because although I’m better at managing than Dilbert Sr., I’m not as good at presenting, and the boss made his decision based on that presentation – the boss obviously can’t look through all our performance stats, he has to make the judgement on the final presentation.”

“She should want to go out with me” becomes “Perhaps I’m just not her type, physically or in terms of personality, and that’s okay…people don’t just date every second person they meet, preferences and compatibility are important, too.”

“My children should treat me with respect” becomes “Well, actually, most kids of this age play up…defiance and rebellion are quite normal parts of teenage development – there’s no real reason my children would be exempt from this.”

Try it out, manual expectation adjustment:

  1. Identify the automatic thought that is making you unhappy about an event
  2. Identify the expectation you have for that event
  3. Realistically adjust your expectations

And this will close the gap between reality and your expectations! Slowly we can learn to agree with and accept reality.

Perceived Reality Adjustment

[Below is my own reinterpretation of Gawdat’s work…just FYI]

Manual expectation adjustment (above^) explains how to change the expectations part of the happiness equation:

Happiness = Reality – Expectations

By bringing expectations down, more in line with reality, we increase our happiness.

But we can also change and improve our reality.

We can do this through the traditional routes: more love, closer social connections, more new experiences etc.

But we can also just change our perception of reality – without actually changing our reality.

How? Gratitude.

2 months ago I started a gratitude journal (I write in it everyday in Spanish). I start by listing off all things I’m grateful for today – and then jot down any other thoughts or ideas I have (as with a normal journal).

At the start, this felt ridiculous – “I guess I’m grateful to be travelling, to have a laptop, to have friends…”. 

But after a week of doing this, I found myself in the shower, and felt this sudden rush of elation. “I have arms! And legs!” I thought to myself. I was actually grateful for my arms and legs – I never would have even thought about that. But after just a week of deliberately noticing things to be grateful for, I started noticing them automatically. 

And this changed my perception of reality. Life was still the same…but being more aware of the good things in my life, my perception of reality improved…increasing my happiness!

So by forcing yourself to find good things to be grateful, you’ll soon start noticing them automatically…the more good things you notice, even if your real life stays the same, the better your perception of reality becomes.

As Mo Gawdat says, “Look down. Work hard, grow, and make a difference in the world, but please feel good about yourself. Please stop looking at what you don’t have. What you don’t have is infinite. Making that your reference point is a sure recipe for disappointment.”

So true! Be grateful for what you already have…and not miserable for what you don’t!


“You’re not the star of the movie!” 

Bad things aren’t happening to you personally…they’re just happening – it’s just life, it just happens, you decide whether an outcome is a bad or good outcome – something to suffer through, or something to enjoy.


“Playing the victim is the most common type of ego”

People love to think the universe is conspiring against them, that they’re the victim vs. acknowledging that life is just a shi*t show of ups and downs and inbetweens.


[Suffering] begins when you believe that you are the center of the universe, that good things happen because you’ve earned them and bad things happen just to annoy you. And that’s the furthest thing from the truth.

We’re taught this from such an early age. Work hard and you’ll be happy. Don’t and you won’t. But this just isn’t realistic. Life isn’t deterministic in this sense…it’s probabilistic. You put in more effort, that might increase the probability of success – but it doesn’t determine it! There will be times where you don’t study at all for a test and you fluke your way to an A…others where you study extremely hard but get unlucky on the day and end up on a D. That’s life – accept it and adjust your bloody expectations!


“If you focus on any specific part of your life, there will always be someone who has “more” than you. We forget the flip side of this distribution curve: each of them has “less” than you in at least one other thing. It’s just how the game of life is designed.”

Easy to get jealous, or view yourself as inferior when you see someone with more than you in one domain (e.g. money, muscles, girls)…but taking a broader view, we’re all a lot more level than we might think.

Action Points:

  • Use the manual expectation adjustment technique when you’re feeling down
  • Keep a gratitude/positive events journal
  • Gratitude letters: writing letters of gratitude has been shown to have a crazy effect on happiness – I want to start writing one of these per week and sending it someone who has helped me
  • Make a happy list: I feel happy when… – prioritise these events
  • Make an unhappy list: I feel unhappy when… – eliminate these events
  • Presence exercise:
    • Close eyes and deep breathes for 1 minute
    • Open eyes and look at environment
    • Close eyes again and list everything you just saw
    • Instant presence!
  • Set a fun quota (e.g. 3 hours a week of something you just enjoy)
  • Practice committed acceptance: don’t focus on the outcome, but take the correct action towards the outcome you want (being outcome-independent)
  • For further research:
    • Psychologists Emmons and McCullough at the University of Miami, research on gratitude letters
    • Matt Killingsworth’s website and his Track Your Happiness experiment
    • Loving What Is, by Byron Katie – to read

2 Comments on “Engineering Happiness”

  1. I really enjoyed this one! Your articles always leave me with action points that I can try to implement into my own life.

  2. Pingback: You've been reading wrong your whole life | Andrew Mitson

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