Grief and Happiness
This week on No Mercy No Malice, we’re featuring a guest post from Mo Gawdat, an Egyptian entrepreneur, former senior executive at Google, and bestselling author on human happiness. We had Mo on the Prof G Pod a few weeks ago, and his message deeply resonated with our team and listeners. Mo’s passion for humanity, intellectual rigor, and strength of mind is inspiring. We asked him to share the origin story of his work on happiness with our No Mercy No Malice readers, and he agreed. His thoughts are below.
Grief and Happiness
by Mo Gawdat
I spent over half my life working in technology, a career that culminated in a leadership role at Google, where I was chief business officer at Google X, the company’s “moonshot factory.” It was in every sense a dream job, working with the world’s smartest people on our most interesting problems. In 2014, however, my life changed irrevocably. The change originated in a profound tragedy. But then that tragedy led me to a new mission: to better understand happiness and communicate that understanding to the world. You can read more about that project on my website, mogawdat.com. This is the story of how I got there.
For a long time, I sought out concrete accomplishments and rewards, and that drive helped me become successful as a technologist and business executive. I made a lot of money at a young age by understanding mathematics, programming, and online securities trading, and my career accelerated from there. But the more money I made, the more miserable I became. I was a rich, grumpy brat.
Eventually, I came to see this myself, through the eyes of my children. When my daughter was just 5 years old, full of joy and optimism, I snapped at her for interrupting something I was doing on my laptop, causing her to cry. I realized then: I didn’t like the person I was. I started to research happiness — but knowledge is not always enough.
My son Ali, from the day of his birth, embodied the secret to happiness. He was like a little Buddha, an inscrutable monk with that peace of the truly happy about him. In 2014 I lived in Dubai, and my son lived in Boston, where he played in a band. He called me one day, out of the blue, and asked if he could come visit. He said, “I feel obligated to come and spend time with you.” An odd choice of words, right? Before his visit, however, he had to have surgery. It was one of the most common procedures you can imagine: removing his appendix. But the surgeon inexplicably made a cascading series of mistakes, five in a row. All preventable, and any one or two of them fixable. But five in a row was too much. Hours later, my son had left the world.
Not long before he died, Ali told his sister about a dream he’d had, and she shared it with me. A dream that he was everywhere and part of everyone. I know now that in many spiritual traditions that is the definition of death. At the time, however, I saw it as a calling — and I still do — a challenge from my son to me. I was a senior executive at one of the world’s largest and most connected companies; I knew exactly, literally, how to reach billions of people. “Consider it done,” I told my daughter when she described Ali’s dream. I decided then to write a book about happiness, about everything Ali had taught me about it, to convey his essence through the written word to those billions of people. If I could do that, then Ali would be everywhere, be part of everyone, just as he had dreamed.
To jump ahead in my story: Somehow the universe made it work. Within six weeks of the book’s launch, we were a bestseller in eight countries. My videos were viewed 180 million times. I formalized my life’s goal: to make a billion people happy. Everything I do professionally — these days, I focus on AI — is in service of bringing happiness to a billion people.
Yet all that happiness was borne of the most terrible grief imaginable, a parent’s loss of a child. Before I could truly understand happiness, I had to pass through grief.
There is a finality to death that contradicts everything we’ve ever been told, undermines everything we’ve relied upon. It triggers our fear, it triggers our helplessness, it triggers our insecurity. Suddenly, we can no longer trust life. We miss the person we love who left us. We are scared for them and where they are, and scared for ourselves without them. We have lots of uncertainties. It’s an overwhelming trauma.
The first step through it is to grieve, fully grieve. If you are angry, be angry. If you are unsure, be unsure. If you want to take a break, take a break. This first step is largely out of our control. But then there are two steps that follow, one logical, one spiritual.
The logical step may sound harsh. But they say the truth will set you free. And this is the truth: There’s absolutely nothing, nothing you can ever do to bring them back. I have a very mathematical, logical mind, so, believe it or not, I went out and did the research. Has anyone ever come back? I knew people do come back from near-death — I had to know, what’s the limit to that? I was in the moonshot business, remember.
But, of course, Ali was truly gone. There was no technology or technique that could change that. I could hit my head against the laboratory wall for 27 years, but he’s not coming back. And while I was torturing myself, the world wasn’t getting better. So I had to get to a place of acceptance. I call this committed acceptance.
“Acceptance” means understanding that this is your new baseline. I will never receive another hug from my son. I will not hear his voice on the phone or see him play music ever again. That’s my new baseline. I will stop pretending otherwise. “Committed” means I can still improve my own life and the lives of those around me. You don’t have to know how you’ll do it. You tell yourself, “Now that I’ve accepted this tragedy, I’ve accepted this pain, I’m going to crawl out of it.” The word is “crawl” because that’s how it feels. Today I’ll do one thing that makes my life better than yesterday, and tomorrow I’ll do one thing that makes my life better than today. That’s it.
That’s the practical step, committed acceptance. It’s about the physical world, the reality we experience with our senses. The world which Ali has left, and the world I can make better, a little bit every day. But spirituality and science both tell us that this is not the only world, not the only way to understand existence. I call this other step the spiritual step, but you could also call it the quantum step. Quantum mechanics is physics at the atomic scale, the laws that govern the building blocks of what we know as space and time. And it teaches us that there is more to the universe than meets the eye. Which is something spiritual teachers have been telling us for centuries.
There is a nonphysical aspect to life. Call it consciousness, call it the spirit or soul: There is something beyond the physical about us. That nonphysical element is the part that disconnected from my son’s body when he left. The handsome form he left behind on that intensive-care table was no longer him. You could feel it, you could feel that his essence was no longer there. That essence is life, and it is outside the realm of traditional physics, outside space and time. It has to be, or we wouldn’t be able to perceive space or the passage of time. There’s a subject-object relationship there, between consciousness (or the soul, or the life force, or the spirit) and the physical world.
That aspect of life, I will call it consciousness, is distinct from the physical form in which it resides. It neither comes into existence when that physical form is created nor goes out of existence when the form decays. Death is not the opposite of life. Death is the opposite of birth. Life exists before, during, and after. My son’s physical form was born, and my son’s physical form decayed. But the essence of my son, his consciousness, has never gone anywhere. His body will never again live — that’s committed acceptance — but his consciousness never died.
I see this from a physics point of view more than a religious point of view, but either way, I tend to believe my son is OK. And I know that I, too, will leave this physical form and that I, too, will be OK. I don’t know how, exactly, because I’m still here, in the physical world. But whatever happens to our consciousness when the physical form decays, I don’t believe it goes to a bad place. In fact, it’s not even a place, it’s not even a time. It’s an eternity of consciousness. And that’s the truth of who we are. My son taught this to me, in his dream. We are everywhere, part of everyone.