An exec at Alphabet's moonshot lab teaches people to be happier - and his favorite strategy takes only seconds at a time


mo gawdat workshop

Anthony Michael

Distract yourself, says Mo Gawdat, pictured at the "Solve for Happy" workshop.

Every day on his walk to work, Mo Gawdat snaps a photo of something beautiful. Sometimes it's a butterfly; sometimes it's a stranger's face.


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 "Solve 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 around him.

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.