Google’s lab X is setting out to solve humanity’s greatest challenges – such as the secret of happiness – through incredibly ambitious technological innovations
In 2014, my son Ali died following a routine appendectomy. Two days earlier, he had asked our family to sit down at the kitchen table and told us he had something important to say to each of us. To me, he asked that I depend more on my heart – instead of my head – in my efforts to affect the world.
For much of my working life, I have tried to improve others’ lives through my business savvy, my background in civil engineering and a passion for computer science.
Early in my career I had been “successful”, helping predict short-term fluctuations on the Nasdaq stock exchange and owning two Rolls-Royces to show for it.
In 2007, things got even better. I joined Google, first in its emerging markets and latterly with X, “shooting for the moon”, with plans for self-driving cars and high-altitude balloons offering wireless internet.
Think like a machine
X aims to create technological solutions to the immense problems facing humanity, from transport and connectivity to health and renewable energy; but even in such an exciting role, the relentless chase for success and wealth pushed me to the edge of depression. I had discussed my thoughts with Ali over the years so, when he died, I decided to do something about it.
I approached the problem as an engineer, producing a book, Solve For Happy: Engineering Your Path to Uncovering the Joy Inside You. This, I think, is part of Ali’s last ask of me. We establish the nature of a problem and then solve it systematically.
I began the book on a chart by plotting as many data points as possible about what makes you happy in daily life.
“The relentless chase for success and wealth pushed me to the edge of depression”
The moments ranged from a good cup of coffee to your children smiling, to your boss being nice to you at work. The one thing those moments had in common was that they make it seem that life is going your way.
This led me to an “algorithm for happiness”: happiness is equal to or greater than the events of your life, minus your expectation of how life should play out.
With this information, I was determined to make it my personal moonshot – and my pledge to my son – to use this logical approach to make 10 million people happy, connecting to them via the book and using the magnificent tools that the internet provides. And what better use of technology than to create a global pandemic of joy?
Is tech making us unhappy?
The application of technology and scientific thinking to our very selves is happening in many areas of life, including the current huge upsurge in wearable devices that monitor our heart rate and activities, the sequencing of human DNA and the assessment of brain patterns. We are increasingly connected to our technology.
Sometimes, however, that closeness reveals the bad habits or destructive behaviours in all of us. The fact that I now have the means to connect with my daughter in Canada and also with my employees across the world is an amazing addition to my life.
But if you are expected to answer your emails within minutes, for instance, even when you are at home or on holiday, that constant stress will surely make you unhappy.
Hack your happiness
The approach to creating technology can also help us understand ourselves. I believe that the idea within Solve For Happy is the perfect example of how a systematic, engineering approach to a problem can actually be used to better understand and improve our lives and the human condition itself – including happiness, grief and hope.
We must be careful that we don’t assume technology will take over parts of what it means to be human, and particularly avoid expecting new technology to simply lead to happiness.
Technology is always just a tool and it’s essential we remember to make use of the time it saves and concentrate on the big things that make us who we are, and that make us happy.
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