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Solve for Happy – The Google Algorithm for Happiness – Speed Summary

So Google is promoting an algorithm for happiness in a new book: Solve for Happy: Engineer your Path to Joy.

Penned by Google’s Mo Gawdat and endorsed by the company’s founder Sergey Brin, the book contains a Happiness Equation that requires balancing experiences and expectations.  Specifically, happiness happens when your experiences meet or beat your expectations. According to the Google it’s as simple as that.

if you perceive… events as equal to or greater than your expectations, you’re happy

Here’s the Happiness Equation as illustrated in the book;

Could happiness be as simple at that? Is happiness really just a matter of shifting expectations and experiences (or at least your perceptions of them) so that they match? Whilst the book offers very little evidence to support the Happiness Equation, there is supporting evidence out there.  In a London School of Economics study on customer happiness in multiple categories, we found that nearly 3/4 of the variation in customer happiness (measured by propensity to recommend) could be accounted for by the difference between expectations and experiences.  And a recent research on happiness conducted by the Wellcome Trust and UCL found that happiness is driven by expectations.

Our computational model suggests momentary happiness is a state that reflects not how well things are going but instead whether things are going better than expected.

It’s unsurprising that one of the three key questions in the American Customer Satisfaction Index is about expectations and experiences…

To what extent did the experience meet your expectations?

So what does the Solve for Happy solution mean for business? First and foremost, managing happiness – whether the happiness of your employees, customers, partners or investors – is a twin-goal game of managing expectations and managing perceptions.

What’s particularly interesting about Solve for Happy is that book focuses not on managing expectations (under-promise and over-deliver), but on managing perceptions, i.e. subjective realities. Perceptions are people’s realities but these perceptions are not facts, they are subjective interpretations. So the opportunity is to re-frame perceptions as positive, and in doing so you create happiness.  Think about the experience of a sucky product – if the experience can be re-framed positively as a sneak preview of a beta-version, the final version of which you get to influence via your valued feedback, you may perceive it more positively. Google, Apple and other tech companies frequently use this technique to re-frame potentially sub-par perceptions positively.

However, rather than focus on customer happiness Solve for Happy  focuses instead on your own personal happiness, which can be improved by changing how you perceive your experiences. In short, it’s an engineer’s take on the power of positive thinking, or rather perceiving. Lots of talk of default states, resets, blindspots and perceptual illusions (including this one – the checker shadow illusion – yes, squares A & B are exactly the same shade/colour, really they are – check it yourself by hiding everything else).


And the author uses his own experiences – the death of his son – to show the power of re-framing perceptions in a personal and moving way. Here are three ways to shift perceptions to the positive

  • 1. Re-frame by focusing on the positive aspects of the experience
  • 2. Re-frame by taking the long view – focus on positive long term outcomes of an experience rather than focus on short-term negatives

  • 3. Re-frame by taking a cosmic perspective

So what to make of Solve for Happy? The beauty of the Google solution lies in its elegant simplicity; happiness is all about balancing expectations and perceptions. From a psychology perspective – this can certainly help; indeed many Positive Psychology Interventions (AKA Happy Nudges) to help improve happiness do focus on perceptions or expectations.  But the Google solution is at best incomplete and is certainly not the only way to improve happiness – for example, committing to goals can improve our happiness, as can being in nature – particularly among trees. More generally there a number of evidence-based Happy Nudges that can boost happiness – that may not work exclusively on expectations and perceptions (from positive psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky)

  • Taking care of your body
  • Savouring life’s joys
  • Committing to your goals
  • Doing activities that truly engage you
  • Expressing gratitude
  • Cultivating optimism
  • Nurturing relationships
  • Learning to forgive
  • Developing strategies for coping
  • Avoiding social comparison/overthinking
  • Practising acts of kindness
  • Practising religion and spirituality

The irony of Solve for Happy is that it could have been a whole lot better if did what Google does so well; provide data-driven and evidence-based insights, rather than offer a personal theory into what makes people happy.  The book makes a large number of unsubstantiated claims – such that our default state is happy – when in fact evidence appears to suggest that happiness is short-term response to a positive surprise that facilitates adaptive learning – after which we revert to a set-point level that is largely determined by personality and genes. Nor does the book give a clear definition of what happiness is, offering only a vague idea that happiness is the absence of unhappiness, and happiness happens when “life behaves the way you want it to”. Nevertheless, despite these shortcomings, Solve for Happy is insightful, whether you are pursuing happiness for yourself and your loved ones, or for your colleagues and your customers. Worth a read.

Written by
Dr Paul Marsden
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Digital wellbeing covers the latest scientific research on the impact of digital technology on human wellbeing. Curated by psychologist Dr. Paul Marsden (@marsattacks). Sponsored by WPP agency SYZYGY.