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“Worse and worse and worse and worse.”

That’s the data on stress and its impact on the world, according to former Chief Business Officer of Google X and renowned writer, Mo Gawdat.

The author of ‘Solve for Happy: Engineer Your Path to Joy,’ and the man behind the ‘One Billion Happy’ movement was responding to a question from Danielle Suchley, Group CEO & Co-founder of Blue Sky Thinking Group, at an intimate ‘Workplace Wellness’ hosted by the group in Dubai recently.

After an introduction by entrepreneur and public speaker Spencer Lodge – host of the Spencer Lodge podcast – Suchley sat down with the inspiring thought leader for a wide-ranging conversation from his rise in the corporate world, his deep unhappiness despite fame and fortune, how his son Ali’s innocence and wisdom has put him back on the path to happiness, and how his boy’s tragic death had crystalised his mission to share that wisdom with the world.

Stress is killing people

The BSTG Group CEO cited the data from within its own companies, including a number of healthcare services such as Beneple and Safe Hands, saying that despite initiatives on wellbeing the statistics on stress seemed to only be getting worse.

“Worse and worse and worse and worse, said Gawdat. “It’s up, it is definitely the third-biggest pandemic facing our world. We’re losing people to stress.”

He equated the impact of stress on our lives to a destructive disease, underscoring its far-reaching consequences and prevalence.

Gawdat, who also hosts the Slo Mo podcast, outlined stress’s fundamental role in human life.

Stress is our brain’s response to challenges in our environment, a call to arms that activates our inherent strength and adaptability. He explained: “stress is your brain looking at the world around you and saying, ‘Hey, something’s not right. I need you to be superhuman so that you deal with it.’ It gives you superhuman powers. Cortisol is to help you fight or run away, right?”

However, despite its purpose as a survival mechanism, stress becomes a dangerous double-edged sword when it’s chronic or misunderstood. While acute stress helps us react to immediate threats, chronic stress takes a heavy toll on our bodies and minds. Gawdat elaborated on this point, stating: “we don’t understand where is the line between stress being good for you, helping you prepare very well for our conversation or whatever, and when it starts to kill you.”

He told the room that chronic stress is becoming an increasingly common part of modern life, with severe health implications.

According to Gawdat: “78 percent of all medical diagnosis in the US are the result of stress first,” as the author linked stress to diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular problems.

Gawdat explained: “Stress is very easily understood in objects. It’s not just how much challenge I apply to someone. It’s the challenges divided by skills and resources and abilities to deal with that challenge.”

In simpler terms, it’s the imbalance between the demands placed on us and our capability to handle those demands, this conflict results in various manifestations of stress that can severely disrupt our lives, said the author..

He described how we anticipate stress, how we can become paralysed by fear, leading to heightened anxiety levels. This state of constant dread can impede our ability to function effectively in our daily lives, straining our mental well-being.

Burnout on the rise

Another detrimental outcome of chronic stress is burnout. Gawdat told the room: “Burnout is repetitive stress applied over a very long period of time.” Burnout stems from prolonged exposure to stress, gradually draining our energy, enthusiasm, and productivity. It can lead to severe health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and mental health disorders like depression and anxiety.

“And then there’s trauma. Trauma breaks you immediately…but it doesn’t last,” Gawdat added. Trauma-induced stress, while severe and immediate, can be recovered from. The human spirit is resilient, and as Gawdat highlighted: “Interestingly, there was a statistic that said 91 percent of everyone you know will have at least one PTSD inducing traumatic event once in their life…96 percent will recover in three months.”

The happiness equation

Transitioning from stress to happiness, Gawdat underscored a crucial factor, saying: “The definition of happiness is are people calm and peaceful and contented? Are they okay with things even if things are challenging?

“Happiness is greater than or equal to the events of your life minus your expectations of life.

“This equation provides a roadmap to cultivate happiness in our lives, helping us better manage stress and enhance our overall well-being.”

For organisations striving to foster happier environments, Gawdat suggested measuring unhappiness and high stress levels as primary metrics. Indicators of high stress might be mirrored in the budget, through costs of therapy, wellness benefits, sick leaves, and inconsistent work results. Unhappiness, on the other hand, may surface in interpersonal conflicts, lack of enthusiasm, and a surge in ineffective meetings.

In contrast, healthy, happy organisations are marked by “lots of conversations in the corridors. High fives, not feeling afraid of the boss.”

Gawdat emphasised that organised parties or promotions cannot manufacture happiness if it isn’t inherently present within the team.

He told the room that organisations should focus more on reducing stress levels as a prerequisite to fostering happiness.

He concluded by reminding leaders that the path to happiness isn’t through synthetic gestures but through genuine care and understanding of the challenges faced by individuals.

10 takeaways from Mo Gawdat

  1. Stress is not about the magnitude of the challenge but the quotient of the challenge divided by one’s abilities, skills, and resources to handle it.
  2. Anticipation of stress can lead to anxiety; prolonged stress can lead to burnout.
  3. 78 percent of all medical diagnosis in the US are the result of stress first.
  4. 96 percent of people experiencing a traumatic event recover from the stress within three months.
  5. Happiness is not about a problem-free life, but about being calm and at peace, even amidst challenges.
  6. Happiness is greater than or equal to your perception of events minus your expectations of how life should behave.
  7. For organisations, high stress levels may be reflected in costs related to wellness benefits, therapy, and inconsistent work results.
  8. Unhappiness in an organisation might manifest in increased interpersonal conflicts and unproductive meetings.
  9. Healthy organisations are marked by open conversations, comfort with bosses, and employees feeling safe to bring their personal lives to work.
  10. Reducing stress is a prerequisite to fostering happiness. Genuine care and understanding can lead to a more robust and sustainable happiness