September 8, 2021

The Intelligence of Happiness: Gi Gi O’Brien

So many of us struggle to be happy. We think we ought to have, do, or be more. We feel driven by fear and anger, instead of by purpose and joy. In her new book, The Intelligence of Happiness: How to Thrive Using Authenticity, Self-Alignment and Simple Neuropsychology, author Gi Gi O’Brien breaks down how we get stuck in such cycles and how to take back control.

On Author Hour today, she discusses the difference between feelings and emotions, the importance of aligning your expectations with your experience, some of the science behind our concepts of ourselves, and how to actually practice happiness in a way that can even be playful.

Jane Stogdill: Hi, Author Hour listeners. I’m here today with Gi Gi O’Brien, author of The Intelligence of Happiness: How to Thrive Using Authenticity, Self-Alignment and Simple Neuropsychology. Gi Gi, thank you so much for being with us today.

Gi Gi O’Brien: It’s a pleasure to be here. 

Jane Stogdill: First of all, can you tell us a bit about who you are and how you became an expert on happiness?

Gi Gi O’Brien: Absolutely. I love the question, “Who am I.” I think the expectation is to answer that with a bit of an elevator pitch; that one polished sentence like “I’m Gi Gi, an author, social entrepreneur. I help transform suffering into self-actualization,” and all of that. Don’t get me wrong, even getting to a place where narrowing that complexity down to one sentence felt great but what feels most authentic is to answer that from a place of values and that’s something that I learned while writing this book. I am gratitude. I am kindness. I am a mental health advocate and I’m ambition. I’m continuous learning. And today, I guess, I’m just a woman on this podcast. 

I got about to writing the book just searching for that ultimate happiness that you think you get when you check all the boxes. I had the body that I had worked for, I had reached the top of the country in my position with American Express. I was financially well off and yet, I was thinking thoughts of if life was worth living. I realized that I really had to dedicate some time to figuring out what happiness really is because every time I left those thoughts unaddressed, they would either manifest as illness or as depression and eventually, that scarier, darker side where you lose touch with yourself completely and you don’t see the reasons anymore that once motivated you to be sufficient and call them a fulfilling life. That’s where the whole journey started.

Jane Stogdill: I feel like so often, we don’t understand or believe that happiness is something we have agency in. What is happiness to you?

Gi Gi O’Brien: A choice, it’s a feeling. I think that one of the biggest learning curves for me was understanding that happiness is a package deal and it comes from that instant gratification. It comes from pleasure. It comes from meaning in life, which is a more long-term eudemonic approach to happiness. I think only focusing on one doesn’t actually deliver on happiness sustainably. 

I found that happiness is a blend of being able to enjoy the present while striving for something that you’re working towards and also knowing the difference between what’s just pleasure and what is truly something that leads you feeling emotionally healthy.

Jane Stogdill: That can sometimes be hard to distinguish. You go through the book exploring happiness from a few different angles and I want to spend a little bit of time discussing the difference between feelings and emotions and the role that perception plays. This was eye-opening for me. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Gi Gi O’Brien: Absolutely. One of the turning points for me was also understanding that I see what I choose to look at. An emotion— it starts there. Essentially, it’s a sensation that arises through our subconscious mind. It’s energy in motion and we process that through our brain and it might identify as anger. As we think about this anger, we create a feeling. We attach a meaning to the anger and we might feel like we want to blame someone for instance. Or, we can attach accountability and we can then take responsibility for something and that anger has shifted. I think emotions are the sadness, the anger, the guilt, the regret, the fear and then we move higher up into the better frequencies, courage, love, gratitude and that’s emotion.

How we apply thought to our emotions creates our perception of something. If we attach a negative thought to an emotion, then we all have potentially a pessimistic outlook on something. If we attach a positive thought to an emotion we might have an optimistic look on something. For instance, spilling coffee on my laptop right before this interview. I couldn’t control what had happened and I have the anger but I also took the accountability that what I felt next was up to me.

Often, when we let an emotion go on a rampage on its own, and we get negative about it, it actually gets stronger in that negative frequency rather than autotuning the emotion and elevating it; being like, “I can’t control what just happened but I’m going to do a quick little reset.” I flipped my computer upside down on a V and I just chose to have faith that it was going to work itself out. So, I felt my feeling with that was a lot more optimistic.

Jane Stogdill: This, I mean, this sounds challenging. This sounds like maybe it’s a little bit easier said than done. Is this a part of the process where people struggle or do you find actually that this part’s pretty easy to conquer?

Gi Gi O’Brien: I think with the right intention, it actually becomes quite playful because you’re allowing yourself to take control— and I talk about this in the book as well, your locus of control. If you feel like life is happening to you, or if you feel like you’re controlling it and it’s happening from you.

When you start to realize that you hold the power through these techniques, I can identify my emotion, and let’s apply some positive thinking— and it might not always be positive thinking as much as authentic thinking. Like, “I really am angry.” It’s not, “don’t be angry about this”, it’s, “I’m going to be realistic about where I’m at emotionally and then do whatever I need to, to ensure that that doesn’t create a bad outcome.” 

When you look at it from that perspective, I believe you feel a lot more empowered. You also feel like you can create and navigate those outcomes because you have this secret weapon, which is your emotional intelligence.

The Gap Between Expectations and Experience

Jane Stogdill: Okay, that’s empowering. I’m also really interested in the difference between, and the gap that can arise between expectations and experience. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Gi Gi O’Brien: Yes, this is the authenticity gap of happiness. I believe that when we have our expectations and our experience aren’t matched up, that’s where our gap of happiness happens, which gives us two opportunities: We can adjust our expectations or we can adjust our experience. 

If you, for instance, have a goal to go to the gym and you say, “I’m going to go five days a week” and so that’s your expectation of yourself but you make it there twice and your experience is, “I didn’t actually meet my goal and now I’m disappointed.” There are two options here. You can change your expectation and go, “I’m now getting into fitness. Let me just start with two days a week and I’ll see how that goes.” You can match that with the experience. Or you could change your effort level and change your experience. You can empower yourself through affirmations, through sleep patterns, through high-performance tactics that get you into a routine of working out and you hit that goal of five days a week.

When we can match our experience with our expectations, then we’re in alignment and that alignment is essentially like the mecca for happiness.

Jane Stogdill: Why is alignment so important?

Gi Gi O’Brien: Because when we are incoherent with what we think and what we believe, and what we feel and what we do, it causes a lot of distress internally. If you feel disappointed but you say you’re fine and you think you deserve better and then you do something to act like you’re fine, you’re all out of whack.

We see this in the wave of feeling obligation to not disappoint others, for instance. When you really could use some rest but you go and you show up for others and instead of doing what serves your needs, you’re then drained and you’re thinking to yourself, “I regret doing this.” The action and the intention of pleasing someone else and not disappointing them may have matched up, but the feeling of everything leaves you actually in a state of regret. So then, that’s a negative emotion and so it’s destructive for your inner wellbeing. 

I think when we lead with authenticity as well if we keep with that example, and you say, “I feel like I’m in this state of obligation but I know what I really need is this” and you speak that truth and you say, “I feel tired, I don’t think I can show up but I really wanted to be there. Can’t wait to catch up with you next time.” You do tick all the boxes because then you’re saying, “I’m honoring how I truly feel. I’m also doing something that’s in alignment with how I feel but I am all to expressing that I believe I wanted to be there so that I’m not letting them down completely.” 

This is something that we’re always trying to navigate, right? The obligations in life, we’re always trying to see how to pair these things up, where we can do what we truly think is best for ourselves and that can even come down to discipline. It could come down to something as simple as turning off Netflix, do you know what I mean? You know you shouldn’t watch that extra episode or two more. You feel intrigued but you still feel guilty and then you wake up and you’re not rested because your actions were out of alignment with what your beliefs are. You might believe these two episodes are going to really help me relax and then I am going to decompress and I’m going to sleep great. So your beliefs play a really big part in the momentum that your emotions take as well. 

Jane Stogdill: Can we talk about how alignment relates to— you write a lot about self-concept and I want to talk about that. I personally struggle with comparing myself to others and also comparing myself to what I think I should be by now, so I am also kind of selfishly interested to hear more about this. 

Gi Gi O’Brien: Absolutely. Comparison, I mean we’re taught to compare. We’re taught to compete. We do this to get the best opportunities and things like that. Years ago, when the trendy thing was I compare myself to my best ability and who I was yesterday, that resonated with me so much and I think it is not any person’s fault. It is not from an individual place as much as it is systemic conditioning to compare and compete because that’s just what the school system starts us with. 

You know, “Did you get an A?” “No, I got a B+.” It’s easy for these feelings of inadequacy to come up rather than measuring ourselves against our own capacity to achieve and going, “Did I do my best? Did I learn here? Did I evolve?” I think we can re-engineer what progress looks like and compare in healthy ways. It is not about not comparing as much as it is doing it in ways that allow you to continue to evolve into your best version of self. 

Authenticity Starts With Identifying Your Emotions

Jane Stogdill: What about the dreaded comparing yourself to where you think you should be now? I guess we talked a little bit about this when we were talking about the difference between expectations and experience.

Gi Gi O’Brien: That that’s one of those things where if you’re allowing the narrative of, “Get a job, get a promotion, et cetera,” you’re constantly looking for that moving up the ranks. Comparing myself to where I should be started from that place but the truth is that as I discovered more of my purpose, I had more drive and more accountability. I felt like there was so much more pressure that I was placing on myself, on what I wanted my legacy to be, and not just being a reflection of the impact I wanted to make in this lifetime. 

I think that when you understand what you’re capable of, in a lot of ways you hold yourself accountable to that because you know that you’re here for a reason and it is within your power to achieve your greatness. So you can feel like you are letting yourself down when you compare yourself to what you should be. And I don’t think that’s necessarily unhealthy. They say purpose is a great alarm clock, if it gets you out of bed in the morning and gets you going. I mean, to some degree that guilt can work to provide positive pressure. I think it’s when you start the train of thinking, “I hate that I’m not where I think I should be” and you start having these self-defeating thoughts and beliefs about yourself is when it can get a little risky.

Jane Stogdill: Well, that brings us to my next question. How can the concepts we’ve been discussing help us understand depression? 

Gi Gi O’Brien: Interesting question. I love this question because I learned it through different reasons for my depression. The three that I’ve narrowed down in the book— and depression is such a scary word for people and a lot of people don’t like to use it out loud. Let’s say anything that’s a despair, sadness that won’t go away. If these thoughts keep coming up about yourself and they are painful and you are either suffering or struggling and time is passing and they are not improving. Anything in that arena, I would attribute to three different things: unresolved emotional trauma, self-defeating mental habits, and a lack of life vision and purpose. 

These are the fundamental things that resonated with me and they’re the pillars of the book. Which then you know, when you look at unresolved emotional trauma, we go back into that emotional intelligence and that healing from an emotional place; that’s your effective self. Then we have your cognitive self, which is your thoughts and your beliefs, and your self-knowledge. Then you can look at, “What’s my mindset like?” And then you have your lack of life purpose and vision, which means you are yearning for that meaning and that long-term passion that is beyond you, it’s bigger than ego, and it’s your “why” essentially. That’s your executive self. That is your self-efficacy, that’s what drives you to also perform and that’s where true intrinsic motivation should be rooted. That’s not me reinventing the wheel. We’ve heard the “what’s your why” and discovering your purpose, find the thing you love and you’ll never work another day in your life. 

Anytime I was missing one of these things, I didn’t heal. For a long time, I didn’t admit that I was in pain. Imagine how surprising it is, no wonder you didn’t heal. You weren’t honest that you were even broken and hurt and I think that’s why authenticity is the start point. 

From that authenticity and developing that inner dialogue that’s rooted in truth, you will not only heal, you will start to advocate for what you truly care about. When you start doing that, you will start to discover more and more about that “why.” The self-defeating mental habits— it’s interesting because we revert back to “you see what you choose to look at” and the other one by Wayne Dyer, “If I change the way I look at things, the things I look at change.” 

A bad mindset can create worlds that reflect exactly what you think. If every thought was an instruction to engineer your life to make that thought a reality, we would watch our mind a whole lot more. Yeah, we’re very reckless in what we allow ourselves to think. And then we’re super-evolved as a species so we’ve got our metacognition. We can think about our thoughts and then think about those. We need to be cleaner and we need to detox not just the body but also the mind and start asking ourselves, “Is this line of thinking actually constructive for me, and is it even accurate?” Often we think in terms of hypotheticals and extremes and it is not necessarily rooted completely in truth. An emotion will indicate to you where your authenticity radar is. 

I think that is a good indication of your truth, which is why when you can identify your emotions and understand them a lot more, you can start being a lot more authentic. Whether that’s about trauma or ambitions alike, you can start being a lot more authentic about something that doesn’t actually interest you or bores you and something that invigorates and inspires you. 

The Five C Framework

Jane Stogdill: I feel like we should tell readers towards the end of the book, there is a lot of interesting science and psychology and neurobiology kind of explaining from that perspective, some of the things we’ve been discussing. You also have a section where you get practical. We’ve been talking about these ideas, what can readers do to put them together? What is the Five C Framework you write about? 

Gi Gi O’Brien: Yes, so the five C framework is sort of self-alignment therapy. Alignment to me is the goal. That’s what we talked about earlier. We have our emotions, our thoughts, our beliefs, and our behavior and the goal is to have them in alignment. Building on cognitive behavioral therapy, I created the self-alignment therapy with the Five C Framework, which is to control your emotions, to be conscious of your thoughts, to commit to beliefs that are going to serve you, and to be continuous in the behavior that closes out on authenticity gap of happiness. And the fifth C is just to be consistent. 

Because so often, we start things— myself included— and before you know it, we’re back to old habits and that’s where the science needed to be explained. The “can’t teach old dogs new tricks” and going you actually can. It’s just called neuroplasticity and what you repeat will become easy. Hard habits are not hard to break bad habits because the new habits haven’t formed neural pathways. It is sort of like when you walk through a field for the first time and you’re just like you’re pushing through all the bush and you don’t know where you’re going and you know then the second time it’s not as intense. After you’ve walked that pathway— the same one— 20, 30 times, you’ve got a footpath, so it’s much easier. You know where you’re going and there’s less resistance. The brain works the same way. So, this is where neurons that fire together, wire together. 

In order to break habits that you don’t want, you just have to repeat the new habits until they become strong ones. That’s the science behind that and that’s why I think the consistency, the fifth C, was an important part of that framework. 

Jane Stogdill: Okay, great. Thank you so much. There is so much to think about here, not only helpful but hopeful advice. Gi Gi, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Again, listeners, the book is, The Intelligence of Happiness: How to Thrive Using Authenticity, Self-Alignment and Simple Neuropsychology. Gi Gi, in addition to reading the book, where can people go to learn more about you and your work? 

Gi Gi O’Brien: Gigiobrien.com.

Jane Stogdill: Great, that’s gigiobrien.com. 

Gi Gi O’Brien: Yes.

Jane Stogdill: Thank you so much. 

Gi Gi O’Brien: Thanks so much, Jane.