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Gretchen Rubin on Happiness and Habits

Gretchen Rubin on Happiness and Habits

We had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Gretchen Rubin, mega-best-selling author of The Happiness Project and Better than Before to learn more about the power of habits.   
Habits. How can we make and establish good, healthy habits? How can we identify and break our bad ones? And, most importantly, how can we set a path for ourselves that will allow us to “stay the course?” What should we do? Where should we start?
"What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step. It is always the same step, but you have to take it."  
-Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars


True, true. To start, this is the most important first step. You can’t get anywhere unless you start. And Gretchen is clear in this directive. First, you must start! 

But, the critically important next step is to define how, in which direction, at which pace, alone or with someone else. She explains that the trap that many of us fall in is to mistakenly buy into a “one-size-fits-all” habit-starting / habit-breaking mentality. What works for one, will not work for all. Essentially, what is good for the goose, is not always good for the gander… And more importantly, which one are you, the goose or the gander?

In Better Than Before, Rubin writes, “Habits are the invisible architecture of a happy life....The secret of changing habits is first we must know ourselves.”

As you think about your own self, your own rhythms, pay attention to your gut reaction when you think about strategies. If you think, “okay, I could do that,” or “no way, not a chance would I  be able to keep that up for any length of time,” listen to that and then set out on a course where you will find success. 

Are you an abundance-lover or a simplicity-lover? Marathoner or sprinter? A do-it-now’er or procrastinator? How do you best hold yourself accountable, internally or externally? Understanding who you are and what makes you tick will ultimately help you as you devise your plan in creating and keeping the good-habits that lead to happier, healthier selves. 

Below is our interview with Gretchen Rubin in which she shares her insight and wisdom on habits and happiness with us.


Unlike most habit-formation experts, you emphasize that the most important step in changing a habit is to know yourself. Why is this so important? 

A: There’s no shortage of expert advice about how to change your habits. Start small! Do it first thing in the morning! Reward yourself! Be moderate! But while it would be terrific to discover some magic answer, the fact is—as we all know from tough experience—there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. 

I studied the many strategies we can use to change our habits, and I uncovered the secret to changing our habits: To change our habits, we first have to know ourselves. When we identify key aspects of our nature, we can tailor a habit to suit our particular idiosyncrasies, and that way, we set ourselves up for success. In Better Than Before, I talk about the many strategies for habit change, and show how various strategies work better or worse for different people, given their diverse natures.

* * * * * * * * 

To further her theory on how to best establish good habits, Gretchen explains that the most effective way to form a new habit or change an old one largely depends on how we respond to expectations

And, it is from this vantage point, that Gretchen gives us an amazing, working blueprint as to how each of us can find that best strategy for our own personal plan and success.  

Gretchen ingeniously created a taxonomy of “Four Tendencies” in which each of us will fit. Once we identify which tendency we belong to, we can establish our own personalized, effective strategies for creating healthy habits, and… happier, more productive lives.  

Read on to find out more about this fascinating — totally effective and novel — way of reshaping our lives through healthy habits that we can actually keep. 

* * * * * * * *


You’ve concluded that the way that people respond to expectations is a key question for habit change. And according to your Four Tendencies framework, people generally fall into one of four groups: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels. Why is it important that we know which group we’re in?  

A: When we try to form a new habit, we set an expectation for ourselves. Therefore, it’s crucial to understand how we respond to expectations. We face two kinds of expectations: outer expectations (meet work deadlines, observe traffic regulations) and inner expectations (walk 10,000 steps daily, keep a New Year’s resolution). 

Upholders respond readily to both outer expectations and inner expectations. “I do what others expect of me—and what I expect from myself.” 

Questioners question all expectations. They meet an expectation only if they believe it’s reasonable (effectively making it an inner expectation). “I do what I think is best, according to my judgment. I won’t do something that doesn’t make sense.” 

Obligers respond readily to outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations. “I don’t like to let others down, but I often let myself down.” 

Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike. “I want to do what I want, in my own way. If you tell me to do it, I’m less likely to do it.”

Once we know our Tendency, we have a better idea of what habit-change strategy will work for us.


We love this idea of understanding our own selves better and strategizing ways to find success based on our own personalities and individual frameworks. How can we find out which Tendency is ours? And, can we be more than one Tendency or a hybrid of two or more?

A: Each of us belongs to only one of the four Tendencies. I created this online quiz so each of us can learn which one we fit into. (Use this link for the “online quiz:”


Once you know your tendency, you can use this to better understand and calculate ways to master the habits of your everyday life. It is fascinating to put this to work! Once you understand how you best respond to expectations, you can establish patterns and strategies to help you successfully accomplish what it is you want to change (or keep up). 

  • Upholders: Your best strategy - keep a list. Write it out. 
  • Questioners: Your best strategy - find a logical, sound rationale as to why this habit is important/good/useful.
  • Obligers: Your best strategy - have an external deadline, late fee, a friend who’ll be disappointed if you don’t show up, a teacher who will notice if you skip class.
  • Rebels: Your best strategy - come to it yourself, make it your choice, keep it on your own terms.

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Do any strategies seem to produce particularly dramatic results? What if we are thinking about swimsuits, beach time, and possibly getting bikini-ready? Would, for example, treating yourself to a new swimsuit that you really love be an incentive to get in shape and/ or stay in shape? What strategy might you recommend?

A: One strategy that has proved hugely helpful to some people is the Strategy of Abstaining. Some people are Abstainers, some are Moderators. Abstainers find it easier to give something up altogether than to indulge in moderation. Moderators do better when they indulge in moderation. Because our culture holds up moderation as the ideal, people often persist in trying to act like Moderators, even when it doesn’t work for them. It was a huge relief to me to discover that I’m an Abstainer. I’ve written about it often on my blog, and I’ve heard from so many people who say, “Once I read that you’re an Abstainer, I realized that I’m one, too, and I’ve had so much better success.” Forty pounds, sixty pounds . . . people have seen huge results. 

For Abstainers, this approach works for anything where we feel like we’re out of control. Food and technology seem to be common things to tackle. A friend had to quit the word-game app Ruzzle altogether. She couldn’t play it a little bit.


What is the best piece of advice you’d offer someone who’s tried to change a habit before and failed?

A: Think about yourself, what you’re like, what appeals to you, when you’ve succeeded in the past. When you craft a habit to suit your particular idiosyncrasies, you set yourself up for success. 

Also, look for opportunity. Better Than Before helps you notice when you’re in a good spot to try to change a habit. For instance, if you move or start a new job or new relationship, that’s a great time to start a habit. If someone around you is making a positive change, try to latch on. If an idea catches your imagination, allow your habits to follow. People think that habits are very hard to change, and they are. But they can also be oddly easy to change if you’re on the watch for opportunities!


What do you hope readers will take away from Better Than Before

A: Most of us have one or two habits that, if changed, would make a big difference in our lives. In many cases, we’ve already tried and failed to change that habit. 

My hope is that readers will get lots of ideas about how to tackle those key habits, and feel excited to make the change—because it will really seem possible. When we change our habits, we change our lives 

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We cannot thank Gretchen enough for sharing her time and thoughtful strategies with us. 

You will find a fuller explanation of each of these useful strategies in Better Than Before. And trust us, you will, regardless of your Tendency, find great value in understanding yourself — and others (i.e.: spouse, boss, sibling, kids…!) and how to best find success in changing bad habits or establishing healthy ones. 

Want more of Gretchen Rubin and her thoughts on habits and happiness… Tune in to her amazing podcast Happier with Gretchen Rubin which she hosts with her sister, Elizabeth Craft. And, in case you were wondering, Gretchen is a card-carrying, dyed-in-the-wool Upholder; and her sister Elizabeth, a total and utter Obliger.

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