A Conversation with Gretchen Rubin on Finding Happiness.

A Conversation with Gretchen Rubin on Finding Happiness.

Gretchen Rubin is one of today’s most influential and thought-provoking observers of happiness and human nature. She’s the author of many books, including the blockbuster New York Times bestsellers; Outer Order, Inner Calm; The Four Tendencies; Better Than Before; and The Happiness Project. She has an enormous readership, both in print and online, and her books have sold more than 3.5 million copies worldwide, in more than thirty languages. On her top-ranking, award-winning podcast Happier with Gretchen Rubin, she explores happiness and good habits. She is also a CBS News contributor, providing weekly solutions for living a happier life.

During her multibook investigation into understanding human nature, Gretchen Rubin realized that by asking the seemingly dry question “How do I respond to expectations?” we gain explosive self-knowledge. She discovered that based on their answer, people fit into Four Tendencies: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels. Our Tendency shapes every aspect of our behaviour, so using this framework allows us to make better decisions, meet deadlines, suffer less stress, and engage more effectively.

In this interview, I speak to Gretchen Rubin about how we can get happier, healthier, more productive, and more creative.

Q: What constitutes happiness?

[Gretchen Rubin]: I started my career in law and spent an entire semester arguing about the definition of a contract. If anything, happiness is a more elusive concept. There are something like 15 academic definitions of happiness and- for the average person- the looseness of the term happiness is actually good- it can mean joy, bliss, satisfaction, peace, wellbeing or contentment. Some people really want to argue about what the true meaning of happiness is -and of course, scientists have to be very precise when they’re measuring something.

For the average person, it’s more helpful to think of being happier. If you did (or did not) do ‘this’ would you be happier tomorrow, next week, next month or next year? For most people, that kind of decision can feel pretty clear, whereas happiness as a concept can feel very transcendent and confusing.

Q: What are the common misconceptions about happiness?

[Gretchen Rubin]: Most people don’t think about happiness at all; they’re busy in the rush of life and don’t take time to step-back and think about what would make them happier, what they’re missing, what opportunities for love, connection, and enthusiasm they are overlooking, what’s dragging them down, what’s making them angry, bored, resentful, or indignant.

We’re busy, and in that rush, we sometimes forget to ask whether life reflects our values. Sometimes we do things that don’t make us feel great, but which uphold our values – and that’s important to know. Happiness isn’t always about feeling good.

We also benefit from the atmosphere of growth when we’re growing, helping, learning, or fixing… making the world or ourselves better…

It’s not that people think the wrong thing, I think they just don’t think about their happiness at all. They don’t step-back to ask themselves, is there a way for me to be happier. I feel once people ask themselves that question, they often have very useful insights.

Q: What are some of the characteristics of the happiest people you’ve met?

[Gretchen Rubin]: You are more likely to hit a target if you aim at it.

Those people who are thinking, ‘I don’t have enough time with my friends… how can I have more time with my friends… I feel bad about yelling at my kids all the time… what can I do so I don’t yell at my kids all the time…’ they are the people who are most likely to see opportunities for change. Now, if you broaden the question and look at what scientists who study happiness and the ancient philosophers think when asked the question, what is the secret to happiness? The answer is relationships. The people who tend to have enduring, intimate, bonds are the ones who are happier in life. They can give and receive support. If you look at the people who are happy at work, they are the ones who can say ‘I have a friend at work!’ – not just somebody to have a pleasant conversation with, but someone who really has their back… someone in whom you could confide an important secret… someone with trust. The people happiest at work are also those who feel like their boss genuinely cares and genuinely wants to help them achieve aims for themselves.

So, when you look at the people that are happiest, you tend to see these strong relationships.

Q: is everyone capable of happiness?

[Gretchen Rubin]: When you look around the world and try to measure how happy people are- most people say they’re pretty-happy or very happy. People are resilient. That’s not to say people aren’t suffering injustice and hardship, and certainly we should do everything we can to alleviate the suffering, injustice and hardship of those who we can impact, but a lot of people are pretty-happy.

It’s also true that at times in our lives, it’s also not appropriate to be happy. If someone you love is going through a terrible time… If you are going through a terrible time… an upheaval or suffering… it’s perfectly appropriate to not be happy. When thinking about a happy life, it’s not about being 10/10 on the scale, 7 days a week… that’s not realistic, nor is it a good life.

Research shows that 50% of happiness is genetically determined. It’s hard wired. 10-20% of happiness is circumstance, things like age, income, health, marital status and occupation. The rest is very-much tied to our conscious thoughts and actions (and that is very much where we can move the dial).

Happiness isn’t wholly out of our control. There are things we can do and most of us, at most times, do what we can to make ourselves as happy as we can, given our circumstances, and natures.

Q:  What are the four tendencies?

[Gretchen Rubin]:  The 4 tendencies divide the world into 4 types of people. Upholders, questioners, obligers and rebels. These tendencies look at how you respond to outer and inner expectations. Outer expectations are things like a work-deadline and inner expectations are things like keeping a New Year’s resolution. Your tendency is how you meet or resist those inner or outer expectations.

Upholders readily meet outer and inner expectations. They meet the work deadline… they keep the new year’s resolution without too much fuss. They want to meet the expectations of other people, but also from themselves. Their motto? Discipline is my freedom.

Questioners, by their nature, question all expectations. They’ll do something if they think it makes sense. They’ll resist anything arbitrary, unjustified, or irrational. They love to customise. In a sense, they make everything an inner expectation. If it meets their inner standard, they’ll do it no problem. If it fails their inner standard, they’ll push back. Their motto is, ‘If you can convince me why, I’ll do it…

Obligers are the most common group we will encounter. Chances are that you either are an obliger or certainly have met many in your life. Obligers readily meet our expectations but struggle to meet their inner expectations. It may be that someone who is a member of a running club can meet the expectations of their team or coach, but they struggle to run on their own. Obligers need outer accountability, even for inner expectations. If they want to read more, they join book groups… if they want to exercise more, they get a trainer or workout with a friend who will get mad if they don’t show. Their motto is, ‘you can count on me, and I’m counting on you to count on me…

Rebels resist all expectations, inner and outer. They want to do what they want to do in their own way, in their own time. They can do anything they want or choose to, but if you ask them or tell them to do something, they’re very likely to resist. Typically, they are the ones who don’t sign up for that class on a Saturday as they think, ‘well, I don’t know what I’m going to want to do on Saturday…’ and the idea of someone expecting them to show up bugs them. Their motto is, ‘you can’t make me, and neither can I!

Q: How does it help us to know our tendencies?

[Gretchen Rubin]: Self-knowledge is crucial. We have to understand ourselves and what kind of person we are. We need to know what it is we like to do when we feel like we’re succeeding.

It’s very easy to assume that if something works for someone else, it ought to work for us, and if it doesn’t work, there must be something wrong with us. It’s also easy to assume that if something works for us, it ought to work for others, and if it doesn’t work for them, well… there’s something wrong with them. In truth, there is not a right or wrong here. It’s a question of understanding how you thrive and that requires that you understand how you achieve your aims, for yourself.

The four tendencies allow people to understand themselves and achieve their aims more effectively with less wasted effort. They also allow people to show more compassion to others.

Q: Can understanding our tendencies help us build better relationships?

[Gretchen Rubin]: I communicate with people very differently once I know their tendencies, and I’m pretty good at it now. I will absolutely send an email with different language to a rebel; certain phrases will just irritate them!

Most people are surrounded by individuals with lots of different tendencies; it’s very unusual (and probably not that useful) to have an all-questioner team. You must learn to communicate well with everyone. You may need to build-in accountability for obligers (that’s how they’re going to do their best for you)… you may need to spend more time answering questions for the questioners, they likely will not get on board unless they understand why you are doing something. With rebels, they’re going to do what they want, so you need to make them understand why this is what they want to do. When you do that? They’re unstoppable. With upholders, you just tell them what needs doing and let them go – you don’t need to waste your time having lots of stand-ups and check-ins, you can perhaps lighten-up on that, they don’t need it as much as some of the other tendencies do.

Understanding the tendencies can be very helpful in understanding how to live and work more effectively with other people.

Q: Can we change our tendencies?

[Gretchen Rubin]: Personality has genetic roots, much of it is hard-wired for us as individuals. Most of us fit quite solidly within a tendency, but it’s also true that tendencies do overlap with each other. If you’re an obliger, you likely overlap with upholders (you both want to meet outer expectations) but you may also overlap with rebels because both of you resist inner expectations. You can therefore be an obliger who tips to being an upholder, or an obliger who tips to being a rebel.

People sometimes talk about wanting to evolve from one tendency to another. To me, it’s like why would you want to do that?! What you want to do is achieve your aims, and figure out ways to harness your strengths, offset your weaknesses and get to where you want to go. Don’t try to change your nature.

When you look at people who are the happiest, healthiest, most productive…. They are the ones who know themselves, know when they are succeeding, and know how to face the challenges they will experience in their lives. They have set-up their lives as much as they can to foster what they need, rather than trying to jam themselves into someone else’s definition of what they should do or want. It’s about making the most of what you’ve got rather than trying to fit yourself into a different mould.

Q: What can we all do to get that bit happier in our lives?

[Gretchen Rubin]: If you want to get happier, a great place to start is with relationships. Anything that deepens or broadens your existing relationships is likely to be something that will make you happier.  If you’re debating whether to go to that party, or reunion… if you’re wondering whether to visit that friend or call that person… you probably should, and it will probably make you happier.

You may also want to think about your own body. Our physical experience colours our emotions and so energy is very important. When we have energy, it’s a lot easier to do all the things we know would make us happier. Eating well and exercising are critical and research shows that contrary to what people might think, exercise tends to boost energy rather than deplete it.

It’s like I know I would be happier if I went for a 20 minute walk, but I’m so drained I feel like all I want to do is binge watch TV.  It’s like if I had a little bit more energy, I could ask more of myself. People tell me repeatedly that by getting control over the stuff in their lives, they feel more in control over their lives generally and feel more free, lighter and more focused.  Little things that enable us to take control and to move our lives to create greater outer order – even the habit of making your bed – over and over people tell me that makes them happier.  These little actions can have surprisingly large consequences.

Ultimately, people are different. There are lovers of abundance, and lovers of simplicity. Simplicity lovers like order, empty space, and bare counters. Abundance lovers enjoy profusion, choice, collections, and piles. We need to stop trying to convince others that we are right and they are wrong – we need to share space and create environments where we all feel comfortable.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.