A former law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, author Gretchen Rubin spent a year test-driving dozens of techniques and notions that purport to make people happier. Her 2009 book, The Happiness Project, spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list, even reaching number one.
So how do you follow up a project like that? Rubin decided to tackle another element of happiness: how to change habits that don’t serve you well and how to develop habits that help you achieve your goals. According to Rubin’s husband, her earlier books tried to answer the question “How do I become happier?” but her new title, Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, answers the question “No, seriously, how do I become happier?”
In her new book, Rubin explores the nature of habit and challenges some basic psychotherapy principles to propose that, rather than awareness and insight, many people just need more external motivation to make the changes they need in their lives. In the following conversation, she focuses on what she considers limitations of psychotherapy as a road map for change.
RH: How did you come to be interested in happiness research? Were you looking for a way out of your own depression?
Rubin: No, I wasn’t. In fact, I distinguish between happiness, ordinary unhappiness, and depression, because I believe that depression is its own category, in need of urgent attention. A friend of mine once said, “I’m a happy person who happens to suffer from depression,” and I knew exactly what she meant. My interest in researching happiness began one day when I was sitting on a city bus on an ordinary day in the pouring rain, and I had this rare opportunity for reflection that you don’t usually get when you’re running around. I remember thinking to myself, What do I want from life? Well, I want to be happier. So I went off to the library and got all these books on happiness. It was such a rich, deep, fascinating subject!
RH: What are the main misconceptions about happiness that you discovered?
Rubin: The term happiness suggests it’s like an on/off switch, or that there’s a magic finish line that we cross to achieve it. It’s better to think about being happier—“If I did this or that, would I be happier?” It’s not about achieving some perfect state. It’s just about moving in the right direction. People want to dispute the idea that it’s even possible to be happy, that it’s even a state, or they want to argue about whether you should want it. But if you said to them, “If you did such and such, do you think that would make you happier?” usually they’ll say yes. It’s more helpful and realistic to frame happiness as a direction, rather than a destination.
RH: What stands out most in your research?
Rubin: The key to building a happy life is basing it on the foundation of your own nature, your own values, your own interests—the distinctive structure of your own personality. With habits, you always hear people saying things like “Do it first thing in the morning” or “Do what Steve Jobs did” or “Do it for 30 days” or “Start small” or “Give yourself a cheat day.” But there’s no magic one-size-fits-all approach, because it all depends on the individual. Some people do better when they start small, others do better when they start big, others do better first thing in the morning, and others late at night. So you really have to think about who you are, which you’d think would be easy because you hang out with yourself all day long, yet it’s a great challenge to know yourself and grasp what’s true about you.
RH: You emphasize that when it comes to understanding habits, people can be sorted into four broad categories.
Rubin: There are Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels. Upholders readily respond to outer and inner expectations alike, so they meet a work deadline or achieve a New Year’s resolution without much fuss. In contrast, Questioners question all expectations. They’ll meet an expectation if it makes sense, but they hate anything arbitrary or unfair; once they get on board, however, they can meet an expectation. So in a way, everything is an inner expectation for them.
Then there are Obligers, who meet outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations—like a friend of mine who asked, “Why is it when I was in high school on the track team I could regularly go running with no problem, but now I can’t do it on my own?” When she had a coach and a team waiting for her, she could run and stay in shape, but now she can’t because she’s only got the expectation from herself.
And then there are Rebels, who resist all expectations, outer and inner alike. They want to do what they want to do, and if you ask or tell them to do something, they’re likely to do the opposite.
For Obligers, the largest category, the absolute key is external accountability. It doesn’t work for them to say, “I want to read more because reading is so important to me” or “I want to eat a healthy breakfast because I want to put myself first.” They need to find a form of external accountability. If they join a book group where they’re expected to read the book, they’ll read the book; if they think about their duty to be a role model for their children, they’ll eat a healthy breakfast.
In some psychotherapy, the therapist wants to help you hold yourself accountable. But for many people, especially Obligers, external expectations are far more effective in getting people to act. But it’s different with Rebels. If they’re externally accountable for something, their spirit of opposition is likely to be triggered, and they may be inclined to push back, even if that’s not in their best interest. If I say to a Rebel, “It’s important for you to take this blood pressure medication,” she might come back with, “Whoa, you’re not the boss of me. I’m not gonna take it.” The more I tell you to do it and try to hold you accountable, the more you push back to show your own freedom.
You have to know who you’re dealing with. If it’s a Questioner whom I’m requiring to take blood pressure medication, the response will be “Why? And why this dosage, and why this brand? Why am I listening to you? Why in the morning? Why at night? Why a man my age?” All these things must be answered if a Questioner is going to take that medication religiously. But once he determines it’s really important, he’ll have no trouble with it.
Anyway, this is a long way of saying it’s really important to know who you are because that has enormous implications for the things that’ll make you happy and for developing good habits that you can stick with.
RH: What can therapists learn from the framework you’re describing?
Rubin: One of my psychologist friends says, “My job as a therapist is to help clients meet their inner expectations.” I think that’s a big waste of time and energy because that’s not going to work for everyone. For many people, it’s much better to have external accountability, because that makes it easier for them to get motivated. I think a lot of times people get frustrated with therapists because they want them to provide external accountability, but they won’t: they don’t see that as their proper role. That’s why with many people I think coaches are often more effective. The whole point of a coach is to hold you accountable. Therapy is all about insight; coaching is about holding you to it, and I think that’s what a lot of people need.
RH: The key is whatever your personal tendency happens to be?
Rubin: Yes. For me, as an Upholder, my inner expectations of myself are just as important as the expectations of others. So I have that built in. If I were to go to therapy, I wouldn’t need help with that. But there are people who wonder, “Why do I have such low self-esteem that I put everybody’s needs before my own?” or “Why can’t I learn to become motivated by what’s important to me?” And I’m like, “That’s not what’s really going on; it’s really about external accountability. With external accountability, you can do anything you want.” I’ve heard so many ingenious solutions from Obligers figuring this out. They can do anything because they’re amazing at meeting external expectations.
RH: But being overly obliging can often be destructive.
Rubin: Sure. I’ve seen a certain pattern I call “Obliger rebellion,” where Obligers will meet expectations, and then all of a sudden they’ll snap and be like, “Now I’m putting my foot down and I refuse to do this.” In fact, there’s a real affinity between Obligers and Rebels, and Rebels tend to look to Obligers for their long-term relationships. That’s the only pattern that’s stable for Rebels.
RH: I can see that, because you have someone who’s really compliant and someone who’s really resistant.
Rubin: Also because the Rebel is saying, “Come with me, and we don’t have to do what they say.” Obligers get excited about that. To an Upholder and a Questioner, that’s not exciting. They say, “What are you doing? Why are you doing that? That’s not attractive to us.” Of course, it’s natural to overgeneralize and think everybody is like whatever habit tendency group you happen to be in. Now that I know only a small number of people are Upholders like me, I’m much more patient.
RH: I think a lot of therapists would recognize themselves as Obligers in your framework because they can sit and listen and accommodate for hours. When I supervise my students, they’ll often complain about clients who won’t stop talking, even at the end of the session. They’ll say they’re afraid to cut them off for fear of offending them.
Rubin: It might help them if you framed it as an obligation: as therapists, they’re obliged to give the client boundaries, to let them know the limits on their time. You might let them know that they have a duty to their other clients—which is that if they exhaust themselves serving one person, they won’t have enough to give the others.
RH: So your point is that when someone recognizes which type they might be, within your framework, the path to habit change becomes so much clearer?
Rubin: Yes, recognizing which of the four categories best fits you is enormously helpful. Someone once said to me, “Every time I’d ask my husband to do something, he’d refuse, and I’d take it personally. I thought we needed to go into marriage counseling because he was so disrespectful to me. But now I realize he’s a Rebel, and he’s like that with everyone. That’s just the way he is, for better or worse. He doesn’t do anything that anyone tells him to do.”
It might make people uncomfortable, especially psychotherapists, to have labels for people’s tendencies because they can become constraining and limiting. But these labels can be a powerful spotlight to help you see with greater clarity the way you are, without letting it become a chokehold on your sense of identity and responsibility.
RH: Labels are a good servant but a poor master.
Rubin: That’s the line I use all the time!