Gretchen Rubin is a bestselling author of four books, and we spoke with her about the important (but often overlooked) topic of happiness.
Rubin talks about the controversies around about what constitutes a happy life and how to achieve it. “I think it’s more helpful to think about being happier. [..] it’s not about achieving a specific aim,” Rubin says. The idea of pursuing happiness as a book project came to her on a crowded commuter bus. The subject matter, she realized, was enormous.
Tony Robbins talks about life reflecting your habits and standards. Rubin, however, says there can be no one definitive list of habits that create happiness. Each person has to devise their own unique set of strategies.
As Rubin points out, “what’s the best way to cook an egg?” has no definitive answer because, “it depends on how you like your eggs.” There are however some basics – functional relationships and self-knowledge being two significant components of any happy life.
Rubin doesn’t cultivate planning-related habits. Instead, her habits are related to action. She talks about “the one-minute rule” – anything that can be done immediately, should be, which stops tiny tasks from accruing.
Another key habit she references involves getting sufficient sleep, a universal human need. Ruben will take 25-minute naps during the day to recharge. To give another example, she has started going to the Met gallery every day to help enrich her senses. Having a daily enriching ritual can help set a day off well, promoting happiness.
Ruben developed 21 strategies to help promote good habits. She gives the example of making distractions like Netflix harder to pursue by putting the remote control out of reach. This technique of making temptation harder seems to work fairly universally. There are other strategies which will only work for some people, however, such as abstaining completely from that which tempts you. For others, moderation is a better option.
For some people, external accountability is a great motivator; for others it can be counterproductive. The key thing is knowing which strategies work for you and tailoring your approach accordingly. Ruben created a short quiz to help readers discover which personality type they were, and therefore which motivational strategies will work best.
These strategies are linked closely to four tendencies which Ruben identified.
Ruben doesn’t like talking about “motivations” since this can be an ambiguous term. It could mean:
Under the first definition, you might feel highly “motivated” but not actually do anything about it. For this reason, Rubin prefers to talk about aims and actions.
In Rubin’s scheme, happiness has three components:
Rubin concentrates on that third component, which is the easiest to manipulate and improve. “It’s easier to go from the inside to the outside,” she explains.
The four tendencies thar Rubin identifies are (broadly defined):
Depending on which tendency you have, you will need a different set of strategies to achieve happiness and develop helpful habits.
The tendencies can be thought of in terms of inner and outer expectations. Whether we meet or resist inner or outer expectations will define what tendency we call into. Thus:
Regardless of personality type, everyone has loopholes – specific courses of action that let one off the hook in particular circumstances. In her schema, Rubin lists ten such common loopholes. For example, “I don’t have time to go to the dentist because I’m too busy working” – this is a false choice loophole.
One unusual strategy, if you’re an obliger and tend to be harsh on yourself, is to think “how would I treat a puppy (or toddler) and what would they need?” You will need basically the same things – affection, fun, food, rest, stimulation etc. Realising this can be quite freeing.
Obligers and Upholders will have to experiment to discover sort of external obligation works for them. For some it may be an app that insists on accountability (such as a diet or exercise app), for others a specific person, such as a boss or friend. Spouses or romantic partners tend not to be great accountability partners. We sometimes try to manipulate them or gravitate towards people who reinforce our patterns of avoidance.
We always benefit from greater intimacy but in 2022 we are all becoming a little more remote from one another. Making time for face-to-face sharing is vital and will help cement such deep bonds.
Rubin wrote a follow-up book, Happier at Home, in an attempt to look deeper into homelife and determine what’s most important. This is not an area to neglect when you’re seeking overall happiness. In her research, relationships were the closest Rubin found to a universal value.
Working on those is one of the strongest things we can do to increase overall happiness.