How Habits and Happiness are Linked

Happiness doesn't always make us feel happy, says New York Times bestselling author Gretchen Rubin. That's because it's a complex state of well-being that requires awareness of both positive and negative emotions, personal values, temperaments, and habits.

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Dr. Michael Gervais has a podcast series called Finding Mastery built around a central goal: unpacking and decoding how the greatest performers in the world use their minds to create amazing journeys while they pursue the boundaries of human potential.

He recently sat down with author Gretchen Rubin. Gretchen has spent the past decade researching and writing about happiness and is the author of several books, including the blockbuster New York Times bestsellers The Four Tendencies, Better Than Before, and The Happiness Project.

In this episode, Michael and Gretchen discuss how happiness and habits are linked.

Michael Gervais: Welcome back or welcome to the finding mastery podcast. I am Michael Gervais and the idea behind these conversations is to learn from people who are on the path of mastery or switched on and dedicated their life’s efforts to figuring out difficult stuff and what these conversations are designed to do is understand what they’ve come to understand as best we possibly can but also work to understand the psychological framework. Like how do they explain events. What is their world view. How do they make sense of where they’re positioned in the world and literally how other people, and Mother Nature, and their craft all intertwine to be able to work together. And then we want to also understand the mental skills they’ve used to build and refine the craft that they’ve invested their life with.

Now this week’s conversation is with Gretchen Rubin and she spent the past decade researching and writing about happiness and she’s the author of several books including a massive New York Times bestseller The Four Tendencies and she’s also written Better Than Before and The Happiness Project. And I wanted to talk to Gretchen about happiness because it’s something that every one of us seems to be searching for, yet some of us have trouble finding. And when you ask people on the street or in a casual conversation what are you looking for in life, what does it all come down to, many people do say “happiness.”

What’s been interesting on this podcast, many of the extraordinary thinkers and doers have not said they’re searching for happiness, they’re looking for something different than that. And so I wanted to pull up from an expert like how and why is happiness something that she spent her life working to understand. So she came up with her own personal framework about it. And it’s the idea being that each one of us fits into one of four characteristics and she calls them the four tendencies and so we talk about that in the podcast and these tendencies according to her explain the reasons behind why we do what we do based on how different people respond to expectations really. And we even touch on my tendencies we get into it and she was spot on with it. It was fun. And when we get to that part of the conversation take a moment maybe even hit the pause button to see where you are on her tendencies and her scale and to see where you think others that you’re close to are as well. And that might be a nice way to bring something home to your loved ones to have that conversation.

So Gretchen mentions that what’s interesting is that if you don’t understand the tendencies you might be sabotaging somebody else with your advice. I totally agree. And you know how I feel about advice. It’s a dangerous, dangerous thing to be able to do. And even if you have the best intentions. If you want to pull that thread a little bit further I did an episode of that on tribe talk and you can find that on our website. I hope this conversation teaches you a little bit more about yourself. I really do. And with that let’s jump right into the conversation with Gretchen Rubin.

Michael: Gretchen, how are you.

Gretchen Rubin: I’m great. I’m so happy to be talking to you.

Michael: OK so I want to do a couple of things with you. I want to know where you came from and what the formative years were like. And then I want to understand how you shaped your career path and took that direction which as I understand was more of a decision for you. And then I want to also understand the insights that you’ve learned from writing and how can the rest of us use some of those insights to improve the quality of our lives. So where did you come from. What was it like growing up?

Gretchen: I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, with a kind of very traditional set up like a mom and a dad and a younger sister and a dog and a yard. And I had a very kind of peaceful, happy childhood. And I’m still very close to my family, which is really great.

Michael: OK. So mom and dad they stayed together their entire marriage. And then did you have siblings.

Gretchen: Yes, I have a younger sister. And for people who listen to the Happier podcast they know my sister Alicia as my cohost — she’s five years younger than I am. We are very, very close.

Michael: What was it like growing up with somebody who was five years younger because there is some research or some findings that five or six years difference between siblings is like growing up as an only child.

Gretchen: Well you know it’s interesting because right now as a parent my own daughters are six years apart so they are even further apart (than my sister and I). And for us it was great. I mean my daughters are very close now — they’re 12 and 18 and they have been very close always.

My sister and I weren’t so close growing up — we were never antagonistic but we were kind of in our own worlds and kind of like only children as you say. I mean I was definitely aware of my sister and spent tons of time with her but I had my friend she had her friends who were doing very different things. But then as we got older, those age differences mattered less, say starting in college we got closer and you know she’s a professional writer she’s a television writer in Los Angeles and also a fiction writer. I’m a professional writer. She switched before I did. She was my role model in a lot of ways. So we have a lot of similar professional interests as well as being temperamentally very similar so I think that made it easier for us to have an enduring relationship because [we] had a lot in common

Michael: How does your sister describe you? This is like maybe a sneaky way of trying to figure out how to show up in the world.

Gretchen: The funny thing my sister calls me is the happiness bully. That’s her nickname for me. She is a kind of a more fun person than I am and kind of a more likable person than I am. I’m a more disciplined person than she is. But all those things there are advantages too. I mean especially now that we work together we have this collaboration in our podcast. I think she sees the value of my discipline more than she maybe did before and she sees that it’s nice for her.

The funny thing my sister calls me is the happiness bully.

Michael: OK. So how about this thought — What was it about your upbringing in your family structure in the places that you grew up that led you down this path to want to understand happiness?

Gretchen: I don’t think there was much in my background that led me to this really. I mean I got interested in happiness not from a place of deep unhappiness but because I was pretty happy already and I thought well what do I want from life. I want to be happy but I never spent any time thinking about whether I am happy or if I could be happier. And I thought well I should have a happiness project. And I think my big interest is human nature and if I look back to my childhood that’s always been my interest — my intellectual interest is to understand human nature. And certainly happiness, good habits, my four tendencies framework. All this is an aspect of human nature. My first book was called Power Money Fame Sex: A User’s Guide. That was also an aspect of human nature. And then I wrote two biographies — Winston Churchill and one of JFK and those are also examinations of human nature. So I think that’s always been my subject. I think I just had to grow into understanding that I could do that, that I could write about human nature. It took me a while to find my way into it. And then once I got started — one subject, it’s so intense, a vast and limitless subject, that as I got interested in one thing then it would start to pull me towards the next things that I wanted to understand better.

Michael: OK that’s they make sense. I was curious about people and then so Churchill JFK like totally different leaders.

I like having huge subjects like happiness or Winston Churchill.

Gretchen: But you know it’s interesting. Well another thing that I like sort of like as process what I like to do is have a gigantic subject and then distill it down into what I think its most important and interesting and essential elements are. And so I like having huge subjects like happiness or Winston Churchill. And like trying to distill that down. And you’re right. I mean Churchill is so different from JFK though of course they knew each other. But for me they were interesting because they are such gigantic characters and they’ve been so studied and so discussed and looked at so closely that they’re like larger than life. We can see things in human nature more clearly in them just because they are so oversized. And so that’s what drew me to those two biographies.

Michael: Very cool. What did you come to learn about Churchill that maybe most people wouldn’t know because either they haven’t read your book but certainly haven’t studied deep enough about this form of leader.

Gretchen: Where do I begin. I mean the thing about Churchill is that — the way that I wrote these biographies is about the trouble, the problem of biography, which is that there can be no definitive account of a life. There’s always multiple ways of interpretation and you can always create — I can lead you in any direction as a biographer by giving you certain facts and highlighting certain information at the expense of other facts because I can’t include all facts in my account or it would be infinitely long. And so I’m telling you certain things and not others. So there’s the heroic Churchill and then there’s quite the opposite Churchill — both are true. And so that’s kind of what my biographies got. It’s called Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill. How can we see him in 40 different ways.

Michael: That’s a really cool insight because people are not unidimensional right. There’s lots of different facets that we have and I like to round a couple of things by you and see how you bounce off of it or reflect on it. Oftentimes when we ask people what they want — this is right square in your research and your writings — they’ll say “I want to be happy.” And for me there’s usually a pause and that pause for me is like is that really what we want. And the quest for happiness is certainly important. But there’s so much more just like there’s so much more to Winston Churchill there’s so much more to JFK so much more to you and me and my life not just one facet, not just one emotion. So how do you how do you wrestle with that piece?

Gretchen: Well one of the ways that I find it’s helpful to think about happiness, first of all, I never define happiness because you can drive yourself crazy. I started out in law and spent an entire semester arguing about the definition of contract. And there’s something like 15 or 17 definitions of happiness so you can spend a lot of time arguing about peace, satisfaction contentment, fulfillment, purpose. So there’s that whole definitional question so I just say, call it happiness. I liked the looseness of it and then — because you’re right, it can get sort of like what’s going on here what are we really talking about when we say we want to be happier. So I find it helpful to think about it like in sort of four steps.

So to be happy, to have a happier life one is you have to think about feeling good and so you want to you want to feel good. You want to have love, you want to have enthusiasm, you want to have your curiosity fulfilled. You want to have challenges that you can meet. So you want to feel good. But then you also want to think about feeling bad. Like I mean if you feel bad where do you feel anger, resentment, guilt, and you want to feel less feeling bad because often these negative emotions are important signposts for why you need to have change. You know if you feel guilty about something maybe it’s because in some ways you’re not living up to your values so that guilt is an important signal.

So there’s feeling good, feeling bad — those are kind of obvious — then there’s feelings right. And feeling right is a little bit more complicated because sometimes the things that we do to feel right aren’t things that make us feel good because we’re doing things to live up to our values even though we don’t actually — it doesn’t make us happy. Happiness doesn’t always make us feel happy.

Happiness doesn’t always make us feel happy.

I always think of this when a friend was telling me, “I don’t understand why I’m going to the hospital to visit my father. I mean he was a big jerk to me my whole childhood. My two brothers refused to see him. He’s still as big a jerk as he ever has been and yet I keep going to visit him and I dread it. I hate every minute I spend at his bedside” and then I look back on it and then I’m going yeah because you want to feel right because in your mind this is what you do as a son and this is the right way to behave. Even though it’s not making you feel good, it’s actually making you feel that it’s making you feel right because you’re doing something to live up to your values.

And then there’s the atmosphere of growth and the atmosphere of growth is that we’re happiest when we’re growing, when we’re fixing something, or learning something, or helping someone or pushing ourselves forward, or doing something to make a growth in the world. And sometimes even when everything else in your life is very bleak if you can have the atmosphere of growth that can be an engine for happiness. It’s very much within our control. So that’s how I like to think about it because otherwise it gets very complicated I think about well what do you want. And I’m like well just think about feeling good, feeling bad, feeling right, and an atmosphere of growth — that to me makes it clear to think through.

Michael: OK. And then if you add one more dimension to it, how do you hope people embrace sadness? Where does that fit into the equation — is that good or is that bad?

Gretchen: Well I would say that’s feeling bad but you would say but maybe it’s feeling right. You’re like well of course it’s right that I would be full of grief that my mother died. I don’t think what we want from life is a life where we are at 10 on the 1 to 10 scale in happiness. That’s not realistic, first of all. It wouldn’t even be a good life. And I don’t think that’s what anybody is aiming for. I don’t think anybody’s like “To have a happy life, what I really need to try for is a life in which I have no negative emotions.” I don’t think that people think that that’s something they would want. I mean that sounds almost anesthetized. So you have those negative emotions as part of a happy life.

I don’t think what we want from life is a life where we’re at a 10 on the 1-10 scale in happiness. That’s not realistic and it wouldn’t even be a good life. I don’t think that’s what anyone is aiming for.

Michael: Yeah that was kind of the initial inquiry — if you will, in that question, which was like it’s not just happy it’s not just joy. I want to feel and experience more of that, and I think a lot of people that are searching and exploring life want more of that but they also want to amplify other emotions as well that are “good” but they’re hard, difficult —

Gretchen: Do you think they want to feel more sorrow?

Michael: Yeah I think that’s a I think there’s a gender twist to that and I think that for many young boys were taught not to feel much. And so as we get a bit older a bit mature a bit more aware that yeah, when somebody dies when something is said I want to have the capacity to feel sad.

Gretchen: So you want greater intensity of emotion.

Michael: Better connection, and better authentic expression. So I think that there is a gender thing in there because the sandbox is so different for us and that that was my that was my first part of that question — how are you thinking about bad and good, which you explained, and then is sadness necessarily bad? I think it’s hard. It’s really it’s like and I don’t mean chronic sadness. But like when somebody dies or something dies. And this is this is a high order of thought for me like do I want to be sad because I also understand that this is natural death takes place. What am I sad for? Is this like a selfish feeling that I’m sad that they are no longer in my life? Well wait a minute they live the good life is this is this actually guilt masquerading as sadness. So I don’t want to be too heavy and too dark but if we’re going to talk about the light of happiness I think it’s also important to understand how do we deal with difficult emotions.

Gretchen: Well I think they have a lot to teach us because yeah you’re right. Like when you’re feeling that emotion you can tell what am I feeling and why am I feeling it. I think they’re meant to help guide us often. I mean sorrow in the loss of someone is not instructive in the way that anger is instructive or resentment is instructive or guilt is instructive because why do you feel guilty. Are you are you doing something that you know you shouldn’t be doing.

Michael: Right.

Gretchen: If you’re feeling resentful, is somebody taking advantage of you? Maybe you need to fix that. If you’re feeling lonely, loneliness is a terrible emotion. Maybe that’s going to help drive you to connect with people because you’re like I don’t want to sit out at home I need to meet people and so that’s going to be a very helpful emotion or you know I’m really bored so yeah you know I think I will pick up the guitar and practice because I don’t have anything else going on. So yeah I think practicing the guitar sounds like it would be fun. Yes so these negative emotions can be very helpful.

Michael: Yeah for sure. Okay cool. And then we’re taught for so so long to not feel those and certainly not appropriate in certain contexts. And then so when we mute them what that muting eventually does to I think to strengthen the position that you’re in is that it doesn’t help us understand how to change and to express and relieve those other more difficult emotions so that we can be free to feel happy.

Gretchen: That’s it. That’s a really good point. I had never really thought it, right. If you numb yourself to it then you’re not getting the signalling value that the emotion is supposed to provide. So you’re not fixing anything in your life and you’re not moving forward given that information from yourself.

Michael: Yeah right. And then I’d love for you to bounce off this principle. You know this is great Gretchen we’re jumping right into the weeds like into the stuff so there’s so much more to understand about how you’ve got here and what you’ve deeply understood here.

But my second question is if I think it’s more nuanced and textured which is it possible to live a life that is free from the burden of difficult emotions and if it is, which I think it is, what are the strategies to help people be more free and be more open?

Gretchen: The question is it possible to live. I don’t think it is. I mean can you have a life where no one dies, where no one goes into the hospital, or nobody gets fired, where things don’t happen in the news. I don’t know. You can relinquish attachment and not care.

Michael: Let me let me intensify the word that I think was not emphasized enough which is “burdened” — burdened by difficult emotions. And so that’s but that’s the hard part of life is that I feel stuff, and I feel burdened by it, and I don’t know how to release it, to move through it, to let go of it, to think about it. And so I just feel burdened by the heaviness. And so what are the strategies to help people — and maybe this is where your framework comes into place — but what are the strategies to help people enjoy and experience more happiness?

Gretchen: Well one of the things I think is very true is that there isn’t a magic one size fits all solution for everyone because we’re all different — we all have very different interests, different values, different temperaments. So it can’t be like “If all of us spent half an hour listening to music we would be happier.” I think each of us has to decide what our own happiness project would be because each for each one of us what needs to be fixed is different and also what brings us happiness is different.

So for one person it might be connecting with animals would be a huge source of joy so they’re going to volunteer at an animal shelter and they’re going to foster kittens. I know somebody like this who is constantly showing me pictures of these funny kittens that she fosters — that would not bring me happiness, I wouldn’t be able to do that, but for her it’s something where she has the atmosphere of growth. She’s helping other creatures, she’s connecting with people who share her values. It’s a tremendous engine of happiness.

If you’re feeling like you want to be happier or you’re feeling like your burdened by negative emotions, what could you do tomorrow? What would you actually physically, concretely do tomorrow that might address that?

I think one of the things about my approach is it’s very concrete. I don’t really think that much in the abstract about like how would a person live a life unburdened by negative emotions. That is something for me that’s hard to think about because it’s so transcendent. So I think much more like well if you’re feeling like you want to be happier or you’re feeling burdened by negative emotions what can you do tomorrow. What would you physically, concretely do tomorrow that might address that? So I take it really down to the very very concrete and almost like visual it’s like can you see yourself doing something different. It’s not very internal, it’s not in your head it’s what you’re doing because I just feel like that something is easier to control.

Michael: I love it. Yeah for sure. Teach us about the core principles and the four tendencies framework that you’ve cultivated here.

Gretchen: So the four tendencies framework grew out of my study of habits. So I’ve been writing and researching happiness for a long time and I began to notice a lot of times people knew what would make them happier but they were just having trouble following through. They would say I know I’d be happier if I quit sugar or if I did more reading or I worked on my novel or I went to sleep on time or whatever it was — exercise — but I’m just not doing it. And so I became very interested in how habits have this very important role to play in a happy life. And then I got interested, well, why can’t people form habits when they want to? And so I identified 21 strategies that people can use to make or break habits and that was my book Better Than Before.

But one of the things that I stumbled on as I was trying to understand habits is this four tendencies framework. I divide the world into four categories — they say there are two kinds of people, the kind of people like to divide people into two kinds and those who don’t — and this had this had some relevance to habits but it’s actually much bigger than habits because your tendency will affect how you most effectively form habits but will also affect many ways that you make decisions or relate to people in ways that aren’t related to habits that are just like other parts of your life. Now I have a quiz online if people want to take a quiz. And like a million people have taken this quiz not literally but mostly all give a brief description and most people can tell that they are just from this brief description, and I want to hear what you are.

This has to do with how you respond to expectations — outer expectations like a work deadline or a request from a friend and inner expectations, your own desire to keep a New Year’s resolution, your own desire to get back into practicing French. So there are upholders, questioners, obligers, and rebels.

The Four Tendencies

1) Upholders readily meet outer and inner expectations. They meet the work deadline, they keep the New Year’s resolution without much fuss. They want to know what other people expect from them but their expectations for themselves are just as important.

2) Questioners: Then there are questioners — questioners question all expectations; they’ll do something if they think it makes sense. So they make everything an inner expectation if something meets their standard, they’re like “yeah that makes sense,” they’ll do it. If it fails their standard, they will resist and they typically resist anything that they feel is arbitrary or inefficient or unjustified.

3) Obligers: Then there are a obligers, obligers readily meet outer expectations but they struggle to meet inner expectations. And I got my insight into this tendency when a friend of mine said, “The weird thing about me is I know I would be happier if I exercised and when I was in high school I was on the track team and I never missed track practice. So why can’t I go running now?” Now I know, she’s an obliger. When she had a team and a coach waiting for her, she could go, no problem. When she was just trying to go on her own, she struggled.

4) Rebels: And then finally rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner, they want to do what they want to do, in their own way, in their own time. And if you ask or tell them to do something, they’re very likely to resist. Typically they don’t even want to tell themselves what to do — they won’t sign up for a 10 a.m. yoga class on Saturday because they’re like “I don’t know what I’m gonna want to do on Saturday and just the fact that somebody is expecting me to show up at 10am is just going to annoy me.”

So those are the four tendencies. So it comes up a lot with habits and all throughout our lives.

Listen to the full podcast to hear Gretchen and Michael discuss: 

  • Why negative emotions can be helpful
  • How Gretchen defines happiness
  • The four tendencies framework, and how individuals respond differently to expectations
  • and more…
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