Happiness Expert Gretchen Rubin on Why a Happy Life Starts with Knowing Who You Are | Next Big Idea Club
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Happiness Expert Gretchen Rubin on Why a Happy Life Starts with Knowing Who You Are

Happiness Expert Gretchen Rubin on Why a Happy Life Starts with Knowing Who You Are


  • Whether you are an Upholder, Obliger, Questioner, or Rebel
  • Why some people may crave not only more happiness, but also more sadness
  • How to use negative emotions as a helpful guide

Gretchen Rubin is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Happiness Project and The Four Tendencies. High performance psychologist Michael Gervais recently hosted her on the Finding Mastery podcast to discuss her revolutionary new take on personality profiles, and why true happiness looks a little different for each of us.

Michael: Life is more than just one emotion. How how do you wrestle with that?

Gretchen: Well first of all, I never define “happiness,” because you can drive yourself crazy. There’s something like 15 or 17 definitions of happiness—you can spend a lot of time arguing about peace, satisfaction, contentment, fulfillment, purpose.

So what are we really talking about when we say we want to be happier? I find it helpful to think about having a happier life in four steps. One, you have to think about feeling good—you want to have love, you want to have enthusiasm, you want to have your curiosity fulfilled.

So you want to feel good, but then you also want to think about feeling bad. If you feel bad, where do you feel anger, resentment, guilt, anger? These negative emotions are often important signposts for [where] you need to have change. If you feel guilty about something, maybe it’s because you’re not living up to your values.

Then there’s feeling right, and feeling right is a bit more complicated. Sometimes the things that we do to feel right aren’t the things that make us feel good, because we’re doing things to live up to our values even though we don’t actually like it, and it doesn’t make us happy.

I thought of this when a friend was telling me, “I don’t understand why I’m going to the hospital to visit my father. He was a 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 visiting him. I hate every minute I spend at his bedside.” And then I’m like, “Yeah, because you want to feel right. 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.”

And then there’s the atmosphere of growth. We’re happiest when we’re growing—when we’re fixing something, learning something, helping someone, or pushing ourselves forward. Even when everything else in your life is bleak, if you have the atmosphere of growth, that can be an engine for happiness. It’s very much within our control.

“We’re happiest when we’re growing—when we’re fixing something, learning something, helping someone, or pushing ourselves forward.”

Michael: Do you hope that people embrace sadness? Where does that fit into the equation?

Gretchen: I don’t think we want a life where we are [always] at 10 on the 1 to 10 happiness scale. That’s not realistic, and it wouldn’t even be a good life. A life in which I have no negative emotions sounds almost anesthetized. Negative emotions are part of a happy life.

Michael: I think a lot of people that are exploring life want more happiness and joy, but they also want to amplify other emotions as well.

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

Michael: Yeah, and I think there’s a gender twist to that. I think that many young boys were taught not to feel much, so as we get a bit older and more aware, [it’s like,] “When somebody dies, when something is sad, I want to have the capacity to feel sad.”

Gretchen: So you want greater intensity of emotion.

Michael: [And] better connection, better authentic expression. If we’re going to talk about happiness, I think it’s also important to understand how to deal with difficult emotions.

Gretchen: Well, they have a lot to teach us—they’re meant to help guide us. If you’re feeling lonely, maybe that’s going to help drive you to connect with people. If you numb yourself to it, then you’re not getting the signaling value that the emotion is supposed to provide. You’re not fixing anything, and you’re not moving forward.


Michael: Teach us about the Tendencies you’ve created.

Gretchen: The Four Tendencies framework grew out of my study habits. I’ve been writing and researching happiness for a long time, and I began to notice that a lot of times, people knew what would make them happier, but they were having trouble following through. They would say, “I know I’d be happier if I quit sugar, or if I did more reading, or if I worked on my novel, or if I went to sleep on time… But I’m just not doing it.”

So I became interested in how habits have this very important role to play in a happy life, and one of the things that I stumbled on was this Four Tendencies framework. Your Tendency will affect how you form habits, and also affect [how] you make decisions or relate to people. This has to do with how you respond to [outside] expectations, like a work deadline or a request from a friend, and our own expectations, like your desire to keep a New Year’s resolution and your desire to get back into practicing French.

There are Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels. Upholders readily meet outer and inner expectations. 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. Then there are Questioners, [who] question all expectations. They’ll do something [only] if they think it makes sense, if it meets their standard. They typically resist anything that they feel is arbitrary or inefficient or unjustified.

Then there are Obligers. Obligers readily meet outer expectations, but they struggle to meet their [inner] expectations. 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 never missed track practice. So why can’t I go running now?” 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.

And finally, Rebels resist all expectations, the outer and the 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 am yoga class on Saturday, because they’re like, “I don’t know what I’m going to want to do on Saturday, and just the fact that somebody is expecting me to show up at 10 am is going to annoy me.”

So those are the Four Tendencies. And it comes up a lot all throughout our lives.

Michael: So if somebody wants to make a New Year’s resolution, would it help for somebody to know where they are in your Tendencies?

“Negative emotions are part of a happy life.”

Gretchen: Absolutely. If you’re trying to figure out someone’s Tendency, knowing how they feel about New Year’s resolutions is often a very good tip off. Obligers—the largest group—will often say that they’ve given up making New Year’s resolutions, because they’ve tried and failed so often that they really let themselves down. They feel very discouraged.

If you’re an Obliger and you want to make a New Year’s resolution, I’m going to tell you the solution: Create outer accountability for your inner expectation. If you want to read more, join a group. If you want to exercise, work out with a trainer or a friend who will be disappointed if you don’t go. Think about how your dog will be disappointed if he doesn’t get his daily run. Run for a charity, where they won’t make as much money if you don’t complete it. Think of your duty to your future self. Think of your duty to be a role model for other people. There’s a million ways to plug in our accountability—that’s what you need.

A lot of Upholders, Questioners, and Rebels will say things to Obligers like, “You’ve just got to want it! You’ve got to make it a priority! [Here,] let me show you the study about how important it is to exercise.” That’s not going to work for Obligers. What they need is outer accountability, and an accountability partner. That’s what works.

Questioners often will say things like, “I would never make a New Year’s resolution because January 1st is an arbitrary date. If something’s important to me, I’m going to do it right away—I’m not going to wait for some date.”

Michael: That’s 1000% how I think about it. Like, let’s start today!

Gretchen: For Questioners, it’s all about clarity and justification—[finding] the best, most efficient way and [coming to] trust the authority they’re listening to, or the information that they’re using. Once they truly buy in, their actions follow.

I was talking to a Questioner recently who really wanted to eat healthier, but just wasn’t following through. So I’m like, “You know, you talk to this nutritionist. Do you really believe [in his advice]?” And she’s like, “100% not. I don’t have faith in [him]. I don’t necessarily think this is the best way for me to eat.” And I’m like, “Well then of course you’re not doing it, because you’re like, ‘Why should I do it this way?’ You’ve got to put in the time to get yourself convinced [about] what you need to do.”

Rebels are tricky, because Rebels don’t even want to tell themselves what to do. So typically, they wouldn’t make a New Year’s resolution because they wouldn’t [want to] bind themselves. Sometimes they like a challenge, like “You think I can’t run the marathon in 2018? Well, I’ll show you! You think I can’t quit sugar for a whole year? Watch me. You think I’m chained to cigarettes? Big tobacco companies can’t control me. I’m going to quit.”


Michael: Something with Rebels that I’ve found useful—if I’ve got a suspicion like, “This person doesn’t realize it, but they’ve got a drug use habit,” I’ll bring it up: “Do you realize that you’re smoking a lot more than most people?” Then [I’ll ask,] “Could you stop?” And they say, “Yeah.” [Then I say,] “So prove it. Can you do it for a month?” [They go,] “I could if I wanted to.”

Gretchen: That is 100% correct. Somebody emailed me saying, “I want my husband—who’s a Rebel—to quit smoking. What can I say to him?” So I went through a bunch of messages that might work. She emailed me back later, and she said, “The thing that worked was [when] our 18-year-old son said, ‘Dad, an old guy like you could never quit smoking.’ And he’s like, ‘You don’t think so?’” It’s that feeling of, “I’m not going to be controlled—I can do these things, I can push myself.”

For New Year’s resolutions, it’s handy to be an Upholder—that’s what they’re good at. But what’s interesting is that if you don’t understand the Tendencies, you might be [unintentionally] sabotaging somebody else with your advice.

For instance, this woman came up to me after I gave a speech, and she said, “I realize that I’ve really been interfering with my son. He wants to study for the GRE, and he kept saying, “Mom, I need to take a class.” And I kept saying, “Oh no honey, if it’s important to do well, you can just buy a book and study on your own. You don’t need to go through all that.”

And she [said], “But now I realize that my son is 100% an Obliger. He needs the outer accountability of being in a class—showing up, having an assignment, knowing that the teacher is going to check his work.” She’s a Questioner—she doesn’t need that. But just because you don’t need something, doesn’t mean that somebody else doesn’t.

You might think to yourself, “Well, to help this Rebel child practice, we’re going to make a chart. And every day at 4 o’clock, I’m going to remind this child to practice, and I’m going to give her a star every time she does a good job, and if she does it five times, I’ll buy her a sweet. She doesn’t do it, and she’s going to lose that privilege.”

That’s not the way to reach a Rebel. The Rebel is like, “You know what? You can’t make me practice. You’re not the boss of me. You can’t tell me what to do.” And in fact, you may have a child who would be very happy to practice if that was their choice. But when you’re reminding them to practice, they won’t. Rebels say to me, “I was going to do X, Y, Z thing…”

Michael: “…until someone told me do it.”

Gretchen: “I was going to look for a job, until my wife reminded me that it was time to start making phone calls. And then I’m like, ‘Well, I’m not going to do it today.’” Knowing the Tendencies can make it a lot easier to not get in each other’s way like that.

“You can build a happy life, but only on the foundation of your own nature, your own values, and your own interests.”

Michael: Have you found any patterns in relationship satisfaction? Like a Rebel and an Upholder might have more tension than a Rebel and a Questioner.

Gretchen: The one that’s typically the most difficult is Rebel and Upholder, because they’re very [much the] opposite of each other. Interestingly, the most dominant pattern that you see often is a Rebel paired up with an Obliger. Obligers are kind of like the O blood type; they’re the ones that match up the most easily with the other Tendencies.

Michael: What’s the one thing that you would want people to know?

Gretchen: That there’s no magic, one-size-fits-all solution. You can build a happy life, but only on the foundation of your own nature, your own values, and your own interests. If you want to be happier, healthier, more productive, and more creative, you have to begin by saying, “Who are you? What kind of person are you? When have you succeeded in the past? What do you want? What works for you?”

And not to say, “Well this worked for Steve Jobs, so it should work for me.” Or, “This is what my mother wants, so this is what I should want.” Or, “Everybody’s getting married, so I should be getting married.” Maybe, maybe not. Just because something is fun for someone else or makes them happy, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to make you happy—and vice versa.

You always have to know yourself, and when you know yourself, you understand other people much better, too. It’s not that one person is right and one person is wrong—it’s just that sometimes people are alike, and sometimes they’re different. It’s just a matter of, “How do we all get where we’re trying to go?”

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to the full version, click here.

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