Gretchen Rubin Speaks About Habits and Happiness

January 31, 2016

by Katelyn Becker

WASHINGTON- Gretchen Rubin had lunch with an acquaintance and they began to talk about the person’s running habits. Rubin listened as the woman said that she used to exercise daily while running track in high school and she genuinely enjoyed the exercise. Except now, that person can’t motivate herself to run. That’s when Rubin became fascinated with the affect habits have on a person’s life. “I became determined to solve the puzzle about habits,” Rubin said as she began her book talk at Politics and Prose.

Gretchen Rubin, known by her sister as a “happiness bully” is the author of “The Happiness Project,” which sold millions and has been translated into 30 different languages. Her new book is called “Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives.”

Rubin is a graduate of Yale Law School where she was the editor of the Yale Journal. After graduating, she used to clerk for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. She then realized that she needed to pursue what made her happy, which was writing. “I’m at my happiest when I’m at a library or bookstore,” Rubin said as she looked at the packed room of people. The writer drew such a large crowd on Sunday that many people had to stand and sit on the floor.


Rubin emphasized how habits shape our decisions. She said they “are the invisible architecture of our life.” Often these patterns govern our lifestyle in ways we don’t even realize. She said that when it comes to lifestyle changes, people often want to make a habit out of exercise or meditating. But even for the woman who enjoyed running in high school, “people just as often complain about things they love to do,” Rubin said.

Half of the battle is getting to know yourself and how you respond to expectations in your life. For people trying to stick to New Year’s resolutions, she said that it takes 21 days to make and break a habit. The biggest step to establishing a habit in your life is to understand how you react when you put expectations on yourself. If we can tailor how we set up new habits in our lives, it becomes easier for us to personally succeed. “What I’ve noticed is that these work sometimes for some people,” Rubin said about specific habit plans. Everyone is different.

The first thing that Rubin said you have to learn about yourself is if you are a morning person or a night person. Rubin said it’s a factor that divides us pretty accurately. Some wake up and can be productive, while others stay up until 2 a.m. pumping out work. Being happy means setting up your life in a way that enables you to succeed.

Rubin then spoke about the concept in her book that deals with vices. She said that in this situation there are two divisive categories as well. When people abstain from something (whether it be cigarettes or ice cream) there are two types of people: the moderators and the abstainers. The moderators can only get by if they allow themselves a small dose of the vice sometimes to keep them going. On the other hand, abstainers are all or nothing people and either can have it or they can’t have any. Rubin admitted she was an abstainer. “I’ve never had a half a dish of ice cream in my entire life,” she said. When trying to stop a bad habit, it’s important to understand how you can chart it according to your tendency. “If you can’t do a little, try none,” Rubin said.

She also said to stray away from goals. If there is an activity you want to truly integrate into your life, then goals can pose danger. “Aiming for a goal is a great way to achieve a goal,” Rubin said. She explained that setting goals means there is an endpoint and often people don’t make it a habit after they get to the finish line. She said with diets, people often set a goal weight and once they reach it, they go right back to eating how they were before. Rubin said it’s not about an end goal, “it’s about eating healthy forever.”

Finally, she described her book’s personality framework that has four categories of people. The framework is designed to assess how a person responds to expectations. There are the upholders that meet all deadlines and fulfill every obligation within themselves and put on them by others. There are the questioners that question every expectation and only do it if it makes sense. There are the obligers that only succeed if they have outer expectation and pressure from others but the inner desire is not there. Lastly, there are rebels who only do what they want. The majority of people are obligers.

Rubin said that the happiest people are the ones who know their tendencies, accept themselves, and implement healthy habits in a way that will work for them. For example, for an obliger personality, if they want to exercise, they should call up a friend or teach an exercise class.

To Rubin, the key to making happiness a habit is self-acceptance. Once we accept our personality traits, our tendencies, and the way we act under expectations, we can learn how to effectively implement healthy habits in our lives. Once you have the aims, you can set up your life in order to maintain healthy habits. It’s about “How can I get the world to suit me better?” Rubin said.


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