One Thing You Can Do Right Now to Boost Happiness – 9 Questions For Gretchen Rubin

The quest for happiness is a universal human pursuit — and people are always searching for it in money, love, or the perfect dress size. It seems we’re still looking in all the wrong places — only one in three Americans say they’re happy, and we frequently score very low on happiness scales compared to other countries.

Despite a renewed interest in the science of happiness that extends beyond the self-help shelf, we’re still not content. Gretchen Rubin, best-selling happiness author, reveals why knowing yourself is the key to contentment in her newest book, The Four TendenciesBlue Zones founder Dan Buettner recently chatted with Rubin about habits, social media, and what you can do right now to boost your happiness.

1. How do you explain the success of your first book, The Happiness Project?

There was all this academic research that was being done about happiness that made it a rich subject, so there was a lot to talk about. People were engaging in it. In a way, I think it’s easier to understand these big principles when they are pulled to the lens of one person’s experience. Maybe you’d be like, “Sure, relationships make people happier” – it’s not like you dispute that, but you wouldn’t necessarily think about how it translates to yourself. For some people, reading a very personal idiosyncratic account of it allowed them to imagine how they would do it in their own lives. What a lot of people liked about the book was not so much that I was so interesting, but that it gave them thoughts about what they could do in their own lives, about what they would do for their own happiness.

Happiness can feel very transcendent and abstract and everything is tangled up with everything else.

Breaking it down that way made people visualize how they can make changes that apply to them.

2. In The Four Tendencies you talk about everyone fitting into one of four categories. How did you arrive at those characteristics?

[Editor’s note: Upholders easily meet outer and inner expectations; Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet inner expectations; Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner; Questioners question all expectations.]

I’ve been a constant student of human nature. I’m always saying, “Why are people the way they are?” Why can people sometimes change and sometimes can’t change? Why do we act the way we act or why do I act the way I act? So, I’m always looking for these patterns. When I was writing my book about habits I was trying to understand patterns that I saw in the way people behaved or in the challenges people felt.

People kept saying things that were uncannily similar, but that did not ring true for me. Somebody would say, “I would never keep a New Year’s resolution because January 1st is an arbitrary date.” And to me, the arbitrariness of [the date] just doesn’t bother me. Then, I had a conversation that really rocked me to my core. My friend said when she was in high school and on the track team she never missed practice, so why can’t she go running now? Same person, same behavior. At one time, it was effortless; now, she can’t do it.

What’s going on? I began to identify these patterns that I could not sort out. I couldn’t tell what was a category and what wasn’t. I was just trying to figure it out and suddenly, while sitting at my desk, I will never forget it, I saw that it was all about expectations. The minute I locked into that word I saw there are outer expectations and inner expectations. Once that was clear then everything started to come together. It was amazing, like all these puzzle pieces fitting together. The four tendencies account for every situation. There cannot be three and there cannot be five. All expectations fit into one of the four.

Graphic via Two Roads Books.

3. What is one thing we can learn from The Four Tendencies?

The Four Tendencies is going to explain why you act, why you don’t act, and why others act or don’t act. Why do people do what they do and won’t do what they won’t do? Why don’t patients follow their doctors’ orders? Why don’t people take vacation time? Why does your spouse drive you crazy? Why is your very smart teenager threatening to drop out of high school? Why do people act the way they do? There are many reasons, and this is one explanation.

4. What have you learned about the relationship between happiness and health?

Health is kind of like money, in that it’s easy to take it for granted, and it’s a much more obvious in the negative. When you don’t have your health, you are very aware of how it can drag down your happiness and when you do, it’s hard to remember how important it is. Trying to have some way to remind yourself to be grateful is so helpful. Being pain-free, being independent and energetic, not thinking about your body is such a tremendous boon and every day we should be grateful for it, but it’s easy to take that for granted.

5. How can the average person form a habit to last long enough to do the right thing or not do the wrong things for long enough, so he or she doesn’t end up with diabetes, heart disease, cancer, etc.?

Well, I have a 260-page answer to that in Better Than Before. I go through 21 strategies of how to change. Some of these strategies work very well for some people and not at all for others; some are strategies that work for us at some points in our lives and not for other times. For example, the word diet implies that you are eating a way temporarily, and really what you have to do is figure out a way to eat that way forever. This is a permanent change that you are making. That can feel scary to people.

Convenience is huge. Just make unhealthy choices inconvenient. If it’s inconvenient, people are less likely to do it to a crazy extent.

The most minor changes in convenience and inconvenience have dramatic influence on when and how people behave. It’s the easiest method there is.

6. Social media is ingrained in everyday life today. How much time can people spend with social media without having it impact their authentic happiness?

It just depends. People are very different. The 70-year-old grandmother would have a different answer from the 16-year-old high school student.

Every medicine can become poison. I think it’s important for each of us to decide how to use it in a way that adds to our happiness.

A lot of people think that social media is bad, but social media makes it easier to have relationships with other people, which is a huge happiness booster.

One happiness challenge on social media today is the news. People report that they get upset when they check social media and feel distraught about the amount of information. So, one of the things I always say is read the news on paper, because then you get the news so that you are an informed citizen, which is important, but it’s more analytical on paper. It’s less of an emotional experience because it doesn’t have sound or video and you come to the end of it. You read the paper and then it’s done.

My big core argument is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. There is no universal answer; it all depends on you. I can’t do what Steve Jobs did or what Benjamin Franklin did. There is no printout from Buzzfeed that’s going to tell me what to do. There’s no “best practice” because all people are different.

7. Is there anything people can do to stack the deck in favor of happiness that works for almost all people?

Relationships. Ancient philosophers and modern scientists would agree that relationships are a key, and maybe the key, to happiness.

Anything that broadens your relationships or deepens your relationships is going to make you happier.

Of course, people have very different preferences in the kind of social situations they like and how many connections they want to maintain, but relationships are key.

8. How should we approach evaluating our own happiness?

This is very different for all of us. We all have different values and different things we want from life. For example, take the study about commutes. It says if you want to be happy, you should have a short commute. So, the solution is to live closer to work and then you’ll be happier.

Why, then, do most people have a long commute? It’s because they want to live in a good school district or they want to have a certain kind of place for their children. It’s not like they don’t know they are not going to like a long commute, they are accepting that because it’s part of a deeper value, which is that they want to be a certain kind of parent for their children. While it’s no fun to have a bad commute, in the end you are serving your own values because you are being a certain kind of parent. Happiness doesn’t always make you feel happy. It’s about self-awareness. Know thyself. The Four Tendencies quiz can help you evaluate yourself — it is meant to be that kind of tool.

9. Is there anything people can do right now to boost their happiness?

You can:

  • Do 10 jumping jacks.
  • Listen to your favorite upbeat song.
  • Connect with somebody by walking across the office and talking to them.
  • Email somebody or, even better, call.
  • Enjoy a beautiful smell — that’s one of my favorite ways to give myself a quick pick me up.
  • Do a good deed.

If you want to do a random act of kindness, there isn’t a more powerful few minutes than signing to be an organ donor. You never have to lift a finger. It is the laziest, most excellent good deed that you can do that will give you a happiness boost.

Gretchen Rubin is author of New York Times bestsellers The Happiness Project, Better Than Before and Happier at Homeand co-host of the award-winning, chart-topping podcast Happier with Gretchen Rubinwhere she provides concrete, manageable happiness tips to implement in your everyday life. Her newest book, The Four Tendencies, will explain how to become a happier, healthier, more productive person by answering the simple question, “How do I respond to expectations?”

The Four Tendencies - Gretchen Rubin

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