Series 28: Summer Best of For the Love | Episode 04
[Summer Best Of For the Love] Small Steps to a Happier Life: Gretchen Rubin
When lawyer-turned-writer Gretchen Rubin first came on the show in 2019, we were dazzled by the wisdom and tools she shared on how to live with more contentment, right where we are. A decade ago, Gretchen fancied herself a happy person. She had a job she liked, a husband and two daughters she loved, a life she enjoyed. But one day she found herself wondering, “Could I be happier?” So she set out to change her life—not in a blow-it-all-up-and-move-across-the-world kind of way, but with small steps over one year. Gretchen documented her experiment to live happier in the blockbuster New York Times bestseller The Happiness Project, and has inspired millions to improve their lives and find contentment. Jen and Gretchen talk about why it’s okay to pursue happiness in a world filled with hard things, and the little ways we can reach for a richer, more satisfying life. Gretchen shows how easy it is to work “happiness habits” into our lives (Jen adopted one immediately after this interview!) and how these small steps can yield big, long-term results. And don’t forget to check out Gretchen’s latest book Outer Order, Inner Calm.
Producer Laura: Hey, everybody, this is Laura, producer of the For the Love Podcast. Welcome to our Summer Best Of series. Our team got together with Jen and looked at some episodes we had in our archives that would be really relevant to come back and air again as we’re dealing with all the life-changing events of 2020. So this week’s Best Of episode is from lawyer-turned writer Gretchen Rubin, who talked to us about her wildly popular Happiness Project experiment, and gave us a sneak-peek into her latest book, Outer Order, Inner Calm—which has been released since Gretchen came on our show in January of 2019, so be sure to check that out. And with that, we hope you enjoy this conversation with Gretchen about how to take small steps toward a happier life.
Jen: Hey, everybody, this is Jen Hatmaker, your host of the For the Love Podcast. Welcome, welcome, welcome today. So glad that you are here.
So guys, we are in a series that I am absolutely loving. I was literally just wishing that it could be longer than it is. It’s called For the Love of Good Change. For the Love of Good Change.
We’re kind of in the middle of all this “New Year, New You” stuff swirling around us. And so I’m just wanting us to slow down and think about the changes we’re making and about the people that we want to be. And if we are interested in changing our trajectory, I’d like us—myself included—to approach these ideas with mindfulness, and not because we’re at some arbitrary day when we’re supposed to feel bad about ourselves and try to fix all the things. I actually don’t like that approach at all. Because the truth is, you can change your life any day of the year, one small decision at a time. That’s just real.
So in this series I’m talking to people who are going to share how we can make small, ordinary changes that add up to pretty big results. And so you guys, you’re going to love today’s conversation. I basically was leaning forward the entire time, listening with all my might. It’s just packed. It’s literally packed with amazing ideas and wisdom.
And so you’re going to love this conversation with my next guest. First of all, she’s so smart. She’s asked a lot of great questions that we’ve been watching over the years, and challenged us to think about why we do the things we do, and how we can turn the dials in little ways to become happier people.
So you guys, Gretchen Rubin is a human nature investigator. Honestly, that’s what she is. She explores all these habits that make us tick, and how the choices we make affect our inner joy and that of the people around us.
You probably know that she’s the author of several books, including the blockbuster New York Times bestseller The Happiness Project. That’s where I first met Gretchen. Happier at Home, Better Than Before and most recently, The Four Tendencies. So she’s got a weekly podcast called Happier with Gretchen Rubin, and she talks about good habits and happiness with her sister, who is TV writer Elizabeth Craft. They’ve actually been called the “Click and Clack of Podcasters,” which I just love.
So Gretchen was named to Fast Company’s list of Most Creative People in Business. Also, small deal, she’s a member of Oprah’s SuperSoul 100. And before she was a full time writer you guys, Gretchen was a lawyer who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. So you know, she’s doing okay. She’s all right. She’s all right. Gretchen’s a Kansas City native turned New Yorker. And she and her husband, Jamie, have two daughters.
So today she and I talk about her biggest book, The Happiness Project, which you’ve no doubt seen. It’s been out for ten years and is still so monumentally relevant. So we’re going to explore some discoveries that she made in that book, and some that she has made since. What’s changed in her life in the proceeding ten years, and what she’s learning and thinking about now. You guys, she has so much wisdom to share with us. I’m serious, buckle in, because you are going to love this entire hour.
Jen: So without further ado, I am so pleased to share my conversation with author and podcaster and all-around great human being, Gretchen Rubin.
Gretchen, welcome to the For the Love Podcast. I was just telling you before we started recording I have admired your work for years. Years and years and years. And you have helped shift our thinking. And you are just a really important and special voice, when I found you ten years ago. And your work is so approachable but it had such profound impact. And so I want to thank you, first of all, for what you have put into the world. And I want to thank you for being on the show today.
Gretchen: Thanks so much for the kind words and thanks for having me. I’m so happy to be talking to you.
Jen: Absolutely. So I’ve told our listeners a little bit about you, and tons of us already know a lot about you. But since you’ve written so many wonderful books, you’re so prolific, you have bottomless wisdom, apparently. Please tell me your secrets. I want to just jump in to some of your best stuff.
Tons of us, obviously, read and loved The Happiness Project. In my opinion, I believe that that book sort of shaped the way self help books were written over the next decade because—this is what I loved so much about it: you set out to change your life without changing your life. You made this intentional decision to avoid just blowing up all your categories, like, pulling up anchor, moving to another country, starting from scratch. And instead you took an approach like, This is the life I’m living. What can I do right here where I am?
And so I wonder if you could talk about this a little bit. A lot of people would say that happiness is just a part of a person’s nature. They’re kind of born that way. Or it’s a by-product of privilege or it’s just a good life that you happen to be born into. How did you figure out that you had to work at being happy?
Gretchen: Well, that’s a great question. And when I got sort of the idea to do The Happiness Project, when I even had that phrase in my mind for the first time, it was because I thought, Well, what do I want from life anyway? I want to be happy. But I don’t spend any time thinking about happiness or how I could be happier.
And I think of just sort of the crush of everyday life, and managing our to-do lists and just keeping track of what’s going on, it’s easy to lose sight of kind of these transcendent matters, and not see the low-hanging fruit.
I think for a lot of people, certainly for me, and I think this resonated with a lot of people, you didn’t have to take a lot of time, energy or money. You didn’t have to move across the world. You didn’t have to take a month, even, to do a silent meditation retreat or something. There’s a lot of opportunity in just our daily lives for little things that actually end up having maybe even a disproportionate boost. And it is very attainable, and it is something that is within the reach of the ordinary person.
And it’s funny that you say that about the book, because one of the big objections that a lot of people, just random people that I would talk to and also people in book publishing, said about the book is, “There’s no arc. You don’t go from a place of deep unhappiness to happiness. You don’t have the transformative life change. Basically, you were pretty happy when you started, and your life isn’t really any different after the year happens. So why does anybody care?”
And it felt like kind of a big leap to be like, “Well, I think I can write a book that will make people interested in that.”
So it was a huge relief to me.
Jen: Yes, well done. It worked.
Gretchen: I think it resonates with a lot of people because I think my experience was what a lot of people think: I am pretty happy. I do have the elements of a happy life. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be happier if I kind of up my game. And I just need some ideas and to think about it, take a little bit of time to think about it and how I might go about it, to see where those opportunities might lie.
Jen: Well, I can tell you that I absolutely appreciate your approach. In fact, sometimes the opposite approach pushes me into paralysis where, In order for me to be happy, I’m going to have to, well, obviously start a whole new career. And maybe get rid of all these kids I have. And start over with a new, better batch. Everything feels so monumental and so much upheaval and so much turnover that not only is that not what I want, I feel like I can’t handle it.
This is why the sort of path that you laid in front of us felt like, I can walk on this. This is doable, this is manageable, this is real life stuff. Which is why your book is just such an international bestseller.
So for listeners who haven’t read it, can you give us just a brief overview of how you conducted your happiness project?
Gretchen: Well, so I decided to spend a year, because I figured a year is long enough that real change can happen, but also it’s bounded, it doesn’t feel interminable. And kind of a year is one way we think about our lives. So I decided, Okay, I have a year, 12 months. So I did all this sort of thinking about the larger issue of happiness and some research on if you were going to try to make yourself happier, what ancient philosophers and contemporary scientists and pop culture, what do they tell you to think about? And let me try it. And I had to tailor it for me. Everyone’s happiness project would be different because some things that are really important to me wouldn’t matter to somebody else and vice versa.
So I identified 12 areas of my life where I thought, I think I could make myself happier in this area. And then within each month, each month’s theme, I gave myself a handful of concrete, manageable resolutions. Things I could really monitor, things that were realistic within that area. And so for example, for January I started with energy, vitality. Because I figured if I had more energy, everything else would be easier. Because a lot of times you’re like, I know I would be happier if I sent out holiday cards or if I planned a party or if I exercised or if I cooked more, or whatever. But you feel like, I just can’t deal with this, it’s too many emails, too many errands, I’m too tired, I just want to sit on the couch and watch The Office reruns, which is my go to.
So I thought, More energy will just make the whole year easier. So I started with energy, gave myself some concrete, manageable resolutions within that. And then as the year went on . . . A lot of people say well did it accumulate? Yes, because anything that I did that I felt actually was making me happier then I just kept doing it. Now that might sound really overwhelming, but a lot of the things that I did . . . You know, they don’t take any time, energy or money. It’s really just making up your mind to do it.
Gretchen: And they made me happier. And so a lot of the things that I do . . . And then many of the, most of the things that I do I still do to this day. Of course, I added thousands more because I’ve just . . . Any time I think of something I’m like, Ooh yeah! Choose a signature color, yeah! Throw that one into the mix.
Jen: That’s great. Just you saying that sentence made me smile.
Let me ask you a philosophical question. Essentially, why do you even think this is important? Why is it important to be a happy person? Why is this good work? Some people say, “Gosh, we’re not guaranteed happiness, that is not a thing that we get to have necessarily.” And so I would just like to know why you think pursuing happiness from the get-go is a good way to spend our time and our energy and our effort.
Gretchen: Well, that’s a really profound question, and I think that some people even worry that it’s not right to want to be happier. They might think, Oh, look, I have all the elements of a happy life. If I’m not happy, if I want to be happier, I must be a spoiled brat. What do I expect from the world? This is ridiculous. Or they think, In a world so full of suffering it’s not morally appropriate to seek to be happier.
But here’s the thing: why wouldn’t you be as happy as you can be, given your nature and your circumstances? I’m not saying everybody’s going to get to 10 on the 1– 10 scale. There’s certainly times in our lives where it wouldn’t be appropriate to be happy. Your mom’s dying in the hospital, you’re not going to feel happy. But can you be as happy as you can be given your circumstances?
And the fact is, even on just kind of what does it do for other people or why does anybody else care, happy people . . . Well first of all, happiness is, like, we catch emotions from other people. So happy people tend to make other people happier. So you’re going to influence other people to be happier if you’re happier.
Also, there’s all sorts of research like happier people are more altruistic, they give away more money, they volunteer more time, they make better leaders and better team members. They have less burnout, they have healthier habits. They’re more likely to give help when somebody needs help.
And you know this makes sense, because when we’re happy, we have the emotional wherewithal to turn outward.
Jen: That’s right.
Gretchen: And to think about other people and the problems of the world. And when we’re unhappy we tend to get isolated and defensive and preoccupied with our own problems, and we just feel like we can’t tackle anything else. And so even if it’s selfish to want to be happy, you should be happy even if only for selfless reasons.
You mentioned earlier this kind of is it hardwired? Well, research does suggest that about 50 percent of happiness is hardwired.
Gretchen: And some people are born Eeyores and some people are born Tiggers. And we all see that. You know that from life. But 10–20 percent is life circumstances, so that’s things like health, income, occupation, marital status, that matters. But then the rest is all very much within a reflection of our conscious thoughts and actions.
So I think each of us has a place where we are. Like maybe I’m 4–7, maybe you’re 7–10, but we can take action to push ourselves up to the top of that range instead of letting ourselves drift down to the bottom.
We’re not going to change our inborn nature, but we can change our experience of our lives. And I’m like, Why wouldn’t you do that?
Jen: That’s right. That’s right.
Gretchen: It’s more fun to be happy!
Jen: It’s more fun, and I really appreciate that sort of hardcore data on what it looks like when you’re happy communally. I mean, it really is good for your marriage, it’s good for your family, it’s good for your coworkers. It’s good for your neighbors. It may be an individual, sort of internal work, but it certainly has communal results.
One thing that I love about you, you have this incredible knack of asking very simple but pointed questions that yield weirdly profound results, honestly. So like for example, when you’re in the middle of a sticky situation, a question that you ask is “What is the problem?”
I actually love this because my head is real swirly and I have a million thoughts at all times, and I’m also emotional. So that question removes us from our big feelings for a second and forces us to pinpoint, “Okay, what is the actual problem here?”
I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about that observation, and give us an example or two of how useful it is.
Gretchen: Well, it’s so funny that you point that out, because it sounds so obvious that it almost sounds like, “Why are we even talking about this?” But it is very profound.
It’s one of these things where if you really take the time to identify the problem, a lot of times the solution is not where you think it is, and it also might be much simpler than you think it is.
I started my career in law, so I have a lot of friends who are lawyers. And a friend of mine was like, “Oh my gosh, I have to quit my job. I hate my job. I hate my life.” She was an associate in a big Washington D.C. law firm, she lived in Virginia, she was always [talking about] the horrible commute, the work.
But when she really identified the problem, when she was really like, “What do I not like about my life?” It was her commute. She had a very long, arduous, boring, stressful commute. She had to drive in and out every day and it was awful. Anybody who lives in Washington D.C. knows the traffic is out of control. Like it is in many cities.
Then she discovered audiobooks. And she would get the most delicious, captivating audiobook and listen to it in the car. And she said, “It totally transformed my life. I would literally find myself sitting in the driveway to listen for five more minutes before I left the car.”
A lot happened. She was like, “It wasn’t the job at all,” it was just that the commute was overshadowing the day at both ends and just making her feel like, “Oh, my life is terrible.” But when she really realized it was the commute, well then there was a very different kind of solution than “I need to quit my job and start a new career.”
And rarely is it that dramatic and that kind of like unexpected, but really identifying the problem can be [profound]. And also sometimes when you identify the problem, you see that you don’t have to solve it in the way you think you’ll solve it.
Because I wrote the book Better Than Before, I was always asking people about their habits and why they had trouble sticking to their habits. A good question to ask yourself about a habit is, “Was there ever a time in the past when you succeeded with this habit?” Because a lot of times there’s clues about why something worked at one time that’s not working for you now.
I knew a woman who was like, “I really want to cook more. I know all the reasons why it’s smart to cook more, but I really just hate to cook.”
So I was like, “Was there ever a time in your life when you did cook?”
And she said, “Well, it’s funny that you mention it because I haven’t cooked in years. But back when I was just out of college, I lived in a group house with three other people. And I cooked a lot then.”
So I was like, “Well, was it this, was it that, was it the other thing?”
Well, it turned out that the problem for this woman was not cooking. She liked cooking—she hated food shopping.
Jen: Oh, yeah.
Gretchen: My husband is one of these people who loves to food shop. He just food shops as a hobby. Some people just love to food shop. And one of her roommates was a person that liked to food shop, liked to go see what was there, liked to go get vegetables, liked to do whatever. And this woman just hated the errand and kind of the crushing regularity of having to food shop.
Well, finding a solution to food shopping is very different from finding a solution to hating to cook. And then, once you solve that, then the cooking follows. And so, identify the problem. Don’t just like have it be this whole thing, “I hate all of it.” Well, there’s actually only one specific pain point. Maybe there’s another way to solve that.
Jen: That is so useful for someone like me, who’s melodramatic. I tend to think, “Let’s just yard sale the whole thing. The whole . . . Just throw it out, let’s just start from scratch.” And that is so rarely the answer. It’s almost always a small dial. Just turn the dial, just a hair.
Another one of your Gretchen commandments is “Act the way you want to feel.” Can you talk to us about that a little bit? Can we really fake it ’til we make it?
Gretchen: Yes, and it’s funny and it sounds inauthentic. So you want to use this judiciously.
But there’s a very well established psychological phenomenon that we feel like we act because of the way we feel. So “I’m angry, and therefore I’m yelling and slamming doors.” But in fact in the brain, it’s more like the brain is like, Wow, there’s a lot of yelling and slamming doors going on around here, I guess we’re feeling really angry! So your actions kind of inflame your emotions. And we can take advantage of this, because if there’s an emotion you don’t want to feel, you act the way you wish you felt.
So let’s say I’m feeling very resentful towards my in-laws. If I would think, I’m going to act very grateful to my in-laws, I’m very appreciative of my in-laws, I will actually start to get feelings of gratitude.
If I’m feeling, Oh gosh, I don’t feel friendly, I’m feeling like a really reserved person today but I’m just going to make myself act friendly, I will start to act friendly.
If I’m feeling sluggish and low energy, if I’m like, You know what? I’m just going to walk faster, talk with a little bit more animation, move quicker, run up the stairs instead of dragging myself up the stairs, I will actually start to feel more energetic. And so you can take advantage of this by acting the way you wish you felt.
Jen: That’s so great. It’s just fundamentally true. I can absolutely go off the rails because I’m acting like a crazy person. Whether or not I actually felt that way, I can convince myself that I do.
I like this too. One of the things, and we talked about this a minute ago, that you observed in your project but just in your life also is that how our happiness affects other people. So this is not just a “me, myself” scenario. It really is what it looks like in real life with the people that we live with.
You do a really great job of outlining the cause-and-effect patterns our mood has on others. And so I wonder if you could just like bring it down to almost a personal level. Where have you seen this to be true in your marriage? And how has your work to be a more considerate and agreeable person who is really working on happiness, how has that affected your relationship with your husband Jamie? I know that you love receiving gold stars. Are you getting more gold stars inside your marriage?
Gretchen: No. That’s not the guy I married.
Jen: Wrong source for the star.
Gretchen: Yeah, yeah, he’s not the guy for the gold stars. One of the things that’s kind of a tension with happiness is the only person that we can change is ourselves. And it’s so fun to think about, Well, if Jamie gave me gold stars, I’d be happier, so let me just work on Jamie. Doesn’t work on that. You can’t give homework, you can’t give assignments, you can’t make other people change.
But what I did find is that when I change, a relationship changes. And when I change, the atmosphere in my household changes. So if I make effort and I am short tempered, I am crabby, I get flustered and overwhelmed, I have to have a lot of . . . I’m not flexible, and so it’s easy to get me worked up. And so one of the things that I’ve worked on for years and years and years, in every possible way I can think of, is to be calmer and not react as much, take the time, it’s so hard.
And what I find is that when I can be lighthearted, when I can make a joke of something instead of being snippy, if I can take a minute and ask a calm question instead of an accusatory question, then that’s what I get back. And so just the whole atmosphere changes.
I’m a bean counter. One of my personal commandments is “don’t keep score,” because I’m a big scorekeeper. And it’s hard for me sometimes to think, Well, I’m doing all this, why don’t you do that? It just doesn’t work that way. You can’t say, “I’m going to be . . . If I do this nice thing for you then I can expect you to do this nice thing for me.” It doesn’t work like that. But you do feel different and other people behave differently.
Jen: It’s true, and I appreciate you saying this, because none of this internal work should ever be mistaken for a really clever tool of control. You know what I mean?
Gretchen: Yes, yes! Let’s highlight that and underscore that. Yes.
Jen: That’s just human nature.
Gretchen: The minute that you’re thinking, I did this, you do that, I’m going to give you a gift, now you have to give me a gift, I made reservations so now you have to be happy that I made them.
Jen: I’m going to work on this on myself mainly because I want you to be better. And so I’m told that if I’m better, you’re going to fix yourself. That is just such a recipe for disaster and disappointment, obviously. And so I appreciate you saying that. That probably it will have the effect of improving or elevating a lot of your relationships, but that cannot be the motivation. Or even the expectation.
Gretchen: I’m so glad you brought it up, because I think that’s a subtle point but a very, very important point.
Because it’s very easy to get into not even realizing that you’re doing it to be manipulative, but that’s really at the core of it.
And I have just felt this so many times myself, just thinking that by behaving one way, others will behave another way. One way that this comes up sometimes, and this is sort of related to The Four Tendencies, which is another book that I wrote, but sometimes people will do things . . . Or like for me, doing things, I’ll do things thinking that I would get a gold star for it. But what I tell myself now to get round this manipulation, is to say, “I’m doing this for myself.”
And it sounds more selfish instead of being generous, but it’s actually better if you’re a person who does kind of seek gold stars and is trying to kind of nudge people to reinforce you, is I used to think, Oh, I’ll clean the kitchen because I know Jamie loves a clean kitchen and he’ll be so delighted to walk in and see that I cleaned up all the mess. Or like, Oh, we went to bed and everything was messy but I’m going to clean it up so when he comes down he’ll see that it’s all tidy.
And then he wouldn’t say anything and I would feel very disappointed and kind of resentful because I did this nice thing and he’s not even noticing it, let alone appreciating it. So now I say, I do it for myself. I like to have a clean kitchen. I like to have a clean family room. I like to send out holiday cards. I don’t do it thinking that Jamie will like it, because maybe he doesn’t even care. But I like it. I like to send out holiday cards. So I don’t think of it as being like . . .
Because sometimes we talk in our family like “good for the team, it’s good for the team.” And I’m like it’s more helpful to think about what do I want. Because then you expect other people to behave in a certain way.
Jen: That’s right.
Gretchen: And they don’t.
Jen: And if the team is happy and they’re delighted and say thank you, it’s a bonus.
Gretchen: It’s a bonus, yes.
Jen: But it’s not at the core of the work.
Gretchen: And I think it changes the atmosphere all together. Like if you have a reasonably tidy house, that’s going to make everybody feel better. You’re going to feel better, everybody’s going to feel better, even if they’re not saying that.
Jen: It’s true.
Gretchen: Sending out holiday cards is a nice thing to do. It helps reinforce your bonds with other people. Everybody’s going to benefit from that, whether or not they’re like, “Thank you so much for updating the addresses throughout the year so that when we send our holiday cards we don’t get 30 bounce backs.”
Jen: That’s so great.
Jen: I want to get to The Four Tendencies in a second, but just one more question about The Happiness Project. It’s been ten years, and I wonder what you would say has been the biggest change that you’ve seen in your life? And I’m curious, are you happier? And you mentioned earlier that you’ve added just a thousand new things. So I would love to hear maybe some of your favorite additions to a lot of your wisdom and your approaches to life that you have since adopted.
Gretchen: Well, it’s interesting, like, am I happier? I’m a pretty happy person. I’m not a melancholy person. I’m not an ebullient person. I’m a pretty happy person. And I think if I’m lying in bed waiting to fall asleep, or I’m on the subway and I’m staring into space, I’m still my same Gretchen. So I feel like I have not fundamentally changed.
But what has changed is that my experience of my life is so much better. Because I’ve just been so much more strategic and thoughtful about, What makes me happy? What gives me joy and enthusiasm? How do I have more time for friends? How do I have less guilt? How do I behave myself better? My experience of my life is much richer and happier and less filled with . . . You know, you can make yourself happier by adding more or by getting rid of things that are dragging you down. I spent a lot of time, especially at the beginning, getting rid of things that were dragging me down. And so both of those. I’ve managed a lot of those things.
Now in terms of the resolutions and the things that I’ve followed since, I think the most dramatic, kind of the most colorful change that I’ve made, and certainly the one that people find the weirdest or I guess the most radical, is I gave up sugar. And really all carbs. So I don’t eat flour, starchy vegetables, rice, sugar, for sure.
Jen: And the motivation behind that was you weren’t feeling good?
Gretchen: No. You know, it’s funny. I was feeling fine, I didn’t even particularly want to lose weight. In my book Better Than Before I describe what happened to me. Because when it happened, I didn’t understand it at all.
So Better Than Before describes the 21 strategies that people can use to make or break their habits. And one of the strategies, and it’s an outlier strategy, is the strategy of the lightning bolt. And this is the very rare thing that it just happens to you, you can’t really control it, where you get a new idea or a new piece of information and it just dramatically changes your habits overnight.
You’re like, “I’m pregnant, everything changes,” or whatever.
Jen: Okay, right. Good example.
Gretchen: And in this, I read a book by Gary Taubes called Why We Get Fat and I read it because when I looked at it in the bookstore I saw that it was all about insulin. And my sister, Elizabeth, who’s my cohost on the Happier with Gretchen Rubin Podcast if people listen to that, Elizabeth is a Type I diabetic. And so I thought a lot about insulin, but I wanted to understand it better because I didn’t really truly understand it. So I was very attracted to this book because I thought it looked like a very accessible book about the role of insulin in the body.
And I read it and it just was like, “You will be so much healthier in every possible way. If you keep your insulin as low as possible and the way you do that is you don’t eat carbs.”
And I was like, “I’m convinced this is it.”
I also have a tremendous sweet tooth. And I realized that if I didn’t eat this stuff all together, just took it off the table, I would just free myself. All this like now, later, two, three, it’s my birthday, well blah, blah, blah, blah, so boring. So I just overnight gave up carbs. I eat nuts. I eat vegetables that have some carbs. And it’s been a huge happiness booster for me because I just feel so . . . I just love eating that way.
It’s not for everyone. And I say, everyone’s happiness project is different. This would not work for a lot of people. I’m not saying this is the answer for everyone. I’m just saying this is the answer for me. And when people say things like, “Well, you just can’t give up sugar,” I’m like, “Yes, you can.” I’m not saying that you should. Maybe you don’t want to. Few people do. But you can’t say it’s impossible.
Jen: I think that’s a great example.
Gretchen: Because it can be done. But that was a very dramatic thing.
Gretchen: Most of my things are smaller. They’re like more in the ordinary . . . What a lot of people might think would be a fun, valuable thing to do.
Jen: Like your signature color, what did you pick?
Gretchen: Well, you know, I was debating and debating and debating. And we talked about it on the Happier Podcast and it got me obsessed with color because people were so fired up about it.
So I actually wrote this little book that I need to figure out what to do with called My Color Pilgrimage, which is all about my fascination with color.
But I finally figured that my signature color is like the rainbow spectrum, which now we’ve gone from seven to six, which makes much more sense. The indigo thing always bugged me as a child.
But you know now it’s a very common thing where there will be things in every color, like the colors of the rainbow. I got a necklace that has this circle that’s the colors. Or color swatches, anything that is showing the idea of color. And it turns out that’s very popular right now. There’s like all kinds of design elements that include that idea of the colors of the rainbow.
Jen: That’s fabulous.
Gretchen: Yeah, so that’s mine. Do you have a signature color?
Jen: I would say, if I had to pick a signature color, it would kind of be like bright grass green.
Gretchen: Ooh, I love that color.
Jen: When my eyes see it, I’m happy. In any context, in any scenario. I would paint a whole room that color. I would buy a car that color. It just feels cheery to me. A very close second place is bright, sunshine-y yellow. So you can kind of see the way I skew.
So let’s talk about The Four Tendencies for a second. You say, “It’s easier to succeed when you know what works for you.” So I’d like to hear a little bit more about that book. And in which you ask another one of those simple yet profound questions, and can you tell us what that is and how people are using The Four Tendencies to better understand how they interact with themselves and other people?
Gretchen: Well, the question I have to warn you sounds very, very boring. But it ends up being really juicy and important to understand.
So the question is “How do you respond to expectations?”
And so if you think about it, we all face two kinds of expectations: outer expectations, expectations that come to us from the outside. So that’s thing like a work deadline or a request from a friend. And there are our own inner expectations. Like I want to keep a New Year’s resolution, I want to get back into practicing yoga. So those are expectations that I’m imposing on myself.
And depending on how you respond to outer and inner expectations, the combination, you’re either an Upholder, a Questioner, an Obliger or a Rebel. And I will briefly describe these. But there is a quiz on my site. If you go to quiz.gretchenrubin.com or you just go to my site gretchenrubin.com, there’s a quiz. Like 1.7 million people have taken the quiz now. It’s free, it’s quick. But really a lot of people don’t even really need to take the quiz. If I just describe this—
Jen: You just know.
Gretchen: They’re like, Yeah, I know what I am.
Upholders readily need out and inner expectations. So they meet the work deadline, they keep the New Year’s Resolution without much fuss. They know what’s expected of them, but their expectations for themselves are just as important.
Then there are Questioners. Questioners question all expectations. They’ll do something if they think it makes sense. So they’re making everything an inner expectation. If it meets their standard, they’ll do it. If it fails their standard, they’ll push back. And typically they resist anything arbitrary, inefficient or unjustified. So they’re saying, “Why should I? If I think I should, I will. If I think I shouldn’t, I won’t.”
Then there are Obligers. So Obligers readily meet outer expectations, but they struggle to meet inner expectations. And I got my insight into this when a friend said to me, “I know I would be happier if I exercised. And the weird thing is, when I was in high school, I was on the track team and I never missed track practice. So why can’t I got running now?” Well, when she had a team and a coach expecting her to show up, she showed up. When she’s just trying to go on her own, it’s a struggle.
And then finally Rebels. Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike. They want to do what they want to do in their own way, in their own time. They can do anything they want to do. They can do anything they choose to do. But if you ask or tell them to do something, they’re very likely to resist. And typically Rebels don’t like to tell themselves what to do. So they don’t like to do things like, I’m going to sign up for a 10:00 a.m. spin class on Saturday because I don’t know what I want to do on Saturday morning, and I don’t even like the idea that somebody’s expecting me to show up.
Jen: I see. Wow. I see a little bit of myself in a couple of those.
And so in the book, you sort of unpack, “Okay, here’s how to identify yourself. And maybe here are some good questions to ask of you in each segment.” Tell us a little bit more about it.
Gretchen: The first thing is the size of them, because I think that’s really interesting to think about. Obliger is the biggest tendency for both men and women. You either are an Obliger or you have many Obligers in your life. So it’s really important to understand the Obliger tendency. And then second to that is Questioner.
Rebel is a very small tendency, but it’s a very conspicuous tendency. It’s usually pretty easy to spot a Rebel. But my tendency, Upholder tendency, only slightly larger. Those are kind of the extreme fringe personality types.
But why this is valuable is, like, let’s say you want to get yourself to exercise. There’s all kinds of advice about what you should do. But if you don’t know your tendency, you might just do this because your sister-in-law did it, or you do this because Steve Jobs did it, or you do this because you heard about it on a podcast. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. And if it’s not working, you might start to feel lousy. You might start to say, I have no self control, I have no willpower, this strategy works great for other people, there’s something wrong with me. I need to change, what’s my problem?
But if you know the tendency, you can say to yourself, Let me do the thing that I know works best for my tendency. Let me really tailor my approach to take into account the experience of people in my tendency. Because if I’m experiencing a problem, probably other people in my tendency also feel the same way.
Gretchen: And there may be solutions. There might be workarounds or hacks that other people of my tendencies have found that maybe I haven’t thought of.
A really great example—and I’ll use Obliger, because they’re the biggest tendency—is my friend who couldn’t exercise. And sometimes the Obligers will say things like I can’t make time for myself, I never make time for self care, I always make other people a priority. Or they say things like, “I give a 110 percent to my patients, I’m always at the hospital or with my patients. How could I possibly eat healthfully given my demanding job. I’m going to five remote places all the time. Clearly there’s no way to eat healthy.”
So if you’re an Obliger, here is the answer. And this is necessary for an Obliger to follow a habit or meet an inner expectation: they have to have outer accountability. So if you know you’re an Obliger and you’re like, Okay, I want to exercise more, it’s not a question of inner motivation, it’s not about getting clear on what you want. It’s about outer accountability. And there’s a million ways to create outer accountability. Once you realize that that is what you need. I don’t need outer accountability. And so it save me time. I don’t build in outer accountability now that I don’t need it. But you need it.
So if you want to exercise, you could work out with a trainer. You could take a class where you have to sign up. Even better, you take a class where you’re taking a spot. If you sign up and you don’t go, well you’ve robbed somebody else of the opportunity to be in that Crossfit class. You could work out with a friend who will be super annoyed if you don’t show up because your friend doesn’t like to work out alone. You could volunteer to do a charity run, where this charity is not going to make as much money if you don’t follow through.
You can think of your duty to your future self. Oh right now Gretchen doesn’t want to do it but think about . . . If I get to the end of 2019 and I haven’t made any progress, future Gretchen’s going to be so upset. I can think of my duty to be a role model for other people. I want the people around me to see the high value of exercise. And the way that I do that is I show them that I make time for exercise and I follow through with it in my own life.
These are simple solutions. And there’s a million other ones, but if you think, Oh, what I really need to do is get more inner motivation, you’re just going to struggle.
But that’s what a Questioner would tell you. That is what Questioners march around telling everybody. “You just got to get clear of what you want and why it’s right for you.”
Jen: That’s true.
Gretchen: And it just doesn’t work for other people.
Jen: That’s so good.
Gretchen: I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with doing that. It’s a good idea. It doesn’t work.
Rebels don’t care. Rebels do what they want. So for a Rebel, if you’re a Rebel who wants to exercise, what you think about is identity. Rebels want to live up to their identify. “I exercise because I’m an active, vital person. I love being outdoors. I love to bike. I love to ski. I love to run. They try to keep me trapped inside but they can’t, because I’m so active. I’m an athlete. I’ve been an athlete since I was in third grade.” Or “I’m a person who takes care of my body. I protect my body from the big food companies, big tobacco. I take care of my body because I want to be free and active, and I want to be able to charge up a mountain when I’m 80 years old. So that’s why I take care of my body, because that’s the kind of person I am, that’s my value.”
And also Rebels love spontaneity, so they don’t like to lock into a class. So a lot of times the Rebel will do something like join a big gym that has tons of classes all the time and it’s like, Today I feel like Crossfit, today I feel like cardio, today I feel like stretching. It’s like yeah, do whatever you want whenever you want. And that works for Rebels. But if people keep saying to them, put it on your calendar, make a commitment, pay up front, it’s like that doesn’t work. That just makes them feel like, Gosh, I want to run the other direction.
Jen: Really fascinating.
Gretchen: Your good advice could actually be driving somebody in the other direction.
Jen: I see what you’re saying, and it’s interesting to hear you talk through it, because what it’s making me consider right now, I’m going through sort of a mental Rolodex of people that are in some form of leadership in my life. So I either follow them voluntarily or they’re a mentor of sorts, or they either know me or don’t. But whatever, I am following their lead in some way or another. And I’m thinking through some of the leaders that I have chosen and why they chronically frustrate me. And I know what they’re saying is not bad. Of course everybody wants inner motivation, I wish that was the thing.
But the way that you’re sort of splicing this out, I’m realizing they’re just operating out of their own sort of preferences and strengths, but they’re not mine. And so it makes me feel frustrated and I feel like I can’t identify with that brand of motivation. And so maybe this also matters into who we are listening to, and who we are taking counsel from, and who our chief sort of teachers and motivators are in our life. Because they can either really send us into strength or really incredibly frustrate us. And maybe this is a core reason. That’s interesting research.
Jen: Let me ask you one more question before sort of wrap it up. And you mention this a second ago. You have a truckload of resources on your website. You have quizzes and you have many projects and e-courses and your amazing podcast. I wonder, what’s next for you? I hear that you have a Happiness Project Experience in the works.
Jen: And a new book called Outer Order, Inner Calm, which sounds like a spa experience that I want for my brain. Can you talk about those two things?
Gretchen: Yeah, the Happiness Project Experienceis something that people have been asking me to create for years. And I think part of it is a lot of people do want accountability. They want structure. And so this is something, it’s an online course that takes you through a year, and it helps you identify themes and ideas to get you started and to get you thinking and to get you tracking through it, so that you’re really coming up with the ideas and then following through. Because it’s fun to come up with the ideas, but then some people, it’s hard for them to stay focused on it. And so this is a way to do it.
And there’s interviews of people talking about different major themes. You know, a major theme is like relationships. Like, I don’t think many people would do a Happiness Project that didn’t include relationships. And all kinds of resources to help people do it. Because people really love doing their own Happiness Projects, but some people want a little more structure.
And then Outer Order, Inner Calm is coming out March 5. This is a little book, it’s like a little easy, quick book. You know when you read a book that gets you psyched up, you’re like, I’m psyched up! And you’re, like, happy and you jump up and you’re getting ready to do something? This is a psych-up book to clear clutter. Because what I’ve found from talking to people ever since The Happiness Project came out is that for so many people, outer order contributes to inner calm.
Jen: A hundred percent.
Gretchen: And a sense of purpose and energy and focus.
And my hope is that people read about half of it and they’re, like, throw it over their shoulder and run toward their medicine cabinet and start tossing half-empty, sticky shampoo bottles in the trash or whatever.
Jen: It’s real. It’s so real. In fact, as you’re saying it, I’m chuckling because I cleaned my office yesterday, cleaned it out. Like I threw things away, I put pictures up, I organized my bookshelves, I made piles. And I was so tickled, right before you and I hopped on this interview, I took several pictures of it and sent it around to my people. “Look at my office, everybody! somebody give me a high five.” It’s so amazing the effect that has on my psyche. It’s just bananas. I wish I had that book right now. It comes out March 5?
Gretchen: I am getting a vicarious buzz just from thinking about that. I know that feeling.
Jen: Okay, let’s wrap this up. These are just questions we’re asking everybody in this series. This series is called For the Love of Good Change, and so we’re asking every single guest these three quick rapid fires. Here’s the first one. What is the best small change you’ve ever made in your life?
Gretchen: The one minute rule. Anything I can do in less than a minute, I do without delay. So if I can rip open a letter and toss it, or if I can put my coat on a hanger, I mean, on a hook. I got hooks instead of hangers because it was like, “I can’t even use a hanger, but I can put my coat on a hook.” So now it’s like . . . But now my coat is not on the floor where I used to keep it.
So the one minute rule just gets rid of that scummy stuff on the surface of life. So that’s a little habit, doesn’t take any time. And really big payoff.
Jen: Oh my gosh, as opposed to, I’m going to set this aside and it’s going to hover over my shoulder for four days.
Gretchen: Because they’re inconsequential, there are these tiny, tiny things, but they start to really weigh you down. So it’s very Gulliver, all these little things are just tying you down to the ground.
Jen: How about this, what’s one, if you have one, positive thing you do every day? Just to feel good about yourself, about life?
Gretchen: I wake up a little bit before my husband, and the first thing I do is I give my husband a kiss.
Jen: That’s cute.
Gretchen: It’s the first thing I do before I even get out of bed or do anything. So I’m always like, that’s the . . . So I know no day goes by where I don’t give my husband a kiss. He’s asleep, usually, so I don’t think he knows. But I know. And it’s just a nice way to start the day, with a kiss.
Jen: That is precious. Okay, here’s the last one. We actually ask this question of every guest every series, and it can be as big or small, as silly or as important as you want. We’ve literally got a gamut of answers. And it’s this, it’s a question from an author that I love named Barbara Brown Taylor. And she says this, what’s saving your life right now?
Gretchen: What’s saving my life right now? Relationships. I have so many just wonderful relationships. I feel so fortunate. I’m working with the greatest people. I’m friends with the greatest people. My family’s all happy and healthy. I’m like this is as good as it gets. Don’t forget. Yeah.
Jen: I love that. I feel the exact same way. I was just having that conversation last night with some of my best friends where we were just saying, “Everything feels so good right now. Everybody that we love is near, our life is full and rich. It’s an embarrassment of riches and friendships and relationships.” I could not agree more.
Thank you so much for coming on this show. I will have every single thing you’ve mentioned linked over on my website, listeners, so every book Gretchen has ever written, her website, all the places that you can find her on social media.
And so we’re grateful for you. Thank you for leading us into joy, into happiness, into really full and rich life and relationships. I think your work is so important, and I am a fan for life.
Gretchen: Well, you’re so nice to say that. I so enjoyed talking to you. I feel like we could talk all day. We’re interested in all the same things.
Jen: A hundred percent we could.
Gretchen: Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity.
Jen: Thanks, Gretchen.
Jen: She has it. Gosh. I mean, I’m telling you that in that conversation I had some serious revelations, you guys. About several things. A couple of relationships I’m in, the way that I’m leading and working inside my team. That was really powerful for me. So if you got anything out of it, well then, that’s just a bonus.
Guys, everything as I mentioned will be over a jenhatmaker.com under the Podcast tab. Amanda will have everything we spoke about over there if you kind of just want to one-stop shop for all things Gretchen Rubin. I really appreciated what she brings to the table here. Just these small dials to turn that have profound, profound effect.
So we have so much more coming to you in this series, For the Love of Good Change. And I’m pumped about it. These are some people that I have respected and admired for years, who have led me well, mentored me from afar. I mean, this one is packed, you guys. You’re not going to want to miss a single episode. We have such top-level guests in this entire series, and I’m just so excited about it.
So thanks for joining, thanks for being here with us in 2019. It’s so great to have you here, we’re so excited to start a new calendar year with our podcast community that we treasure, that we adore, that we work so hard for because we love you. Thank you for subscribing. Do it, if you haven’t already done it. Go subscribe. Our little show will just show up right into your inbox every single week. You don’t even have to remember to get it. And thank you for also rating and reviewing the show all the time. That has been so great for our little podcast.
So anyway, you guys, you will want to be back next week for our next guest and For the Love of Good Change. Cannot wait to bring you that episode. Guys, have a fabulous week. See you next time.