Podcast

Episode 44 – Gretchen Rubin, Author and Happiness Expert

Well it’s that time of year again, the time to make resolutions – and, let’s be honest, break them. But what if you knew yourself better? What if you understood your core tendencies and didn’t focus on a “new you,” but rather a better understanding of what really drives you? Today, Jessica chats with bestselling author, speaker, podcast host and blogger Gretchen Rubin. Gretchen’s work on our four core tendencies will get us all restarted on our goals and set us up for success and happiness in the new year!

Gretchen Rubin

TRANSCRIPT

Jessica: Hey everyone, happy 2019! It’s Jessica Honegger, founder of the socially conscious fashion brand, Noonday Collection, and this is the Going Scared Podcast, where we cover all things social impact, entrepreneurship, and courage.

Today’s show … please, if you are driving, you’re going to need to pull on over and get out your pen and your paper, because this conversation with Gretchen Rubin is packed full with hacks, tips on habits, how we can really start our new year out right. This is the podcast that starts out our brand-new series that we’re calling simply our Restart series. OK, because I find that often in the new year, we’re not so much starting new habits as we are restarting old habits that we have long since forsaken. So for the next few weeks we’re going to go deeper than the standard resolutions and talk about the things that actually bring about real change. And we’re going to get into our heads, our hearts, our bodies, which is why today’s podcast is the perfect, perfect start-off to the series.

It’s with Gretchen Rubin. She is an observer of happiness and human nature. She is known for her ability to convey and distill complex ideas with humor and clarity in a way that’s accessible to a wide audience. She is the New York Times bestseller of many books, including The Four Tendencies, Better Than Before, and The Happiness Project. She is the host of a podcast that I personally love listening to called Happier with Gretchen Rubin, where she discusses happiness and good habits with her sister, Elizabeth Craft. And guys, she has interviewed Oprah. Need I say more? So, get out your pen, stop your driving, take out your iPhone for notes, and get ready. This podcast and this conversation was so helpful for me.

Jessica: OK. So, Gretchen, you have inspired this entire podcast series, which we are starting our January 2019 off with Gretchen Rubin. You must be the January guru.

Gretchen: You know, a lot of people come to my site and my podcast and buy my books in January. I mean, I think this new year, new you, it’s something that people really feel. I think a lot of people really do use the new year as a catalyst for self-reflection and to think about what they wanna change, or do better. Yeah, so I do get kind of a bump during that time.

Jessica: I bet you do, I bet you do. It’s like the gym gets a bump, Gretchen Rubin gets a bump.

Gretchen: Yes, we’ve all experienced the gym bump. Yes.

 

Easy Starting and Harder Restarting

Jessica: Well, so here’s why you inspired this podcast, because we are not talking about starting, we are actually talking about restarting. And that’s a concept that I learned about when reading your book Better Than Before a couple of years ago. You really pointed out something that I think is intuitive—that oftentimes, we have a harder time restarting something than just starting something from scratch.

Gretchen: Yes. And I think sometimes it gets people into trouble, because something was pretty easy the first time, and so then they think, "Oh, well, I’ll just do it again." Like a friend of mine, he didn’t have a drinking problem but he just felt like he was drinking too much. So he was like, "I’m gonna give up drinking for a month," and then, he just went right back to his old habits. And he was like, "Oh, I’ll just give it up for a month again," and then it was much harder, because he was restarting something. So, I think once we start, we really wanna try to keep it up. And if we are loosening the rules, we wanna do it in a very purposeful way, not kind of always…because restarting is hard. It’s hard.

Jessica: Restarting requires more effort, sometimes, than starting. So, I want us to get into that a little bit. But first, when I look at your career, I see you’ve had some restarts. You are someone who didn’t let your past experiences or planned-out future keep you from changing course when you really wanted to. And so, I wanted to talk a little bit about that, that moment of restarting. Because you begin your earlier career where you spent some time clerking for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. And then you switched gears—you shifted. In a sense, you kind of restart … this other career. So, tell us what brought you to that point, and what was that experience like?

Gretchen: Well, it’s funny, it all sounds so easy when I describe it now. So yes, you’re absolutely right. I went to law school, I was clerking, I was clerking for Sandra Day O’Connor at the Supreme Court. So, this was, like, a really great law job, you know? It doesn’t get better for that if you are…

Jessica: It’s kinda that pinnacle of any attorney, right?

Gretchen: Yeah, it is, it really… In the legal world it is a very big deal. And it’s a really extraordinary opportunity, so I’m really glad that I got to do it. But while I was clerking, I got an idea—an idea that gripped me. Now, this is something that happens to me all the time, I will often get kind of mini-obsessed. Like, I just went through this thing about color, and I’m really interested in perfume, and I’m super interested in paint … And sometimes, they get big and sometimes they turn into books, now that I’m a writer. And sometimes, they’re just a little thing that interests me, and then it runs its course. So this had happened to me in the past, but this time, it was big. And I had been looking at the Capitol Dome against the sky, and I thought, "What am I interested…" just a kind of rhetorical question for myself, "What am I interested in that everybody else in the world is interested in?" like, "What’s everybody interested in?" And I thought, "Well, power, money, fame, sex." And it was like, power, money, fame, sex—it just hit me, and I became obsessed with, like, trying to do tons and tons of research on that subject. Which, to me, is really, like, one subject, even though it has four parts. And when I wasn’t working, I would do so much reading, and research, and note-taking. And then finally I thought to myself, "This is the kind of thing people do if they’re gonna write a book. Maybe I should write a book."

So, it wasn’t so much that I wanted to leave where I was, though I have to say, I kind of went into law for all the wrong reasons. It was like, "It’s a great education. I’m good at reading and writing. I can always change my mind later. It’ll give me lots of options." You know, I never really passionately wanted to be a lawyer, but I was having a good experience. But then it was like, “oh, my gosh” … It was like the Death Star and the tractor beam on the Millennium Falcon, it was like this idea was just pulling me toward it. And once I thought, "Well, I could write a book about this," I really thought, "That’s what I wanna do. I wanna write a book. I wanna write a book about power, money, fame, sex," and that was indeed my first book.

And so, that’s how I switched. It was really realizing… and, along the way, I thought, "Well, I’m starting over. I have nothing. I don’t have any clips, I don’t have any short stories. I got nothing," because I didn’t plan to be a writer. And then, I thought, "Well, you know, at this point, I’d rather fail as a writer than succeed as a lawyer. So I should let myself try. And maybe I’ll fail, but I need to try." And it was the right time in my career. I’m like, "If I take another big legal job, I might never really risk trying again something totally different." But I had a window where it made sense, and I thought, "This is my time. If there’s ever gonna be a time, it’s this time. So I should take advantage of it and see if I can switch."

“I thought, ‘Well, you know, at this point, I’d rather fail as a writer than succeed as a lawyer. So I should let myself try. And maybe I’ll fail, but I need to try.’ And it was the right time in my career.” Gretchen Rubin on restarting for the first time.

Jessica: It’s interesting, because it seems like you approached your career in law from this very logical, "This is safe, it’s always something to fall back on." But a writer, that’s a very different kind of career, and it has a lot of uncertainty, and there’s not a whole lot to fall back on if it doesn’t work out. So I’m curious what sort of new fears and uncertainties did you encounter as you decide, "OK. No, I am going to go in this new direction now?"

Gretchen: Well, I don’t think it was the security of the legal profession that drew me to it. I think it was more just kind of a drifty feeling of, "I don’t know what else to do with myself," though I know many people do seek security. And, you know, it’s very dangerous to pick something because you think it’s safe, because if there’s anything we’ve seen in the last 10, 15 years, it’s like, there’s nobody safe. There’s no career that’s safe. If your parents are telling you to take the safe choice, it’s like, they don’t have a crystal ball. They don’t know what’s gonna happen to the accounting industry, by the way. So that’s something to remember.

You know, and I think part of it is that one thing that I’m good at, and this actually ended up being something that I, years later, kind of explored in my book, The Four Tendencies, where I talk about personality types, upholders, questioners, obligers, and rebels. I’m kind of a fringe tendency, the upholder tendency. And one of the things that upholders are good at is they’re good at execution. They’re good at making up their mind to do something, and just getting it done. So I felt pretty confident that…I mean, I was like, "I don’t know if I’m gonna be able to get an agent. I don’t know if I’ll be able to sell this book. But I’ll be able to do the things that a person would do to try." I knew that I would have a shot. So I was more focused on making it as good as possible.

Jessica: You mean you were, once you went down that road. Right.

Gretchen: Yeah.

Jessica: Once you went down that road, you were gonna absolutely make it the best possible road that you could.

Gretchen: Yeah. And I didn’t have a lot of anxiety about like, "Is this the right thing to do?" I was like, "This is the thing I wanna do. Like, overwhelmingly I wanna do this thing. And I’ll just do what everybody tells me that I should do." I mean, I literally went to the bookstore and got a book called How to Write and Sell your Non-fiction Book Proposal, something like that, some totally generic book, and I just followed the instructions, did what they said to do.

Jessica: So would you say that you didn’t really have fears? This is The Going Scared Podcast, so it’s all about how we…I define courage as being afraid and going anyway. But would you say that you were able to sort of, I don’t know, think your fears away? Or literally, you didn’t really have fears?

Gretchen: Well, I mean, I had fears. You know, I was worried about failing, for sure, and I was worried about sort of making the wrong decision, or letting people down. But I mean, why do you think people are afraid? What are they afraid of?

 

Being Brave Enough to Fail

Jessica: I think we’re often afraid, yeah, of failure, but I think, ultimately, it’s we’re afraid of what other people are gonna think about us. We’re afraid of…you know, I think perfectionism drives a lot of our fears in general.

Gretchen: Yeah, yep. Well, one thing I would say about perfectionism, that’s a great point, one thing about perfectionism is, in my observation, perfectionism…people…they think it’s about standards. They think, "My standards are so high they’re unrealistic, and that’s why I feel the way I do." And yet, isn’t it good to have high standards? But I think perfectionism is really about anxiety, it’s not about standards. It’s about, "I feel like what I’ve done isn’t good enough." So it doesn’t matter what your standards are. And so, I think if you approached it thinking like, "This is really more about me managing my anxiety about my product than it is about me having a standard that’s set at a certain level." Because, in my observation, people get very distracted about, "What is the level that I should do?" And it’s like, well, do your best but manage your anxiety. And you can manage your anxiety by planning, by getting, you know, like, cheerleaders, by…you know, there’s all kinds of ways to make you less anxious once you realize that’s what really the problem is.

But also, the thing about people around you, one thing that is very true, and I was extremely fortunate…my sister also became a TV writer in Hollywood, another profession which is famous for being extremely risky, and difficult, and competitive…is our parents were very tolerant of risk. They were very much like, "This is great if you wanna do it. That’s great." They didn’t encourage us to do things that seemed safer. I mean my parents…here I was, I’d just gone to law school. Like, I had it all, you know? And then I was like, oh, now I’m gonna start over from nothing, and my parents were like, "That’s awesome," you know? So I feel like I really, really was lucky.

And then, my husband was also the same, he also started in law. We met in law school. And at the very same time I switched, he switched to finance. So there was somebody right near me, you know, my husband was also making a big change. And so, I think I was very, very fortunate in having people who were willing to really support it, and then also not put much pressure on me. It’s interesting, there’s something my father said, and I’ve repeated it to people because it was so meaningful to me. And people often say, "That doesn’t sound like a very nice thing. I don’t understand why you think that’s so heartwarming," but it really was heartwarming to me. When I said I was gonna, like, you know, try to do this book, my father said, "Well, that’s great darlin’. And you may not knock it out of the park the first time, but you’ll get there." To me, that was so meaningful because it meant, "You don’t have to succeed right away. You don’t have to be super-successful right off the bat in order to judge whether this was the right thing to do." It was like, "You’ll get there." And so, it made me feel like, oh, gosh, I don’t have to prove myself right away. Like, I gotta figure this out, and it’s not gonna necessarily come easily or fast.

“I was very, very fortunate in having people who were willing to really support it, and then also not put much pressure on me.” Gretchen Rubin on encountering risks and fear.

Jessica: Well, and I think anxiety is a fear of a certain outcome, and we attach our identity to that outcome. So if you, at the end of the day, are saying, "My identity doesn’t hinge on the outcome of this book," you know, "I’ve got the love of my family, the love of my dad," that, you know, "I’m not letting anyone down," there is that freedom to be able to move forward and not let your fears actually keep you seated, but instead be able to just go for it.

Gretchen: Yeah. Well, one thing…because some books do well, and I’ve had many books that were big flops, so I know how that feels. One thing I tell myself and I tell my writer friends, I tell people in all walks of life because I think it’s really comforting to remember is there’s a lot of ways for something to succeed. So it’s great if a book is a number one New York Times bestseller, that’s a great way for a book to succeed. But maybe a book makes a big difference to a small group of people who are passionately interested in a subject, and for them, it’s like the book they’ve been looking for. That’s a way for a book to succeed. Or maybe, for you, it was like something that you dreamed of doing your whole life, and now you did it and you’re like, "I’ve always wanted to write a book, and I did write a book," that’s another way for a book to succeed.

And so I think, just like you don’t wanna hinge your identity on just one identity, because then if anything happens to that identity, you feel very at risk, there’s lots of ways…and sometimes it’s like, "Yeah, I tried. I submitted my book and they turned it down. But I had the courage to try. I mailed it in," like, "I took my shot." And I get…you know, that’s success, too. To fail is actually brave. You know, I always tell myself, "Enjoy the fun of failure," if I’m not failing, I’m not trying hard enough. I have to push myself to do things and risk failure, because otherwise, you just play it too safe.

Jessica: Play it too safe. I have to say, when I read your book Better Than Before a couple years ago, you have a little Brené Brown endorsement, in the bottom corner, and I thought, "If I ever publish a book someday, that would be successful for me." And I just published my first book a few months ago, and I have a Brené Brown endorsement right on the cover of my book. So you inspired me.

Gretchen: There you go. Putting it on…. You put it out in universe. No, that’s great.

Jessica: You really….yeah, you really inspired me in that regard. OK, so speaking of tendencies, and of your sister, I have a complete affinity for Elizabeth because the french fries chapter. Oh, yeah. I’m like, "Yes, I love her." And then, you grew up in the Midwest, did you not?

Gretchen: Yes, Yeah, Kansas City, Missouri.

Jessica: So you grew up in the Midwest, my husband grew up in the Midwest and he’s adherer. So I kind of feel like your relationship with your sister is kinda similar to my husband and I’s relationship. So I learned a lot from you. But let’s talk a little bit about the four tendencies. So now, you’ve become this New York Times bestselling author who studies happiness and human nature. And it does make me curious about how you do process the season of reinventing ourselves in the new year, and restarting with our new year’s resolutions. So, what do you see when you filter our motivations through your understanding of all of our tendencies?

Gretchen: Well, I’ll take a second to explain the tendencies for people who don’t know. And so, this is a personality framework that divides people into upholders, questioners, obligers, and rebels. Those are the four. And there is a quiz, you can go to quiz.gretchenrubin.com, or just go to my website gretchenrubin.com, I think 1.7 million people have taken the quiz now. It’s quick, it’s free.

Jessica: I took it today, I took it today, I was like, "I gotta take the quiz," even though I knew I’m a questioner. I knew it, but it just…

Gretchen: Oh, that’s what my husband is. OK, that’s good to know. But also, I’ll just give a brief description, and for most people, they kinda know what they are right away, they don’t even need to take the quiz. But some people like to take the quiz.

Jessica: We all like a good quiz. It’s brilliant.

Gretchen: We all love a quiz, we all love a quiz. Boy, that quiz was hard…quizzes are hard. I have much more respect for like, which member of the "Friends" cast are you quiz now, because it’s harder than you think.

Jessica: It is hard. I have a courage quiz on my website, and it was…

Gretchen: It’s hard. It’s hard, it’s…people don’t realize. So what this looks at is, it’s something that I realized was important when I was studying habits for my book Better Than Before, but it’s really bigger than habits. It comes up in habits and how people easily, or don’t easily, form habits. But it’s bigger than habits. And what it looks at is a very narrow aspect of your nature, which is how do you respond to expectations? Now, all of us face two kinds of expectations. Outer expectations, like a work deadline or a request from a friend, something that comes from the outside. And we also face inner expectations, my own desire to keep a new year’s resolution, my own desire to get back into practicing yoga. So, depending on how you respond to outer and inner, that’s what determines your tendency. So upholder, and I said, you know, that’s what I am, upholders readily meet outer and inner expectations. So they meet the work deadline, and they keep the new year’s resolution without much fuss. They wanna know what other people expect from them, but their expectations for themselves are just as important.

Jessica: You have the ability to wake up one day and decide, "I am no longer going to drink Mountain Dew anymore," that’s what my husband did. "It’s not healthy, I’m not gonna do it," he never looked back. He’s never taken a sip since, he lost, like, 20 pounds in a month. And this was like 15 years ago, you know? Upholders, like…like, I am in awe of upholders.

Gretchen: But we have our downsides, there’s some problems with upholders. Next, questioners, and that’s your tendency. So questioners, they question all expectations, they’ll do something if they think it makes sense. So they resist anything arbitrary, or inefficient, or irrational. They’re always asking, "Why should I?" So they’re readily meeting inner expectations, they’re turning everything into an inner expectation. If they think something makes sense, they’ll do it, no problem. If they don’t think it makes sense, they’ll push back.

Then there are obligers. Obligers readily meet outer expectations, but they struggle to meet inner expectations. And I got my insight into this tendency when a friend said to me, "I don’t understand it. 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. Why can’t I go running now?" Well, when she had a team and a coach expecting her to show up, she had no trouble. But now that she’s trying to do it on her own, she struggles.

And then, finally, rebels. Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike. They wanna do what they wanna do, in their own way, in their own time. They can do anything they wanna do, anything they choose to do. But if you ask or tell them to do something, they’re very likely to resist. And typically, they don’t like to tell themselves what to do. Like, they won’t sign up for a 10 a.m. spin class on Saturday because they’re like, "I don’t know what I’m gonna wanna do at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday. And just the idea that I’m supposed to show up there is annoying."

Now, what’s interesting is that rebel is the smallest tendency. It’s conspicuous, but it’s small. My tendency, the upholder tendency, is only slightly larger, these are like the extreme kind of fringe tendencies. The biggest tendency is obliger, for both men and women, that is the biggest tendency. You either are an obliger, or you have many obligers in your life. And second biggest is questioner, which is your tendency and my husband’s tendency. A lot of questioners.

Jessica: So, as we approach this new year and, let’s say…because I do think, oftentimes, in a new year, we aren’t usually starting something for the very, very, very first time. I mean, maybe you are, but usually you’re like, "OK, I’m gonna get back on the treadmill." "OK, I’m gonna start," you know, "eating better." "I’m gonna wake up earlier." "I’m gonna meditate every day instead of once a week." "I’m gonna…" whatever, we have a litany of things. And it’s not a new thing, and it is a restart. And sometimes when we…a restart means we’ve stopped at some point, which means we’ve lost that momentum. So why don’t we talk about these restarts, in relation to each of the tendencies?

 

Turning Your Tendency into Momentum

Gretchen: Well, you’re absolutely right. I mean, most resolutions you make over and over again. And that’s sort of the general observation that I’d made before…

Jessica: I guess, unless you’re your tendency.

Gretchen: Yeah, upholder. Well, questioners also, questioners wanna do it. Well, it’s all how you set it up. I mean, that’s what I was gonna say, is one of the things is if you feel like, "Oh, my gosh, I have no self-control. I have no willpower. I keep trying and failing at this. I’m so defeated. I don’t even make new year’s resolutions anymore because I always let myself down," the fact is, you’re probably trying to do it in a way that’s wrong for you. There’s a lot of ways to achieve your aims. You know, if you’re trying to get up early and go for a run and you fail time after time after time, well, maybe you’re a night person, and you’d be much better off exercising at 4 p.m. when you’re more productive and energetic. Why are you trying to do it…like, there’s a million reasons on paper why it makes sense to do it in the morning, but it doesn’t make sense if you’re a night person.

So I think a lot of it is the match, is how do you pick something that works for you rather than trying to fit yourself into some, like, you know, what somebody says is the right way or the best way. And so, to look at the tendencies, so for questioners, when questioners have a problem with a habit Let’s say, they’re trying to eat more healthfully, and they’re not. To me, I’m always like, "But do you really believe, in your heart, that you have found the best, the most efficient, the most tailored to you way to eat healthfully?" And usually, they’re like, "No, because, you know, there’s a couple different ways. And I’m thinking I should be paleo but maybe it’s enough to go low-carb. But then everybody else says maybe I should be this." Like, questioners can’t move forward until they know that what they are doing is the best, the most efficient, and they also really like to tailor things to themselves. And so, I’m always like, "Go deep into the reasons." Once in your mind, once a questioner is like, "Yes, this is the best, right way to do it," then they can proceed. They also like to experiment. So if you’re a questioner, you might say to yourself, "I’m gonna try this for a month. Maybe it won’t work, but then I’ll have a little bit more data about myself. So I’ll try it for a month, see how it goes. And if it doesn’t work after a month, I’ll try it a different way. I’m gonna experiment with doing high-intensity strength training in the morning. If that doesn’t work, I’ll try high-intensity strength training in the afternoon. If that doesn’t work, maybe I’ll try yoga," you know? And so, that’s what I would say for questioners.

For obligers, it’s simple. The obliger solution is simple.

Jessica: Go on a diet.

Gretchen: Outer accountability, outer accountability. Do not work on motivation, do not work on your inner desires, don’t try to whip yourself into a frenzy of, you know, wanting…outer accountability. If you wanna read more, join a book group. If you wanna exercise more, take a class, workout with a friend who’s annoyed if you don’t show up. Take your dog for a run, and your dog is gonna be so disappointed if he doesn’t get to go, plus, he’s gonna chew up the living-room furniture. Find outer accountability. And sometimes obligers don’t like that. They’re like, "But I wanna be able to do it myself," I’m like, "That doesn’t work. Outer accountability."

Jessica: Just accept yourself.

Gretchen: Accept yourself. Because it’s like, if you’re gonna try to change your inborn nature, that’s difficult, if impossible. If you just find an outer solution, that’s quick and easy. If what you wanna do is get to the gym, figure out a way to get to the gym. That’s not hard. And obligers have the most ingenious solutions, I love this, I mean, I collect them because there’s so many hilarious ones. One of my favorites was there’s a woman who wanted to write a novel in her free time, right? This is a thing many people wanna do is, like, they wanna do a book, they wanna write in their free time. But she was like, "It’s so important to me. It’s my top priority, and yet I never make time for it. I’m always putting other people before myself. I have no time for self-care," I’m like, "Obliger, obliger, obliger, obliger," that’s all things obligers say. Or they say things like, "I give so much to my clients, there’s no time for me," or, "I give 110% to my patients in the hospital, there’s no way I could eat more healthfully." That’s obliger talk. I’m meeting outer expectations, can’t meet inner expectations. And so, what she did is…she had three kids. She went to her kids and she said, "Your teacher gives you homework, and I have given myself homework. And when you do your homework, I will do my homework. And by the way, kids, if you see that I’m not doing my homework, you don’t have to do your homework either." And so, her kids are her policemen. They’re like, "Mom, take the night off," and she’s like, "No," because she wants her kids to do their homework. So while they’re working, she’s working. And so, there’s the outer accountability.

“Accept yourself. Because it’s like, if you’re gonna try to change your inborn nature, that’s difficult, if impossible. If you just find an outer solution, that’s quick and easy.” Gretchen Rubin

And then, finally, rebels. Rebels resist all expectations. And so they find it hard, often. They’re often frustrated because they might wanna eat healthier but they’ll say like, "Well, I’m not gonna bread." And then, like, the minute they make a rule for themselves, they have to break it. So then they go out the next day, and eat an entire loaf of sourdough. I mean, this is very common for rebels, they’re very… And often, the things that people say to do don’t work for them. Like, scheduling is something people are always like, "Put it on the calendar." That works great, but not for rebels because they hate having things on the calendar, and they’ll resist it. They don’t like accountability, right? Everybody’s always pushing accountability because it works really well for a lot of people, because a lot of people are obligers. Rebels don’t like accountability, they don’t like people looking over their shoulders. They don’t like people watching them, and telling them what to do, and reporting on them, and…they don’t like that. They like to be spontaneous, too. But there are ways to use your rebel tendency to do something like exercise more. So you could…like one thing, they like to make choices, and they like to be spontaneous. So a lot of times, rebels will do things like join a big gym that has tons of classes so they could just show up and do whatever they feel like. Or maybe they have the schedules for many different gyms across town, and they just go where they feel like it at the moment, instead of, you know, like trying to plan out their week.

Also, identity is very important for rebels. So, instead of saying like, "You know, the doctor told you you had to exercise," and "You promised me you would exercise," and, "Here’s a big research study that’s telling you why it’s important to exercise," what works for a rebel is, "I’m an athlete, I’ve always been an athlete. I’m a strong, vital, energetic person. I love to move my body, I love to have fun outside. They wanna trap me in a desk chair, under some fluorescent lights and staring at a screen, but I wanna be outside. I wanna be biking, I wanna be running, I wanna be skiing, I wanna be swimming, I wanna feel the air on my face. I wanna exercise, because that’s the kind of person I am." That is much more compelling to rebels, "That’s who I am," not "This is what you’re telling me I have to do."

Jessica: So, I definitely have a little bit of that rebel in me.

Gretchen: Well, there’s deep affinity. Obliger and rebels overlap. Yes.

 

Working for Habits VS Making Habits Work for You

Jessica: And I think that’s why I always kicked up against this whole idea of habits. I’m like, "Habits are for type-A people." And it’s weird, because I run a very successful company, I just wrote a book, I have a podcast. I do a lot, but I do not consider myself a type-A. I hate driving home the same way twice, when I became a mom, I thought, "Oh, my gosh, this is a trap. It’s so routine." And then I saw my husband become alive because he’s just able to do routine, it is just not a thing for him. And I think the reason your work really has helped to transform me is because you helped me to reframe habits in the way you’re kinda describing, what a rebel would need. Because I want to give energy to the things that I want to give energy to. And habits make the starting process automatic, and once we have a habit, it comes easily without decision making. And decision making requires energy. So I’m like, "Wow, if I can eliminate as much decision making as positive from my life, that actually gives me more energy to be able to give to the things that my rebel nature wants to say, ‘Well, I wanna give to that because I wanna give to that.’"

“I think the reason your work really has helped to transform me is because you helped me to reframe habits in the way you’re kinda describing, what a rebel would need. Because I want to give energy to the things that I want to give energy to. And habits make the starting process automatic, and once we have a habit, it comes easily without decision making. And decision making requires energy.” Jessica Honegger

And I love this idea, and I hear this a lot, I work a lot with women, this idea of self-control, and you’ll hear this, "Well, I’m just not a person with self-control." But eventually, you say that we don’t need self-control because habits become automatic. When habits are automatic, we don’t need self-control. And that was a great reframe for me because I thought, "Oh, wow, if habits can eliminate this whole need for, like, the energy that I spend harnessing self-control…" Like, I just got back from a vacation and…literally last night, I got back from a vacation. Several days on the beach with my husband, Margaritas. I hit the spin class this morning, because it’s a habit. I’ve been exercising now for 8 years, and it’s not a restart for me after a vacation, it’s just like, you know, this is what I do. So tell us a little bit, because don’t you hear a lot like, "I don’t have self-control and I…" Yeah, that’s what I hear a lot from people. But it was the reframe that helped me so much.

Gretchen: Well, I think you’ve raised something that I think is super important, and that took me a really long time, I have to confess, to understand how important it was, which is metaphors matter, language matters, how we think of things matters. Because you’re kind of like, "a habit is a habit," what does it matter if you think of it as like something that’s kind of chaining you to something you’ve decided to do, or something that’s freeing you to have the life you want? Because it’s like you’re still getting up to exercise, you’re getting up for your spin class the day after vacation. It’s like, either way, it’s the same. It’s not the same. It feels totally different. And like, the way you think about things really shapes how you feel about them. And so, I think the idea of, like, habits are freeing, they’re saving you, they’re energizing you, instead of feeling like they’re trapping you and controlling you. So I think that’s great to point that out, that a lot of times, if there’s something that you want, think about how do you think about it in the way that captures why you want it? Don’t get locked into negative vocabulary, because it colors it. Even something as simple as do you spend a half an hour each day playing piano or practicing piano? Playing piano sounds like a lot more fun than practicing piano. Same thing.

“The way you think about things really shapes how you feel about them. And so, I think the idea of, like, habits are freeing, they’re saving you, they’re energizing you, instead of feeling like they’re trapping you and controlling you.” Gretchen Rubin on reframing the way we think about habits.

But this point about self-control and willpower. This is so sad for me because I really have talked to so many people who feel so defeated, and they really feel like they’ve let themselves down and they can’t keep their promises to themselves. And over and over, I’m like, "I think you just are trying to do it the wrong way for you. There’s nothing wrong with you, you do not need to change. Whatever you’re experiencing, many, many, many, many people are experiencing." And there are workarounds, there are things that we can do to hack it. You know, if you’re like, "Look, I’ve tried, for 5 years, to get up in the morning and exercise and I just can’t do it," and I’m like, "OK, well, have you tried taking a class? Have you tried working out with a friend? Have you tried teaching a class?" There’s a lot of accountability in being a teacher. Many people tell me that they teach a class only because it’s the only way they would get themselves to do it. They’re like, "There’s no way I would do yoga if I didn’t teach a yoga class." Teach a class. You know, but a questioner might say, like, "You just need to get clear on what’s important to you. Once you have that clarity, you will be able to do whatever you want." No, that doesn’t work for obligers, that works for questioners.

So, a lot of times, people give each other advice that’s not good. "It’s good for me and that’s why I’m trying to convince you to try it my way because I’ve had success." But it doesn’t work for you. And in Better Than Before, I identify the 21 strategies that people can use to make or break habit. And 21 seems like a lot, you know, a lot of people don’t want 21, they want, like, 3. But you need 21 because some work really well for some people and not for others. And some work for us at some time in our lives, and not at other times in our lives. So you wanna know what your choices are. Because if you’re like, "I’ve tried, and tried, and tried, and this doesn’t work. But what I really wanna do is read more. Why is it that I’m not reading more?" Well, once we know why you’re not reading more, then it’s gonna be a lot easier to think, "Well, how would we figure out a way for you to read more? Let’s really think it through and match it to you." Because just the fact that, you know, Steve Jobs did something successfully a certain way doesn’t mean it’s gonna work for you or for me. We really have to tailor it to ourselves. And I think that’s why a lot of people feel defeated, is they’re trying to cram themselves into a model of someone else’s idea of what you should do. There’s no right way or wrong way to do it, it’s only what works for you.

“I think that’s why a lot of people feel defeated, is they’re trying to cram themselves into a model of someone else’s idea of what you should do. There’s no right way or wrong way to do it, it’s only what works for you.” Gretchen Rubin

 

Identifying the Resistance

One thing that a lot of people can do is look at the past. When have you succeeded at this in the past? A lot of times, there’s clues in the past. Like, I had this interesting conversation with a woman, so she wanted to cook more. This is something a lot of people wanna do, there’s a million reasons to cook more, instead of eating takeout or getting prepared food. So I said to her, "Well, was there ever a time…" and she said, "I hate to cook, so that’s why I don’t do it." And I said, "Well, has there ever been a time in the past when you did cook?" And she said, "Well, funnily enough, there was a period when I really enjoyed cooking. I was living in DC with three housemates, and I would often cook dinner for all of us, and it was really fun." And I was sort of unpacking like, "Is it the accountability, is it the social aspect? What is it? What is it? What is it?" Well, when I really looked into it with her, what it was if she hates grocery shopping. You know, some people love grocery shopping. So, one of her housemates loved grocery shopping and would bring home all of these ingredients, and then she’d be like, "Oh cool. What can I make?" She didn’t mind cooking, she hated grocery shopping. Well, that’s a very different problem. That’s a whole different problem to fix. Like now, you can have the things delivered, you can have pickup, you know, maybe your sweetheart will go get the groceries. It wasn’t the cooking at all. And so, then she was able to be like, "OK, this isn’t such a big problem." But the clue was in the past.

Jessica: I love that. And I also think you can look at different habits… Like, my husband and I, we have this aspirational…I say aspirational value when I have an aspiration, but I’m not actually living it.

Gretchen: Mmm. Yeah, we all have them.

Jessica: You might say that’s a lack of integrity, I don’t know. Of course, when you write a book the pressure’s out there even more, because I have a whole chapter in my book, about, you know, these, "Take the long view in life, and here are some of these things I do to have this sustainable way of living." And one of those is no screen time in the evenings. Well, I mean you know how it is when you launch a book. I mean, I kind of threw all my habits out the window, quite frankly, and I’m still recovering from that. I mean, I even threw my basic, you know, eating habits out the window, which I really regret, and we’re working on that one now. So it’s been about 4 months, and it’s just been a crazy season. I went on a big-book tour, blah, blah, blah. So my husband and I are like, "OK, what happened to that screen time in the evenings?" and we have not been following that. And I’m really having to do what an obliger would have to do, I’m literally leaving my phone in my car, because I can’t, I cannot have it with me.

Gretchen: Brilliant, brilliant. But that’s brilliant, that’s the strategy of inconvenience. Of the 21 strategies you have, that’s the strategy of inconvenience. If you make something really inconvenient, you’re much less likely to do it. That is a brilliant strategy because it’s very easy to apply. And leave it in your car. And see, that’s a great thing because it’s like, why have it there? And you’re resisting it, and there’s all this energy that’s being depleted. Where like, putting it out in your car and you’re like, "Oh, gosh," like, "I don’t wanna deal with putting my shoes back on. And it’s like, you know, raining outside. I’ll just stay here and read a book." You know I mean? It’s like, make it easy for yourself.

 

Minimizing Decisions to Maximize Energy

Jessica: Right. So what are some other habits? Because it’s interesting, because I do automatically kinda go towards, you know, exercise, health, screen time. I guess there’s a million things. But if we were to approach this new year, what are some things that maybe we aren’t thinking about, where we could kind of look at habits? Because I love this idea, the idea that I just love is energy, right? Because we’ve got talent, we’ve got energy, we’ve got time. Those are sort of these three things that we get to bring to our days. And so, how we manage those things is how we end up spending our lives. And I love the idea of freeing ourselves up to have more energy to pour into those things that have purpose and meaning for us, instead of me, like, pouring my energy into, "Resist the phone. Resist the cookie. Resist whatever." So because you really don’t talk too much about what are the habits that we’re meant to have. I know there’s a lot of books written about that. But what are your thoughts on sort of some habits that we should be kind of looking at? Or not should, we’re moving away from that language, but that will help to give us more energy in the coming year?

Gretchen: Yeah, you’re right. I specifically didn’t talk about what habits I thought people should have, because I’m like, that’s for you to decide. What I’m interested in is how do you keep whatever habit you identify for yourself? But one person…

Jessica: In your study of happiness though, you know, like what have you found?

Gretchen: No, no, no. Yeah. No, but are there certain things, certain areas to focus on? Well, there’s two that stand out to me, like you said, that maybe get overlooked. One is relationships. I mean, ancient philosophers and contemporary scientists agree, strong relationships are essential for a happy life, and people with more relationships are happier. We need enduring intimate bonds. We need relationships. And it’s sort of funny because it’s like, well, how can I have a habit of a relationship? Well, there are things that you can do. Like, let’s say, you feel like, "I don’t see my friends enough," you know, "We’re all pulled in a bunch of different directions." Well, maybe you’re gonna start a book group. Or a podcast group. Maybe people don’t have time to read, but they could all listen to an episode of a podcast and talk about it. Or they could read an article. Or they could listen to an audio book. Or you could have a discussion group where people just bring a question and have a discussion. But the fact that it’s, like, it’s once a month, and we meet together, and it’s regular, that’s a way to see a lot of people at one time and, you know, you’re gonna see them. And that really helps with relationships.

Or one thing that…we talked about this on the Happier Podcast, my sister and I, and I’ve been amazed at how people have loved this habit. This was my mother’s idea, and she was pointing out the thing that many people have pointed out, which is when you see people all the time, you got a million things to talk about, and when you see people rarely, it’s like, "How are you?" "I am good. How are you?" "I’m also well," you know? And you have nothing to say. So my mother was pointing this out, and she said, "Let’s just try to share the details, the mundane details." So we thought this was a brilliant idea. So we have a habit, it’s my mother, my father, my sister and me, so my nuclear family growing up, it’s called Update, and the title of an email is Update. And you just write literally the most boring things in your life. Like, I could be like, "It’s so cold, I finally got my space heater out of storage. And later, I’m going to the dentist," and, "My daughter is really annoyed because, you know, they’re not having good cookies at the Christmas party." Or whatever it is, it’s the most boring things. And the motto of Update is, "It’s OK to be boring," and we just send one, like, every 5 or 6 days. People usually don’t respond, so it doesn’t create work. You’re not supposed to be funny, or clever, or, like, thoughtful, it’s just like, "I’m getting my hair cut." "I played golf today," "I’m excited because the University of Nebraska football team has a game coming up, and I think the new coach is terrific." Like, that’s the kind of thing my father writes. But what it is, it’s like I just feel so much more in touch with the daily life of people…my sister lives in Los Angeles, I live in New York, my parents live in Kansas City, so we’re all spread out. And it’s a little, tiny thing, and yet, it has this huge consequence. So that’s a habit. Again, you can find habits that will really help knit you together with other people.

And directly to the idea of energy, because I think you’re so right when you point to kind of the centrality of energy, because if we don’t have energy, it’s so hard to do all the things that we know would make us happier, and healthier, and more productive, and more creative. We need the energy. One thing that has surprised me, and I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but for so many people, certainly me, outer order contributes to inner calm and a sense of inner energy. And somebody said to me one time, "I finally cleaned out my fridge, and now I know I can switch careers," and I was like, "I know what you mean." There’s something about getting rid of stuff you don’t use, or you don’t like, or you don’t need, or that’s just trash, or like, you don’t even know what that cord goes to, getting rid of all that stuff that’s just in the way. Over and over, people tell me how much they feel like there is a connection between outer order and just focus, and calm, and energy. And so, to take 20 minutes to clean out your office might seem like, "Well, who cares if there’s a bunch of files on the floor?" it’s like, but you feel so much, like, energized when all that stuff’s put away. And so my book Outer Order, Inner Calm is all looking at this, because I’m like, it’s really disproportionate. Like, why is it that people are so excited about the idea of making their bed? Over and over, people are like, "This is the most important thing I do." I’m like, "Surely it’s not the most significant thing you do to have a happy life, is to make your bed." And yet, people are like, "This really matters. It makes a difference."

Jessica: It does, it does. I am really trying to teach my kids that, and I have a questioner that’s also a preteen. So, it’s a little rough right now in our house. Also, we’re in the middle of a remodel. Seven months, seven months my kids have been camping out in the living room, my daughter’s sleeping in a closet. And it is hard. But again, I’m trying to reframe…

Gretchen: It’s wearing.

Jessica: It’s wearing, it expends my energy. But I’m just trying to think about, OK, to your point, that it is going to…the whole point of it is that it’s leading to a more outer order in our lives and the way that we’re, you know, constructing our home, that it’s more efficient for our family and for hosting others. So I’m just trying to keep it in mind. But, man, it is so wearing. And OK, so that book I just saw, you were… Speaking of habits, you’re going on a massive book tour for that in the spring?

Gretchen: Yes, in March.

Jessica: In March? So tell me this, because I travel a lot for work and, in the new year, I’m traveling internationally quite a bit. And let’s talk about habits, but when your life isn’t habitual. Because that’s my problem, is…and it’s your problem, too. Like, a lot of us are leading lives that are not necessarily routine.

Gretchen: Yes. No, that is a big struggle for a lot of people, which is like when things change. So one thing I think is that some people, and this is…I talk about this in Better Than Before, the strategy of loophole spotting. And loophole spotting is when we give ourselves loopholes because we’re like, well, I get to…I’m off the hook, because of something. And travel, for many people, is a loophole because it feels like it doesn’t count. This doesn’t count. Travel doesn’t count. Well, I travel a lot, you travel a lot. It counts.

Jessica: It counts.

Gretchen: Everything counts. Nothing stays in Vegas.

Jessica: It counted me 10 pounds the last 4 months, is what it counted.

Gretchen: Yeah, everything counts. And so, part of it is, like, maybe don’t even think of it as being a break. You know, you could say like, "Well, I’m not going to my spin class, but I still need to exercise. So when am I gonna exercise in this day?" and just look at your calendar. You could be like, "Well, I could do it in the morning," or you’re like, "Oh, no. I have an early interview, I can’t do it in the morning. Maybe I could do it in the afternoon." Like, just see it as being…it’s not a completely different part of your life, it’s that just things are out of order. I think one thing is to carry a lot of snacks with you. It’s very hard…if you’re hungry…the body always wins. If you’re hungry, you’re gonna eat something. And you may be in a place…I think it’s getting easier and easier, frankly, to get good snacks in airports. And even drugstores now have really good snacks. I’m like a crazy low-carb person. I mean, I really eat low-carb, and I’m finding it much easier to find snacks. But I have them all in my bag, like, I don’t travel anywhere without lots and lots of snacks that I feel good about. Because if you’re really hungry, you’re gonna eat something. And, you know, if you’re like, "Well, I can’t have something healthy so I’m gonna have, like, lemon meringue pie," it’s like you’re gonna have the pie.

But I think part of it is not seeing that travel is so different. It’s not like, OK, everything’s now wiped away and this is like free. Part of what is different about travel is that people feel anonymous. This is why people get up to mischief, a lot of times, when they travel, because they feel like there are no consequences, nobody knows what they’re doing. But you know what you’re doing. And so, you might even wanna have an accountability partner. I have an app, the Better App, if you just…

Jessica: We’ll link to it.

Gretchen: …link to betterapp.us Yeah, and you can go on there if you wanna have an accountability group. or just talk about ideas and stuff. It’s for people talking about happiness, and the four tendencies, and all that. So maybe you wanna have an accountability partner and an accountability group. Or you wanna get an app where you record what you eat or how much you exercise. For some people, that doesn’t give accountability, but for many people it does. A lot of people do feel…like, they feel like it’s being monitored and it’s being kind of evaluated in a way that’s really healthy. Again, you might need to experiment to find out what works for you. But I think the problem comes when people feel like, "This doesn’t count," you know? Or like, lack of control. Who could possibly exercise while they’re traveling? A lot of people exercise while they travel. A lot of people do. And so, you just wanna think like, "Well, I could do that," and, "Do I wanna choose to do that?"

I mean, and also, to your point about the reframing, you could be like, "Oh, my gosh, I love going to a new gym in a hotel. It’s so fun to see, like, do they give you free water? Do they give you free headphones? Is there a cool view from the treadmill? Like, I love it. It smells lovely, it’s like a spa in here." You know, it’s fun. It’s like, "OK, I’m just gonna go check out…" because I love checking out a hotel gym. Or like, maybe you go for a walk in a new city. I love to go for walks, and it’s a good way to get out and see a city and see where you are, get oriented. So I’m like, "Oh, it’s part of traveling is that I walk around and see where I am." Because a lot of times when you’re traveling, you don’t really get a sense of the place.

Jessica: Yeah. You know, as you’re talking I…I think I read your book Better Than Before, like a year and a half ago, and I kind of bucked up against this whole idea of accountability, because I’m a rebel in that way, I don’t want someone looking over my shoulder.

Gretchen: I think you’re kinda maybe a rebel.

Jessica: You do? I don’t know.

Gretchen: Yeah, you’re kinda sounding like a rebel.

Jessica: I don’t know. It depends on what area of my life, I guess. But…

Gretchen: Do you find yourself thinking more often, "I have to," or, "You can’t make me?"

Jessica: I think I am more of that “I have to.”

Gretchen: OK, so you’re an obliger who tips to rebel. OK, that’s a very…there’s a lot of people in that category.

 

Planning Ahead and Making Decisions in Advance

Jessica: Yeah, I think I’m an obliger who tips… But what I realized is, OK…I looked to my past, so great tip from this podcast, looked to my past. And I thought, OK, I had a trainer several years ago, and honestly, the most helpful thing wasn’t the actual getting to the gym, because actually, now I’m kind of bored with the one-on-one, I like group classes. But we would always talk about my upcoming week, and I got to anticipate and then say out loud to him like, "Well, I know I have this party coming up. OK. Well, decide right now what are you gonna do going into that," you know? And so, I hired him again, at the beginning of this year, and surely enough, it wasn’t like some radical diet or anything, but I did eventually get back to the weight that, you know, my body is comfortable at. And it really was more about like, "Well, I’m about to go to Vietnam. But Vietnam has a really great Vietnamese coffee that has sweetened condensed milk and a lot of coconut cream," you know?

And I was just able to talk through the future, and then literally, when my book launched, I was like, OK… I mean, this was my first book, I mean, the adrenaline has been out the wazoo. I mean, it was like an out-of-body experience. It’s like having a baby, like, I just threw everything out. And what I’m realizing is just that once a week accountability of actually talking through my future helped me to anticipate my future. But see, but I’m a rebel in that, like, well, don’t tell me what I can and can’t do, but let me kind of talk through sort of those things, the traps that I might fall into, that would lead me into not treating my body in a way it deserves.

“Talking through my future helped me to anticipate my future…let me kind of talk through sort of those things, the traps that I might fall into, that would lead me into not treating my body in a way it deserves.” Jessica Honegger

Gretchen: So what you’re describing, in my framework with the 21 strategies, that’s called the strategy of safeguards. So safeguards is planning to fail, safeguards is acknowledging the fact that stuff happens and people get tempted and people fall off the wagon. And what you’re describing is if-then planning. "If I go to Vietnam, where they have this delicious coffee, then I will have one a day, but no more." "Then I will have one on the day I arrive and the day that I leave, but no more." Or, "I will never even try that delicious coffee, because if I don’t ever try it, I wouldn’t even know what I’m missing." "If I go, then I will do this." And you’re exactly right. Thinking about it in advance makes it much easier to execute in the moment, because you’re thinking about it in kind of a cool mind when you’re not tempted by the moment. But the idea that you’ve thought it through and that you’ve kind of got a plan, it’s much easier to have that control when the situation arises. So you’re like, "If I go to a holiday party, then I will stand away from the buffet table, then I will not drink any alcohol, then I will not eat any hors d’oeuvres. I will only eat a dessert if it’s home-made." Then you have a plan, and it’s like, "I’m here," like, "What’s my plan?" you’ve got it all figured out in advance. So that is a really good strategy for anyone.

Now, accountability is you have somebody who’s gonna save you, "How did it go? What happened with Vietnam and the coffee?" And so, you know, "Ohh, well, somebody’s gonna know what I did," and maybe that helps for some people.

Jessica: And that’s where my rebel comes out. I’m like, "I was in Vietnam, I can do whatever the hell I wanna do." Like I definitely have these two things going in me, Gretchen, I think I’m a difficult case.

Gretchen: Well, it’s interesting because, I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced obliger rebellion, this is a very common pattern where an obliger will meet, meet, meet, meet an expectation, and then suddenly they snap, and they’re like, "This I will not do." And it’s like, "You’ve asked so much from me, and I’ve done everything you wanted. I’m not gonna answer your emails for 3 weeks." Or, "I’ve been your friend for 30 years and you’ve been demanding and you’ve ignored my boundaries. And you know what? I’m done with you. It’s over. I don’t care that we’ve been friends for 30 years."

Jessica: You call that obliger rebellion, we call that passive-aggressive.

Gretchen: Well, it’s a really important phenomenon to recognize, because it happens a lot with obligers. And what it could be is something like, "I’ve had to do so much to prepare for this book, no one could possibly expect me to eat healthfully or exercise. You can’t make me, I’ve done everything. I’m done." A lot of times, obliger rebellion is turned towards the self. "With everything everybody asks from me, I can’t possibly eat healthfully." And so, it can look, to other tendencies, like self-sabotage. And it can be very destructive. It’s meant to be beneficial, it’s meant to save an obliger from a situation that’s become too burdensome, where it’s unsustainable. Because it’s like, "This boss is just asking so much of you," like, "We’re just gonna hit the eject button for a little while." Or permanently." Or, "This friend is so demanding. You can’t take it, you gotta end this." And so, obliger rebellion is meant to be protective, and it can be protective, but it can also be destructive. Because a lot of times, obligers don’t feel in control of it, and there can be a reputational risk. Because it’s like, "Look, I asked you if you wanted to be on this committee. And you said you wanted to be on the committee, so I don’t know why you’re so angry now. Why are you quitting over that? Why didn’t you just say you didn’t wanna be on the committee? I asked you and you said yes." And obliger is like, "Oh, my gosh. How do you not understand this?" I’m like, "See, I don’t understand what you’re doing. It doesn’t make sense to me." It makes sense if you understand obliger rebellion, but I think everybody needs to understand obliger rebellion, because it is such a big tendency. We all have lots of obligers, so you don’t want them to get to that point, you don’t want them to explode. You want things to be fair and reasonable so they don’t get so annoyed.

 

From Habits to Happiness

Jessica: OK. So I wanna wrap this up, I have two questions for you that I wanted to ask. I wanted to ask about happiness, because that is what you study, it’s so much of what you write about, in all of your books, it’s a key theme throughout all of your writings. What makes people truly happy?

Gretchen: Well, there’s two ways to answer that question. If you had to say what is the key to happiness, I think one is relationships. As I was saying before, we have to have enduring intimate bonds, we have to feel like we belong, we need to be able to give support, and we have to be able to get support. And we need to feel like we can confide, and we can trust. And we need to feel like we belong. So relationships are a key to happiness. So if you’re ever thinking like, "Should I go to a reunion? Should I plan a party? Should I show up when my friend has a baby?" it’s like, "Yes." If you can, it’s likely to make you happier because anything that deepens your relationships, or broadens your relationships, is probably something that’s gonna make you happier. You’re probably not gonna regret that book group. You’re probably gonna be glad you did, because it’s gonna make you happier to see those people once a month.

And the other thing, the other way to answer it, though, is you could say, well, self-knowledge. Because we can build a happy life only on the foundation of our own nature, our own interests, our own values, our own temperament. And the better that we know ourselves, the more we can shape our lives to reflect to that. Because if you’re living a life where you’re doing all the things that people tell you should make you happy, but they’re not really the things that do make you happy, it’s like… well, that’s not gonna feel very good. We really have to know ourselves. And that sounds so easy because you’re like, well, I just hang out with myself all day. Like, what’s the mystery? And yet, it’s one of the hardest things. I think it’s the great challenge of our lives, is trying to understand ourselves. Something as simple as am I a morning person or a night person, sometimes people just don’t wanna accept themselves. And then much deeper things, you know, like it was very hard for me to admit, like, I don’t really care about music. Everybody talks about music, I feel like such a killjoy. People are always telling me, "Oh, I could get you to love music," and I’m like, "Yeah, not so much." I mean, I like a song here and there, but I don’t really like music that much. And it’s kind of sad to admit that. But then, if I let go of music, then I have more time for other things that I love. So, yeah…

Jessica: That’s so true. I really, really love your family update. Because I think so much, for me, as someone who is not a routine person, and who kind of buckles up against schedules, this whole idea that life is mainly ordinary and routine is something that’s taking me a lot of time to accept. Because I like to do things that are exciting. Always. And I think that’s why I would often escape into my phone between the hours of 6:00 and 9:00, because that’s when the drudgery kicks in. It’s dinner meeting, it’s homework, and that’s not exciting, it’s routine. And yet, that’s where life is lived. And so that’s what I love about your family update, because there’s just something about meeting one another in the ordinariness of life that acknowledges presence and creates that intimacy over time. So that’s really important, I just wanted to acknowledge that. That habit’s important.

“There’s just something about meeting one another in the ordinariness of life that acknowledges presence and creates that intimacy over time. So that’s really important, I just wanted to acknowledge that. That habit’s important.” Jessica Honegger

Gretchen: Well, it’s funny that you say that because…I mean my mother came up with this idea, and Elizabeth and I were like, "Well, that sounds like a great idea. Let’s do it, let’s talk about it in the podcast." So we talked about it on the "Happier" podcast. And then, it’s one of the things that, like…we talked about it right at the beginning, and people all the time mention it to us. And sometimes people are like, "Well, exactly how do you do it?" I’m like, "There’s no right way or wrong way. Some people do group texts, some people do…" you know, "You can do whatever works for you. We’re just kind of an email family. There’s no right way or wrong way, it’s the spirit of it." Because I think you’re right, it’s, like, we do wanna feel deeply connected to each other, but we also have to be realistic about what can we sustain? And if every time you have to write like a clever, funny missive, and then everybody has to write a clever missive back, it’s not gonna happen. It’s OK to be boring because you’re right, a lot of life is pretty boring, but there’s a lot of beauty in those times.

Jessica: There is. It’s like, connecting with each other in the everyday ordinariness of life is really beautiful. I just love that. OK. Finally, we wrap up every podcast with a question of, "How are you going scared right now?" which it sounds like that might be a framework, maybe, that you don’t frame that way, because you don’t necessarily look at your fears. But when it comes to going scared, it really is where that area of your life where you feel afraid, but you’re going anyway. Or you feel anxious about something and you’re not sure how it’s gonna turn out, but you’re not letting that hold you back.

Gretchen: Yes, I know exactly the area. So I’ve done a lot of things, but one thing I have not done is TV. And I would love to do TV. Now, TV is changing, like all of media. It’s like, everything’s different and like, what is this landscape? And so, I’ve sort of been trying different things. It’s a big aim, because it’s not something that I can control. Like, starting a blog, it’s like, you can start a blog. You can’t make people read a blog, but you can start a blog yourself. Like, you can make it fancy, you can do a great blog all on your own. A podcast, not that hard. Write a book…well, you have to have a publisher. But like TV, it’s a whole big thing. So it feels like a big, big stretch goal. And yet…and I even feel kind of embarrassed and kind of sheepish about acknowledging it, but if you ask the question, that’s the honest answer.

Jessica: I love it. I absolutely love it. You are so quick on your feet, and what you have to say is so profoundly impacting on people. So I’m rooting for you.

Gretchen: Aww. Well, thank you.

Jessica: I said this during the interview, but I absolutely love this idea of a Family Update. I know one of the habits I looking to in this new year is—sorry, Mother-in-law, if you’re listening—but Joe and I do a really bad job of keeping up with his family in particular.

We do big chunks of vacation with them, but some of that regular, everyday “here’s what’s going on in my life” we don’t really do. So, I’m going to really think about this Family Update and maybe randomly start texting my mother-in-law when I’m going to get my hair cut, or, I don’t know, leave a good workout.

So I really want you to let today’s podcast catalyze you into the new year. If you are someone who has been like me, who rolls your eyes when you hear the word “habits,” think about how you can reframe that. Because don’t you want to have energy to give energy to the things that really matter to you? And when you’re able to create habits, it takes self-discipline off the table—self-control off the table—it takes energy off the table and you just start automatically doing these things so that you can give more energy to the things that really matter. So that’s what I would really love for you in this new year.

Thanks so much for tuning in to today’s podcast. Our wonderful music today’s show is by my good friend, Ellie Holcomb. Going Scared is produced by Eddie Kaufholz and I’m Jessica Honegger. Until next time, let’s take each other by the hand and keep going scared.