Finding Greater Happiness Through Forming the Right Habits
While sitting on a New York City bus several years ago, author Gretchen Rubin began to reflect on what she wanted from her life. Above all, she realized she had a strong desire to be happy. Seems simple enough, but she soon discovered that uncovering the true key to happiness wasn’t that easy. Thus began a research project, followed by two books on the topic, including her bestselling The Happiness Project, in which she reflects on the year she spent trying to unearth what leads to personal contentment.
Among her conclusions was that having the right habits results in greater happiness. Gretchen focuses exclusively on this topic in her latest book, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives.
In the following interview, the former lawyer shares strategies for developing the kinds of habits that bring us greater fulfillment, while teaching us how to let go of those that cause disappointment.
Why are habits such an important contributor to happiness?
As I talked to people about happiness over the years,
I realized that a big challenge many faced was a certain problem or habit that was holding them back. For instance, someone said to me, “I’m exhausted all the time.” The truth was they had a habit of not going to bed early enough. It turns out that habits are a huge force in our lives. If we have good habits, we’re much more likely to be happier, healthier and more productive. Regardless of your goals — whether you want to be out in nature more, write a novel or eat better — it starts with forming the right habits.
What’s the best way to do that?
In my book, I identify 21 strategies to help. That seems like a lot, and you probably won’t need to use all of them, but everyone has personal tendencies. One of the strategies is scheduling. This means that you lock in and anchor expectations for yourself. Instead of saying, “I’m going to start exercising,” write down the day and time you’re going to the gym on your calendar and stick with it.
Do certain habits instill more happiness than others?
The happiest people have wildly different habits. But one thing that ties them together is they’ve all figured out what works best for them, and they stick to it. If they know they need to get to bed early, they do it. If they like to run to clear their head, they make it happen even when it’s not convenient. If they want to avoid sugar, like me, they never have it around.
One of the things you write about, which seems counterintuitive, is that rewards can be dangerous when tied to your habits.
Yes, they actually undermine the process because you teach yourself that the only reason you’re doing something is to be rewarded. The goal of a habit is to end the process of decision making. If you tell yourself you get to eat a cookie after you take a run, for instance, it leaves a lot of ambiguity. If you only run half way, do you still get the cookie? If you don’t feel like a cookie, does that mean you don’t have to run today? The only rewards that really work are those that take you deeper into a good habit. As one example, if you decide to do yoga regularly, you could reward yourself with a new yoga mat, because that helps you stick to it.
What about the idea of treating yourself, either when you’ve done something great or feel really bad and need a boost?
It’s important to have treats, but they should be healthy ones. Unhealthy treats are things like eating and drinking, or shopping. People do it to get a boost, but it ends up making them feel worse. That’s why I suggest planning your rewards in advance. Know what you’re going to do if you have a bad day at work so that it’s something you can anticipate and plan, rather than making decisions in the spur of the moment. A nice test about whether something is healthy is whether you feel good about doing it the next day. If you are the kind of person who wants to have a glass of wine on days when you’re down, know that this is what you’re going to do, and don’t change it to something like eating junk food instead.
So it’s about anticipating in advance how you’re going to get through challenging times?
Yes, and here’s a tip about treats: Think about what you did for fun when you were 10 years old. Maybe it was arts and crafts, going on a bike ride or dancing around while listening to music. Chances are that’s something you would enjoy now as well.
Why do we have such a hard time breaking what we know to be bad habits?
This is one of the great mysteries that I set to find out. You can warn someone that if they eat certain foods they’ll get type II diabetes or cancer and it doesn’t seem to matter. Some studies suggest that up to 50% of adult Americans don’t take prescription medication for chronic health conditions. Why? I think it’s partly due to the struggle between the now and your future self. The future seems vague and nebulous. We are good at coming up with loopholes, like vowing to start eating healthfully tomorrow. A lot of times we don’t even acknowledge that what we’re doing is bad, and we’re great at making
How can you keep good habits when you’re around people who don’t share the same discipline?
That’s an important question because we catch habits from others, for better or worse. The important thing is you’ve got to be completely committed to the good habit. And don’t be afraid to be out of step with others.
Based on all the research you’ve done, what’s the most important determinant of happiness in one’s life?
If I had to boil it down to one thing, people who have meaningful relationships tend to be happier. Self-knowledge is also important. This means knowing your nature, values and interests. That’s not as easy as it sounds, since figuring out what you want your life to look like requires a lot of work and thought.
Does being wealthy lead to greater happiness?
Research shows that people with more money do tend to be happier. A lot of that has to do with the fact that they have control over their lives. Wealth enables you to decide how you spend your time and energy. Plus, one of the greatest luxuries of wealth is it buys you the ability of not having to worry about money.