Helping Therapy Clients Learn Habits for Happiness

Gretchen Rubin on the Power of External Motivation

Helping Therapy Clients Learn Habits for Happiness

A former law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, author Gretchen Rubin spent a year test-driving dozens of techniques and notions that purport to make people happier. Her 2009 book, The Happiness Project, spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list, even reaching number one.

More recently, Rubin decided to tackle another element of happiness: how to change habits that don’t serve you well and how to develop habits that help you achieve your goals. Rubin explores the nature of habit and challenges some basic psychotherapy principles to propose that, rather than awareness and insight, many people just need more external motivation to make the changes they need in their lives. In the following conversation, she focuses on what she considers limitations of psychotherapy as a road map for change.

RH: What are the main misconceptions about happiness that you discovered?

Rubin: The term happiness suggests it’s like an on/off switch, or that there’s a magic finish line that we cross to achieve it. It’s better to think about being happier—“If I did this or that, would I be happier?” It’s not about achieving some perfect state. It’s just about moving in the right direction.

RH: What stands out most in your research?

Rubin: The key to building a happy life is basing it on the foundation of your own nature, your own values, your own interests—the distinctive structure of your own personality. With habits, you always hear people saying things like “Do it first thing in the morning” or “Do what Steve Jobs did” or “Do it for 30 days” or “Start small” or “Give yourself a cheat day.” But there’s no magic one-size-fits-all approach, because it all depends on the individual. You really have to think about who you are, which you’d think would be easy because you hang out with yourself all day long, yet it’s a great challenge to know yourself and grasp what’s true about you.

RH: You emphasize that when it comes to understanding habits, people can be sorted into four broad categories.

Rubin: There are Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels. Upholders readily respond to outer and inner expectations alike, so they meet a work deadline or achieve a New Year’s resolution without much fuss. In contrast, Questioners question all expectations. They’ll meet an expectation if it makes sense, but they hate anything arbitrary or unfair; once they get on board, however, they can meet an expectation. So in a way, everything is an inner expectation for them.

Then there are Obligers, who meet outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations—like a friend of mine who asked, “Why is it when I was in high school on the track team I could regularly go running with no problem, but now I can’t do it on my own?” When she had a coach and a team waiting for her, she could run and stay in shape, but now she can’t because she’s only got the expectation from herself.

And then there are Rebels, who resist all expectations, outer and inner alike. They want to do what they want to do, and if you ask or tell them to do something, they’re likely to do the opposite.

For Obligers, the largest category, the absolute key is external accountability. It doesn’t work for them to say, “I want to read more because reading is so important to me” or “I want to eat a healthy breakfast because I want to put myself first.” They need to find a form of external accountability.

In some psychotherapy, the therapist wants to help you hold yourself accountable. But for many people, especially Obligers, external expectations are far more effective in getting people to act.

RH: What can therapists learn from the framework you’re describing?

Rubin: One of my psychologist friends says, “My job as a therapist is to help clients meet their inner expectations.” I think that’s a big waste of time and energy because that’s not going to work for everyone. For many people, it’s much better to have external accountability, because that makes it easier for them to get motivated. I think a lot of times people get frustrated with therapists because they want them to provide external accountability, but they won’t: they don’t see that as their proper role. That’s why with many people I think coaches are often more effective. The whole point of a coach is to hold you accountable. Therapy is all about insight; coaching is about holding you to it, and I think that’s what a lot of people need.

RH: I think a lot of therapists would recognize themselves as Obligers in your framework because they can sit and listen and accommodate for hours. When I supervise my students, they’ll often complain about clients who won’t stop talking, even at the end of the session. They’ll say they’re afraid to cut them off for fear of offending them.

Rubin: It might help them if you framed it as an obligation: as therapists, they’re obliged to give the client boundaries, to let them know the limits on their time. You might let them know that they have a duty to their other clients—which is that if they exhaust themselves serving one person, they won’t have enough to give the others.

It might make people uncomfortable, especially psychotherapists, to have labels for people’s tendencies because they can become constraining and limiting. But these labels can be a powerful spotlight to help you see with greater clarity the way you are, without letting it become a chokehold on your sense of identity and responsibility.

Ryan Howes

Ryan Howes, Ph.D., ABPP is a Pasadena, California-based psychologist, musician, and author of the “Mental Health Journal for Men.” Learn more at