Can Your Habits Make You Happier?

February 08, 2016

Right about now, many people are giving up on their New Year’s resolutions and falling back into their old ways. Their energy and enthusiasm is waning as January turns into February, and maintaining change is just too hard. Permanently establishing or changing a habit has proven difficult for many of us. Are there any strategies for making habit formation easier?

I’m glad you asked. Habits are the subject of Gretchen Rubin’s (The Happiness Project) newest book, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, which came out in paperback in December. In it, she explores 21 proven strategies that help people change their habits.

Why are habits so important? And what is the connection between habits and happiness? One of the keys to happiness, according to Rubin, is an atmosphere of growth, and creating good habits helps us to grow. She notes that 40 percent of our behavior is repeated almost daily, and that “Habits are the invisible architecture of daily life.” Once established, habits free us from decision making, which preserves our self-control. Once a habit is in place, “We can effortlessly do the things we want to do,” she writes.

Think about it. You probably get up at the same time every day, eat a limited range of foods, and choose from a handful of leisure activities. Cementing the habits you want would improve the quality of your life and make you happier.

Rubin discusses a number of strategies to help you master your habits—strategies including monitoring (“find a way to count it”), foundation (first tackle the most obvious habits you want to change, such as exercise, sleep, eating healthy or decluttering), scheduling (write it down and be specific about when you’ll do it), and accountability (face consequences for what you do and don’t do). But one of the most helpful things in her book was a discussion of the Four Tendencies—the four general ways most people respond to expectations. Different strategies work better for different tendencies. (You can take Rubin’s quiz to find which tendency you are here.)  I’m an Obliger: I respond well to outer expectations, but don’t always meet inner expectations—in other words, if I tell you I’ll do something, I’ll do it. If I tell myself I’ll do something, I might not.

Rubin also discusses different ways to get started, whether you begin with baby steps, with a clean slate (as at the New Year), or make a sudden and major change to your habits (the “lightning bolt”), and many other strategies to help you shape your habits. These include learning how to spot loopholes, using distraction, and pairing something you like to do (read a magazine) with the habit you want to establish (working out on a cardio machine). She concludes the book by noting how “considering ourselves in comparison to others” can help you understand yourself better and in so doing, discover which techniques work best for you.

I found Better Than Before easy to read and filled with practical advice on mastering habits. There’s just something I like about Rubin’s down-to-earth style. I’ve used some of the strategies from Better Than Before to establish a few happy habits of my own. I track my workouts in my planner and hate to see more than one day go by without some type of exercise noted (monitoring). I leave a glass near the coffee pot so I’ll drink water when I get up every morning (convenience); and I hide the chips and cookies so I don’t see them every time I open the pantry (inconvenience—I know I could just not buy them, but I live with two people who would bring them in if I didn’t). I also exchange lists of goals with a friend each week (accountability). Armed with Rubin’s suggestions, I believe 2016 will be better than before.

What are your happy habits? What strategies did you use to establish them?

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  1. Great review! Isn't it funny that I got excited about reading your review, even though I've already read the book? It's always interesting to read other people's takes on nonfiction.

    I think it's about time to re-read Better Than Before! I read it when it first came out last March, but I definitely think it's worth a second pass.

  2. It sounds like you've got some great strategies to make the changes you want to make.

  3. Leanne--Thanks! I know what you mean, too--it's almost like having a conversation with a friend about a book you've both read. This was the second time I read it, and this time I took notes. So much good info--I always think she makes these topics so practical.

  4. Cheryl--Yes, I if I only will continue on using them! It helps to have multiple strategies. If one thing doesn't help, move on to the next.

  5. Dear Kathy, I so miss the blogspot world, and YOUR blog! I've been pulled away to other activirties, but I will tell you, I love this book and that it is down to earth. I have happily made some new habits in the last year. One of them is daily accounting of my spending (like you, tracking). I actually do it sometimes first thing in the morning! I also drink water before coffee now. I happily write in my daily personal journal every morning with my coffee and have been adding little illustrations! I've also added in a daily "Thank you" category. So true about habits. This is a great book. A library friend of mine is doing a monthly book group based on this book and others like it. Thank you for your blog. I hope hope hope to start my new one soon.

  6. Rita--Thank you so much for your kind comments about my blog--I am so glad at least one someone enjoys it :). I love your idea of writing in your journal and adding little illustrations every day. Not only is it fun, but it will be a great way to look back on the little everyday things we tend to forget, but that really make up so much of our lives.

    And I look forward to seeing your new blog whenever it comes to life!