transcript of Happiness and Work – with Gretchen Rubin (Ask a Manager podcast episode 5)

This is a transcription of the Ask a Manager podcast, episode 5: “Happiness and Work – with Gretchen Rubin”

Alison: This week’s episode is going to be a little bit different than our usual format. I’m so pleased that Gretchen Rubin is joining us to talk about the topic of happiness and work. Gretchen Rubin is a leading expert on the connections between habits, happiness and human nature. She’s host of the award-winning podcast “Happier with Gretchen Rubin,” and she’s the author of multiple bestselling books, including The Happiness Project and her most recent book, The Four Tendencies. Gretchen, welcome and thank you so much for coming on the show.

Gretchen: Thank you for having me, I’m very happy to be talking to you.

Alison: I’m thrilled to have you here. Let me start by asking you this. Like a lot of people, I think I first learned about your work from The Happiness Project, where you dedicated a year to trying to be happier, and you tried tons of different happiness strategies and reported on what did and didn’t work. One thing that I love about that work was how relatable it was. You didn’t just do a review of the scientific literature, you actually tried various strategies and talked in a very personal way about how they played out for you. What made you decide to approach it that way?

Gretchen: When I got the idea to do The Happiness Project, it really was just going to be for me. I was finishing up my biography of JFK and I thought to myself, “Well, what do I want from life anyway?” And I thought, “Well, I want to be happy,” but I realized I didn’t spend any time thinking about whether I was happy or if I could be happier. So I ran out to the library and got this gigantic stack of books to figure out like, could I make myself happier? What do the experts say? What do ancient philosophers say? Can you make yourself happier? Can I make myself happier? How would I do that? So, when I started it, I literally was starting it just for me. And that’s the phrase that came to my mind, “I should have a happiness project,” which stuck. So when I went about it, the kernel of the idea was for me to shape my happiness. It wasn’t like I thought, “How do I approach this to make it accessible to everyone?” It was like, “How do I actually solve a problem for myself?” The information that I was seeing was just so rich and interesting. In a way I’ve been researching in that area ever since. At a certain point I thought, “Well, I’m not going to just this as my side thing for myself. I should make this a whole book project.”

Alison: Happiness is something that should be one of the biggest end goals for people in life, right? But we don’t talk about it all that much as something we should be deliberately thinking about and working toward. Why do you think that is?

Gretchen: It’s funny, there’s this strong theme among people who talk about happiness, that there’s sort of a danger; that if you think about happiness too much, you’ll sort of trip over your own feet. That you’ll become so preoccupied with being happy that it will make you unhappy, or that if you focus too much on happiness, you’re going to become sort of a spoiled brat. You’re just going to be focused on your own satisfaction. So I think some people feel like it’s wrong even to think about happiness. But I agree with you, I think it should be one of the great aims of our life. Robert Louis Stevenson said, “There’s no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy,” and the fact is, happier people make people happier; happier people are better team members, they’re better leaders, they’re better parents, they’re more likely to help out if somebody needs a hand, they’re more interested in the problems of the world and more interested in finding solutions. So it isn’t selfish to want to be happier, and happier people don’t just want to drink Margaritas by the beach. I think we all should think about it and I agree, I feel like I didn’t think about it enough. I never thought about it, in just the chaos of everyday life. I feel like a lot of people, we’re just distracted by our day to day preoccupations and responsibilities, and it can be hard to lift your head and think about the bigger issues, the more transcendent issues.

Alison: How has it changed life for you? This feels like such a personal question to ask and it shouldn’t be, but are you happier?

Gretchen: You know, it’s funny. They have this test you do on a one to ten scale which is your natural level of happiness, and I’m about a seven, which I think is right – I’m not an ebullient person but I’m not a melancholic person. I’m just, you know, I’m pretty happy. Most people are pretty happy; all around the world, most people will say they’re pretty happy. So when I’m on the subway staring into space or I’m in bed waiting to fall asleep, I come back to that. That’s my natural resting place. I think that’s sort of my inborn nature. But what has changed is that my experience of my life is so much happier. I have so much more fun, I spend more times on things that I like, I have less guilt because I behave myself much better. I really focus on, do I have time for the things that are most important to me? And if that means letting go of other things, then that has to happen. I’m much better at thinking about: is this idea, is this activity, is this thing going to boost my happiness or not? So I think I’ve made my life much happier even though I’m still the basically the same old Gretchen.

Alison: That makes a ton of sense, I love that answer. Let’s talk about happiness and work. What have you learned about the relationship between happiness and work? That’s a huge question, obviously, but what are some of the top things you learned about happiness and work?

Gretchen: Some of the top things are, it matters a lot whether we’re happy at work because we spend a lot of time at work; you can’t just write off a huge percentage of your life like, “Oh, well work is bad, so be it.” I mean, it matters, because it’s a huge percentage of our time, and of course it’s a lot of our mental bandwidth. It’s interesting when they look at who’s happy at work, one of the most important things is do you have a friend at work? And this takes time and effort, and this is something some people do very naturally, and some people have to work at. A friend is not just somebody who you josh around with and talk about pop culture or sports or Game of Thrones, this is somebody where you feel like you could confide an important secret to this person. You feel like this person would have your back if you needed someone to really help you. And so, it’s worth it. And it takes time and effort to make a friend. And if you’re at work it takes time and effort even to have a friendly acquaintance. But it really helps people to be happy at work if they feel like they have at least one friend at work.

Another thing that’s interesting is when people talk about being happy at work, a big thing is, “Does my direct supervisor care about me and where I’m going, my growth, what I want, where I’m going?” It’s not the charismatic leader at the top of the chain that matters to people. It’s the person who they’re reporting to. Do they feel like, “that person really does care about me and really does want me to succeed, and they really do care about what I want for myself?” Somebody said to me, I was talking about job hunting and she said, “Choose your boss wisely.” And I think a lot of times we can’t really choose our boss, but if you can choose your boss it’s good to think about: your boss is going to be a big part of your experience, so you want to think about what kind of experience you can expect from that boss.

Alison: It’s tricky because you can choose your boss wisely, start the job, and that person can leave three months later. It’s a crapshoot who you get. Are there simple things that people can do to feel happier at work that are very much in their control? Maybe you don’t have a great friend there, maybe your boss kind of sucks; are there other things that are very within your control that can increase your happiness?

Gretchen: One thing I think that can help you is to understand yourself and your own work patterns and how they might be different or similar to other people’s. I think – and this is something that I’ve seen within Habits and Happiness and The Four Tendencies and everything – there is no magic, one-size-fits-all solution for everyone. There’s no one best way to do things. It really is a matter of what works best for you, what works best for me. Now obviously at work you are not the monarch who can shape the entire thing, but to some degree and sometimes you can try to affect that, or at least understand why a certain situation might not be ideal for you. Because sometimes just understanding, “Hey, you know what? This isn’t the way I would prefer to work. This kind of goes against my grain, and so I just have to think about that and maybe see what I can do.”

For instance, there really are morning people and night people. I’m a morning person, and I used to think everybody could be a morning person if they would just go to bed on time. That is not true. It is largely genetic and also a function of age, so I’ve spoken to many night people who have really tried to work with their workplace or their work schedule to say “Hey, instead of having that meeting at 8:30, can we have it at 10:30? Because it turns out that three quarters of the people in the room are night people and we would just be much better if we could do this at 10:30.” Maybe that’s not a big deal. Maybe it would not be possible, but maybe you can shift certain responsibilities and things to a time that comes more easily to you. Or if you’re a morning person, maybe you do want to get in early and have an hour to yourself before everyone pours in. Other people might not want to do that, but that could work for you. Maybe you would prefer that. So that’s a morning person or a night person. One thing that I think is really hard in this era of shared workspaces is, are you a simplicity lover or an abundance lover? Some people are like me. I like clean surfaces, bare shelves, I don’t like a lot of noise, I don’t like a lot of visual stimulation when I work. But some people love noise and confusion and bustle and people coming and going and a lot going on. Well, it’s hard if you’re in a workplace that doesn’t support your way. And I look around offices and I think, “Wow, this would be really hard for me because there’s a lot in visual. It’s not noisy through my ears, but to my eyes there’s a cacophony, and I can’t go over to other people’s workspaces and start straightening up their papers – as much as I would like that.

Alison: Let me ask you something that I’m dying to ask you. I often wonder if our cultural beliefs about work make a lot of people less happy with their jobs or their careers, at least for a certain socioeconomic swath of our population. We tend to tell people that work should be really fulfilling and meaningful, and that to be successful and happy they should build their paperwork around their passions. And that’s great when it works out. But for a lot of people it’s either not financially feasible or their passions don’t lend themselves to paid work, so they ended up feeling like they’re floundering or even outright failing if they don’t end up doing work that they’re passionate about. And I’ve always thought we’re doing a terrible disservice to people with that and that people would be happier if we didn’t set them up to think that they have to find work emotionally fulfilling. What are your thoughts on that?

Gretchen: I think that’s absolutely fascinating. I’ve been thinking about that a lot myself, in fact. I think that we actually need to have a lot more nuance in the way we talk about work. I don’t like the word passion because I feel like that’s become very distracting and has all sorts of stuff loaded into it. The way I was thinking about it, because I was thinking about exactly this question, is: there’s a vocation, there’s a career, there’s a job, and there’s chores.

A vocation is something – and I experience this, I have a vocation, which is – I would be a writer even if I were not paid for it. I cannot help it, I feel compelled to do it. It is a compulsion with me to do this work. Now in a way, that can be fun and it’s super exciting and satisfying to do it. But there’s also a level in which you’re not in control. People have all kinds of vocations and sometimes it’s “I want to be a pediatrician,” and sometimes it’s “I want to be an artist,” or I read an article about a person who ran away to the circus to be a trapeze artist, who clearly felt strong compulsion.

But then there’s a career, and that’s where people – they don’t have that. They can be happy doing this, they can be happy doing that. They want to be using their talents well, they want to be making a mark in the world, they want to feel like they’re making progress. But could it be this, could it be that, could they be in marketing, could they be in sales. They need a reasonable match for their talents, but they don’t have that same sense of compulsion. But I still think they can be very happy in their work, and I think it’s wrong to say that if you don’t feel this sense of vocation there’s something wrong with you or there’s something wrong with your setup.

And then a job is where you’re there for the money. You’re just doing this because you need the money, and this is a good job and you’re happy to have a job. You’re just sort of doing what you’re doing.

Alison: Yeah, that makes perfect sense. I feel like I hear from so many people who are struggling. They have a job, they’re earning a living – and that is a type of success in itself, I would argue – but they feel like they’re doing it wrong. That these standards have been set for them, that they’re supposed to feel really, really passionate or really emotionally connected to their work and they don’t, so they feel like they haven’t found the right place for themselves yet. And maybe that’s true for some people, but I think for the majority of the world, people work for money and that’s okay.

Gretchen: Yeah, I absolutely agree. And you want to get yourself into a situation where you feel good about it. There’s something very inherently satisfying about work. I mean, it’s satisfying to get things done, it’s satisfying to be contributing to the world in whatever way you’re contributing. And maybe that’s just not a place where either because of your interests or because of your situation, you’re going to have it be more than that, but you still want it to be something where you can take joy in the fact that you’re doing good work.

Alison: Yeah, totally agree.

Gretchen: I clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court and I remember I asked her, “What do you think makes for a happy life?” And she said, “Work worth doing.” And I thought that was a really good answer because the more you think about it, you realize there’s all kinds of work that people do that’s worth doing. Some of it’s paid, some of it’s not paid, but if you feel that you’re doing work worth doing, there’s immense satisfaction that can come from that.

Alison: Yeah, absolutely. I want to ask you about your newest book, which is called The Four Tendencies where you lay out a framework for understanding why we do and don’t act in different situations and how people tend to respond to expectations, both internal expectations and external expectations. Can you talk a little bit about how you’ve seen that play out in the workplace?

Gretchen: You’re exactly right. There are Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels. There’s a quiz on my site,, if people want to take the quiz, but I can just give a brief description of it and most people know what they are from the brief description. Upholders readily meet outer expectations like a work deadline and inner expectations like a New Year’s resolution without much fuss. They want to know what other people expect from them, but their expectations for themselves are just as important. Then Questioners question all expectations. They’ll do something if they think it makes sense, so they make everything an inner expectation. If it meets their standard, they’ll do it. If it fails their standard, they’ll push back. And they tend to object to anything arbitrary, inefficient, irrational. Then there are Obligers: Obligers readily meet outer expectations, but they struggle to meet inner expectations. This is the person who would never miss an exercise class where she was going to meet her friend and the teacher would notice if students show up. But when she’s trying to exercise on her own, it would be a struggle. And then there are Rebels: Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike. They want to do what they want to do in their own way. They can do anything they want to do, but if you ask or tell them to do something, they’re very likely to resist. This comes up all the time at work because obviously in the workplace, a lot of times what we’re trying to do is get other people to do what we want, or people are trying to get us to do what they want. And so the idea that people respond differently to expectations is something that can really ease conflict in the workplace and show you how to communicate more effectively with other people. Because most of us try to treat other people as if they have the same tendency that we do. I’m an Upholder. I used to talk to everyone as if they were Upholders – well, okay, they aren’t, and now that I know that, I really changed the way that I communicate with people because it doesn’t always work. If I’m not talking to another Upholder, my words might fall flat.

Alison: Yeah. I made my husband take your Four Tendencies quiz this weekend. I knew that I was a Questioner even before I took the quiz, although it confirmed it. He’s an Obliger and it explains so much about things that we find baffling about each other.

Gretchen: Ooh, like what?

Alison: He is incredibly responsive to anything that anyone wants him to do. He will spend two days over his weekend helping you move. But I would argue he really gives himself short shrift on things that he’d like to do for himself, and it drives me crazy. Whereas I tend not to do anything unless someone has made a logical case, or I can figure it out myself.

Gretchen: Exactly.

Alison: And I think to him at times it has probably come across as selfishness.

Gretchen: No, it’s interesting because Upholders and Questioners and Rebels, yeah, they can seem cold because they’re like, “Hey, I’ve got to go for a 15-mile run because I’m training for the marathon. So, I’m sorry if we have guests coming over, I’ve got to go for my run.” Well that’s interesting, and that’s a perfect example of how a Questioner might say to an Obliger, “Well if you didn’t want to do it, why did you say you would do it?” So a Questioner might not have empathy for an Obliger’s situation where the Obliger feels like, “Well, I had to do it.” But once you understand how people have different perspectives, you can see how you could manage that in a different way. That’s interesting.

Alison: Yeah, it’s just made things fall into place a little bit more in our understanding of each other, which is nice. Well, this was great. I got some marriage counselling out of this as a bonus. (Laughs) Gretchen, thank you so much for taking the time to come on Ask a Manager and talk with us. I’m so grateful for your time and your insights. I know many listeners will have found them incredibly useful.

Gretchen: Well thanks so much, it was so fun to talk to you.

Alison: You can learn more about Gretchen’s work at and for everyone who’s listening, I will be back next week with more advice on navigating sticky situations at work.

Alison: Thanks for listening to the Ask a Manager podcast, produced in conjunction with Penguin Random House and Anchor. If you like what you heard, please take a minute to subscribe, rate, and review the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google Play. If you’d like to ask a question on the show, email it to And check out my new book from Ballantine Books called Ask a Manager: Clueless Coworkers, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work. It hits stores May 1st, and it’s the ultimate guide for tackling any and all workplace dilemmas. You can pre-order a copy today at or anywhere books are sold.

Thanks for listening! I’m Alison Green, and I’ll be back next week with another question.

Transcript provided by MJ Brodie.

You can see past podcast transcripts here.