To Boost Your Self-Control, Ask Yourself Whether You’re an “Abstainer” or a “Moderator.”

2011 Happiness Challenge: For those of you following the 2011 Happiness Project Challenge, to make 2011 a happier year — and even if you haven’t officially signed up for the challenge — welcome! This month’s theme is Self-control. Last week’s resolution was To increase your self-control, boost your energy level. Did you try that resolution? Did it boost your happiness?

This week’s resolution is Ask yourself: Are you an abstainer or a moderator?

Download Are you an abstainer or a moderator

If you want to read more about this resolution, check out…
Quiz: When trying to give something up, are you an abstainer or a moderator?
Are you a “yes” resolver or a “no” resolver?
Do something every day.

If you’re new, here’s information on the 2011 Happiness Challenge. It’s never too late to start! You’re not behind, jump in right now, sign up here. For the Challenge, each week I’ll post a video suggesting a resolution for you to consider. For more ideas for resolutions to try, check out the archives of videos here.

* Check out Zen Habits — “smile, breathe, and go slowly.”

* Sign up to become a Super Fan, and from time to time, I’ll ask for your help. I so appreciate the support and enthusiasm of the Super Fans.

  • LivewithFlair

    This is awesome today.  This helps me understand my weight loss journey.  I think I’m a moderator.  Hmmm.  I love this!  Thank you.

  • Peninith1

    Certainly my experience with cigarettes marked me as an ‘abstainer’ . . . one bummed cigarette and I rapidly got back to a pack a day. Happily I have been smoke free since Washington’s Birthday of 1990. But where food and drink are concerned I find it so hard to just cross things off my list forever, which is no doubt why I have such difficulty controlling my weight. And if I exile one sort of food, another seems to pop up to take its place. Too bad I can’t abstain from eating! This is a method of self control that works well for financial control and other sorts of self control, though.  I have seen you mention also that you do certain things EVERY day. Now do you think that is the flip side of being an abstainer? Exercise could be in that category for me. Every rest day seems to me to prove a huge temptation to quit.

    • gretchenrubin

      I do find it easier to do some things EVERY day, and I absolutely suspect that this is an aspect of my abstainer personality. All or nothing! Always or never, that’s the easier way for me. But it does seem that a lot of people are a mix, and also, that for some things like cigarettes and alcohol, abstaining is the way for just about everyone.


  • I saw the book about Johnson for sale at Borders during my “last hurrah” there on Sunday; now I wish I had picked it up!!   It is hard for me to decide if I am an abstainer or a moderator.  When I heard your wine example, I thought I was an abstainer…I can’t have just one.  But for things like French fries or sodas, I don’t have them very often, but I’ll have some once in awhile, and it doesn’t make me desire them from then on all the time; wouldn’t that make me a moderator?  This gives me something very interesting to think about…

    I have reflected on the success of my first set of Happiness Project resolutions today on my blog.  I would love for you to come by to check it out!

    • Mairsydoats

      I believe (at least in my own experience) that I need to react differently to different stimuli.  Happy for you to be able to moderate some desires, but good to know which desires you cannot.  I can easily moderate many things that others can’t:  alcohol, for one.  But I need to abstain from large containers of ice cream (only buy what is okay for a single serving) and silly FB games (if I start, I don’t seem to be able to walk away).

      • gretchenrubin

        Excellent point. Most people are a mix, and the key thing is to know yourself and when a particular approach works better for you, case by case.


  • Liane

    I have a suggestion: Is it possible to put a transcript of your videos anywhere? It’s not always easy for me to watch, and I really love to hear (or at least read) what you have to say. Just a thought!

    • gretchenrubin

      I prefer to read transcripts myself, but there’s no easy way (that I know of) to generate them.

      In the place where I link to related posts, there’s usually a post where I talk about more or less the same subject, so that may be of use.


      • Liane

        Thanks for your response. I did notice the related topics links. I’ll watch videos when I can and follow the links when I can’t.

  • Shari

    I think I really am an abstainer, but I get in trouble thinking I am a moderator. Either way, it definiately is “food for thought.”

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes, judging from myself, when you follow the advice meant for folks in the other camp, it DOES NOT WORK! Even thought it works for them.


  • Congratulations on the book!  I think it is true what you say about ambition is to be happy at home. It is a good perspective for people to look at things from. Basically if you’re not happy at home it means you’re not happy with the life which provides you that home. Well done and I am looking forward to the book.

  • Kelliehunt

    I just realised…I am a total abstainer surrounded by moderators!

    And, due to their influence I’ve been trying to live like a moderator…no wonder it has been not working for me for such a long time! 

    I see the logic in being a moderator and I really wish I could be but thank you for helping me realise I am a total abstainer and that’s OK!

    I feel so empowered and normal now! 

    • Gec

      He he welcome. I’m an abstainer surrounded by moderators too. I think they find me stubborn, weird, and just plain annoying 😀

  • I too feel that I am a moderator since I atleast try out things that can boost my happiness..

  • Helen

    Is there any published research around this concept?

    • gretchenrubin

      As far as I know, I’m the only one to talk about it this way, but probably someone has done work on it elsewhere, with different vocabulary. I would love to believe that I’m the first person (with Samuel Johnson) to notice this.


      • Rachel

        I know this is an old post, but…the Buddha grappled with and spoke about this issue about 2500 years before you or Johnson. And although he advocated “the middle way” as the general approach to enlightenment and right living, there are plenty of specific sense pleasures and other things he abstained from entirely. Buddhist literature might use some different vocabulary, as you guessed, but I’ve found it offers much useful commentary on this topic. Thanks for the important discussion!

  • Lia

    Thank you for confirming that I am a Moderator.

  • Meg

    Hye Gretchen,
    I am an abstainer who has also practiced moderation quite successfully.  I don’t judge others for things they are addicted to, and don’t appreciate the fact that they feel quite qualified to judge my behaviors.  My huge bugaboo is when people won’t hear my no, or no thank you.  It feels like I always have to be angry and aggressive in order to make my point.  That, of course, causes them to see me as judgemental.  My question is, why can’t I be accepted for my choices and decisions? 

    Thanks for listening,


    • gretchenrubin

      I know what you mean. In my experience, moderators and abstainers really judge each other and try to persuade others that their way is “wrong.” For me, it was helpful to understand better why my way — abstaining — just wasn’t going to work for some people. It seems so obvious to me that abstaining is the way to go!


  • Margret Schell

    Thanks for reminding me. I’m an abstainer! Funny how we can forget things about ourselves.

  • Thanks for reminding me. I am an abstainer! Funny how we can forget things about ourselves.

  • Laurie

    I love your always thought provoking and interesting videos, Gretchen.  Thank you for continually enriching my life.

    • gretchenrubin

      You are so nice to say so! I’m very happy to hear that you find them useful.


  • Sandyzellis

    Gretchen, noting your link to Zen Habits, I used to peruse that site all the time, but was very disappointed when Leo eliminated reader comments to his posts. While is it still a good blog, I find it is no longer a great blog (like yours), because it lacks the amazing perspective and feedback that comes with reader comments from all over the planet. It struck me as a rather haughty decision and devalued the site, with the unfortunate (for me) result that I seldom visit there anymore. Anyway, I hope you never get rid of your reader comments. You’re the essential and highly valued meat and potatoes, and the reader comments are the delicious gravy. Thanks!

    • gretchenrubin

      I love reading comments too – so interesting to hear so many different people’s perspectives on an issue that is part of everyone’s lives. Happy to hear you find it valuable as well! Thanks so much for your kind words.