Tag Archives: character

Why It Doesn’t Matter Much Whether You’re a Man or a Woman, for Happiness and Good Habits.

When it comes to figuring out happiness and good habits, I don’t think it matters much if you’re a man or a woman.

It’s easy to assume that certain aspects of ourselves matter more than they do. For instance, birth order. People believe that birth order has a big influence on personality — but research has disproved this. Birth order just doesn’t matter for personality.

Now, whether you’re a man or a woman matters in some situations, sure.

But in general, in my observation, for any particular person, individual differences swamp gender differences.

In my own work and research for The Happiness Project and Better Than Before, I came to believe this more and more strongly.

In my experience, women, especially, often assume that they are the way they are because of being a woman. “I’m like this, and I’m like this because I’m a woman, and most women are like this.” But to me, it seems that this points to some aspect of their personality that’s not related to gender.

My first and very strong clue about this came when I was devising the Four Tendencies framework. I’d noticed that many women said to me, “Why is it that busy moms like us can’t take time for ourselves?

And I’d think, well, I consider myself a busy mom, but I don’t have trouble taking care of myself. So why am I different?

Now I know: this feeling of “not being able to take time for myself” isn’t a female thing, it’s an Obliger thing. Obliger men feel this way, too, but they don’t ascribe it to gender.

Because of my strong conclusion that gender matters a lot less than people assume, I was fascinated to read the two pieces: Wired’sNetflix’s Grand, Daring, Maybe Crazy Plan to Conquer the World” and Fortune‘s “Netflix Says Geography, Age, and Gender are ‘Garbage’ for Predicting Taste.”

When Nexflix tries to figure out what will appeal to viewers, it ignores geography, age, and gender: “in general, the variation within any population group is much wider than the collective difference between any two groups.” So whether  a person is a man or a woman isn’t useful information for Netflix, when they’re trying to understand their customers.

The fact is, people often make sweeping generalizations about what “women” and “men” are like — but research suggests that these assumptions aren’t correct. The article “Men Are from Mars Earth, Women Are from Venus Earth,” summed up research done at the University of Rochester:

“From empathy to sexuality to science inclination to extroversion, statistical analysis of 122 different characteristics involving 13,301 individuals shows that men and women, by and large, do not fall into different groups. In other words, no matter how strange and inscrutable your partner may seem, their gender is probably only a small part of the problem.”

This wrong belief matters to happiness and habits, I think, because it means that people often misunderstand their own experience, and for that reason, can’t tackle a challenge in the most effective way.

If I think “I can’t take time for myself because I’m a woman,” I may not try to do anything about it. If I think “I can’t take time for myself because I’m an Obliger,” I may decide, “I need accountability to get myself to go to the gym, so I’d better sign up with a trainer/join a running group/take a class.”

More and more, I see that it’s very, very hard to appreciate how other people might see the world in a different way.

People often say things like, “Well, of course, sometimes all of us just need to throw all the rules out the window and just indulge ourselves.” “All teenagers rebel.” “If people would just read the report and understand the facts, they’d follow this program.”  “No one wants someone looking over their shoulder all the time.” “It’s not healthy to be too rigid.” “If something’s important to you, you should be able to do it without any reminders.”

But these generalizations just aren’t universally true. They’re true for some people.

I think it’s much more helpful to say, “What kind of person am I? What’s true about me?” than think “We women struggle with…” or “We men always…” Because when we’re trying to understand ourselves, gender doesn’t provide a very helpful guide.

Agree, disagree?

Fill in the Blank: “Our Life Is What Our __ Makes It.”

How would you fill in the blank: “Life is what our ____ makes it.”

In his Journal, Jules Renard wrote: “Life is what our character makes it. We fashion it, as a snail does its shell.”

I’d propose “Life is what our habits make it.” As I write about in Better Than Before, my book about habits, habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life. About 40% of our existence is shaped by our habits — so if we have habits that work for us, we’re far more likely to be happier, healthier, and more productive.

Other possibilities? Education, relationships, self-knowledge…?

I’ve never read any other writings by Jules Renard, but this journal is extraordinary.

How would you fill in the blank?

Want to Learn More about Yourself–and Instruct Me? Consider These Questions.

I write a lot about my Four Tendencies framework — and Elizabeth and I have talked a lot about it on our podcast. To find out if you’re an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel, go here, or take the online Quiz here.

I so appreciate all the readers and listeners who have shared their insights and experiences — it has given me such deeper insight into the Four Tendencies.

I introduce the framework in my book Better Than Before, and ever since the book came out, I’ve been deluged with people wanting more information about the Four Tendencies, how they interact. “How do I manage my Rebel child?” “How do I hire only Obligers?” “How can Questioners avoid analysis paralysis?” “Can’t you give more ideas for how Rebels can change their habits?” are some of the questions I keep getting.

So I’m working on a whole book on the Four Tendencies. With every book I write –I think, boy, it will never get better than this, I’ll never have this much fun writing a book again. And then I do. I never forget how lucky I am.

As I’m writing, I’d love to learn more about what you think about the following issues (or anything else, really):

  • Can you think of any famous examples of the Four Tendencies? Either in real life (Andre Agassi is an Obliger) or fictional (Hermione Granger is an Upholder).
  • Obligers, I’d love to hear about your experiences with Obliger-rebellion. What triggered it — and I’m even more curious to hear — what stopped it or cured it? Or if you’re close to an Obliger (and all of us are, because it’s such a large group), how did you address Obliger-rebellion?
  • If you’re someone who’s in a long-term relationship with a Rebel (which means you’re very likely to be an Obliger), how does that work out? One particular question: Does it give you a feeling of greater control of how things are done, do you respond to that?
  • What do you like or dislike about your Tendency? What would be the motto for your Tendency?
  • Have you noticed that you get along better, or worse, with a particular Tendency, and if so, why?
  • If you use the Four Tendencies at work, I’d love to hear about that. If you use it as a doctor, in hiring, as a nutritionist, as a teacher, as a manager, etc. — tell me about that.
  • How do you think your Tendency suits you to your job — or not?
  • How does your Tendency influence your romantic relationships?
  • Finally — and this is a big one — I need help with the title. I want to call the book “The Four _____ Tendencies” or “The Four Tendencies of _____.” How would you fill in that blank? Ideally, it’s a word that’s concrete and colorful and adds a layer of meaning beyond “Tendency” really to explain what this framework is about. Similar to “The Five Love Languages.Abstract concepts or adjectives, like Personality, Fundamental, Responsive, Self-Knowledge are apt but, I suspect, not as compelling. Think away! GOLD STAR if you come up with something terrific.


This is a lot of questions, I know, but I’m so curious.

Thanks, as always, for sending my your observations. I’m endlessly fascinated by the Four Tendencies, and just can’t read and hear enough about how they play out in people’s lives. Henry James himself couldn’t invent these marvelous, precise, riveting examples.

Let me know what you think, what you’ve noticed, what you’ve experienced.


Are Souls Like Athletes, That Must Be Pushed to Their Full Capacity to Develop?

“Souls are like athletes, that need opponents worthy of them, if they are to be tried and extended and pushed to the full use of their powers, and rewarded according to their capacity.”

–Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain

What do you think — do you agree or disagree with Merton?

I’ve read a lot of Merton’s work, I have such a complex reaction to it — and his character. Let’s just say that Merton was a…complicated person. (I plan to write a “portrait of a Rebel” analysis of him, stay tuned for that). I just re-read Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, and was reminded that it was his book that prompted me to read Story of a Soul, the memoir of my spiritual master, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux.

I’ve always wondered about the meaning of the title, “The Seven Storey Mountain” and just looked it up. I figured it was something from Dante — and yes! In The Divine Comedy, the seven storey mountain is the mountain of Purgatory that must be climbed to reach Paradise.

Questioners, What Questions Do You Ask About Your Habits?

I posted the other day about “Are you a people-pleaser?” This question is related to the  Four Tendencies framework, which I develop in Better Than Before, my book on habit change. (To hear when it goes on sale, sign up here.)

A key piece of self-knowledge — which is crucial to habit change — is “What is your ‘Tendency?”  That is: How do you respond to expectations?

-outer expectations (meet a deadline, perform a “request” from a sweetheart, follow traffic regulations)

-inner expectations (write a novel in your free time, keep a New Year’s resolution, start flossing)

Your response to expectations may sound slightly obscure, but it turns out to be very, very important.

In a nutshell:

  • Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations (I’m an Upholder, 100%)
  • Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense, so they make everything an inner expectation
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike


I gave a talk at LinkedIn about the Four Tendencies, so if you’d like to see me discuss each category in  a video, you can watch: for Upholders, watch here; Questioners, here; Obligers, here, and Rebels, here.

I’m always trying to deepen my understanding of how the Tendencies play out. So over the past week, I’ve been posing some questions. One day, I focused on Rebels.

Today’s questions relate to the Questioner Tendency.

I have a lot of exposure to this Tendency, because my husband is a Questioner.

Being married to a Questioner is helpful to me, because as an Upholder, my instinct is to meet an expectation without questioning it too closely. My husband always questions an expectation before he’ll do it, and I’ve learned to question more myself. This Tendency saves him a lot of work. Sometimes I admire it, sometimes it drives me crazy.

Last night, I pointed to two small drawings hanging on the wall, and said, “Can you please switch these two?”

He said, “Why can’t you?” He didn’t mean it in a bad way, but just — why can’t you do it?

I gave him a look. As an Upholder, I must confess, this response annoys me. I don’t ask him to do much, and when I do ask him to do something, I have my reasons, and I don’t feel like I should have to justify at length every single request. But that’s what a Questioner wants! Explanations, justifications.

I’m making a list of the questions that Questioners pose, before they meet an expectation. Forming a habit is a form of expectation (whether self-imposed or other-imposed), so to form a habit successfully, Questioners need to have their questions answered. They often ask:

Why should I listen to you? (This question isn’t meant in a snarky way, but literally.) What’s your expertise? A friend told me, “When my son broke his arm, I interviewed four doctors. My husband thought I was crazy, but I can’t listen to a doctor unless I have complete trust.”

–Why should I have to do this, instead of someone else? My husband and household habits. Questioners are great at delegating, unless they think that no one else can do something.

–Where can I get more information? Questioners love information and research. In fact, they sometimes complain of “analysis paralysis”; they want more and more information.

–How can I tweak this habit to suit my individual needs?

–Isn’t there a better way to structure this habit? Questioners like to find better ways to do things.

–What problems has everyone else overlooked, that I can identify? Questioners are good at spotting error.

Questioners, what other questions do you find yourself asking? Questioner-observers, what do you get asked? Does this list ring true?

Do you find questioning helpful, or does it become tiresome at some points?

What am I missing?