Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, is a master of healthy habits—she has written numerous self-help books with the aim of achieving true happiness and self-awareness. In her research to find out what motivates us to be our best selves, she discovered that most people fall into one of four categories: Upholder, Obliger, Questioner, or Rebel. With that, her framework for the Four Tendencies was born.
The Four Tendencies framework “distinguishes how people tend to respond to expectations: outer expectations (a deadline, a ‘request’ from a sweetheart) and inner expectations (write a novel in your free time, keep a New Year’s resolution).” Rubin has written about the tendencies on her website, discussed them on her podcast, “Happier with Gretchen Rubin,” developed a quiz to help you figure out your tendency, and has mapped out the framework in her new book out today, September 12, The Four Tendencies: The Surprising Truth About the Hidden Personality Types That Drive Everything We Do.
When we spoke to Rubin, she told us that people have tried to compare the tendencies to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and have even lined them up with the Hogwarts houses in the Harry Potter series. She clarifies, however, that there is truly no comparison to the Four Tendencies. You just have to see how they play out in your daily life to really get what it’s all about. Each person has their own distinct tendency that can only be found by being truly honest with oneself.
“When you know your tendency, you are much better able to manage yourself," Rubin says. "You can see things in your life that frustrate you and what buttons to push. I can change how I behave to take into account how people are acting around me.“
There are pros and cons to each of the Four Tendencies. Rubin’s book goes into far more detail, but here are the basic tenets of each type. Which one are you?
Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations. Rubin reveals that she is 100 percent an upholder. Upholders find it easy to keep a New Year’s resolution or a deadline. They are rule followers and self-starters. While this makes them great employees and very reliable people, Upholders can be more susceptible to stress and tend to box themselves in with rules and obligations.
According to Rubin, the ultimate literary example of a textbook Upholder is Hermione Granger, the studious, self-disciplined, and loyal bookworm from J. K. Rowling’s wizarding world.
Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet the inner expectations they impose on themselves. They don’t want to let others down. So, they respond well to deadlines and requests from others. However, they have a difficult time breaking their own habits and making new resolutions. Obligers require outside accountability and tend to thrive better when they have a partner to make resolutions with them. Obligers need to be wary of burnout—that is, meeting others’ expectations so much that they fail to take care of themselves.
Rubin says that a surprising literary Obliger is Katniss Everdeen, who we would probably think of as a Rebel. In the Hunger Games series, she survives a televised death match so that she can return home to continue hunting and provide food for her family and protection for her community.
Questioners question all expectations. They only meet expectations if it makes sense to them—meaning they respond to inner expectations and tend to resist outer expectations unless they can be convinced to turn it into an inner expectation. Questioners dislike things that are unfair or arbitrary. Questioners need research and engagement to make their decisions. On the other hand, their constant questions can be exhausting and annoying to others and to themselves.
Rubin says that Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is a classic Questioner—in fact, on the very first page of the novel, Jane’s aunt tells her, “Jane, I hate questioners.” J is individualistic and able to stand up to the arrogant Mr. Rochester as her moral and spiritual sensibilities slowly unfold.
Rebels resist all expectations, both outer and inner alike. Rebels do what they want, when they want, and avoid the things they don’t want to do. Rebels reject when others ask them to do something and will often do the opposite. They are independent, out-of-the-box thinkers, but their resistance can be frustrating.
We find Rubin’s example of a Rebel in literature the most surprising—Jane Austen’s Lady Bertram from Mansfield Park. Rubin uses this to explain that our expectations and perceptions of how a Rebel will look or behave is often wrong. In the case of Lady Bertram, she appears to be a fine though distracted lady who lives by the constraints of society, yet she is always able to achieve exactly what she wants—to arrange respectable marriages for her children and ensure her family’s financial stability.
Knowing our own tendency can help us grow in empathy for ourselves and others’ tendencies. Rubin’s Four Tendencies framework is a roadmap to how we can be better friends, coworkers, managers, significant others, and parents. Being more aware of others’ tendencies can positively influence how we search for a job, how we date, or choose which way we discipline our children. By understanding the Four Tendencies, we can better step outside of ourselves, how we tend to think, and what we tend to do.