Prioritizing happiness is a worldwide phenomenon. Given reports like The World Happiness Index and the emergence of Positive Education, the emphasis of wellbeing (also commonly referred to happiness) is trending in classrooms, social media, on bookshelves, and in life! When you ask any parent what they want for their child, happiness regularly ranks near the top across countries.

There’s a large (and growing!) body of research showing that simple exercises like a gratitude practice(1) , mindfulness, or spending time fostering social connection(2) can all help you and your students to be happier. A pleasant side effect of increasing happiness is that students tend to perform better academically as well.

What is habit formation?

Habit formation is the process by which new behaviors become automatic. If you instinctively reach for your mobile phone the moment you wake up in the morning, you have a habit. Habits aren’t always negative; in fact, it is possible to make wellbeing habits automatic as well.

Expert Gretchen Rubin has identified that different strategies of habit formation work depending on four distinct tendencies. To better understand her framework, she explains that people have two types of expectations, inner and outer. Outer expectations include deadlines at work, assignments at school and showing up for your running group; they involve others. Inner expectations are keeping New Year’s resolutions, practicing meditation every morning or giving up carbs; these are personal choices.

With over 40,000 books available on happiness, it’s obvious that many people want to be happier. Yet if any of these books had found a real solution, we probably wouldn’t need the other 39,999. Using the lens of habit formation as a tool in choosing how you implement positive education practices might just be the key.

Making habits stick according to tendency

Rubin found most people were able to form habits well when they were outwardly accountable but were less effective at forming habits around inner expectations. She called this group Obligers. Since Obligers need external accountability to form the habits – using accountability groups is the most effective tool. This could be a weekly meeting or accountability in an online forum. Gratitude groups on Facebook post their daily journal entry making participants both accountable and a potential source of inspiration for other members. This feeling of being committed and accountable to others is the key for Obligers.

A smaller group are those who are equally good at forming habits around both inner and outer expectations. This group is called Upholders.  Upholders don’t need external accountability. Once they have a plan to increase social interaction, to meditate or to practice gratitude, they will act. These are the students who work well with star charts. For this group, deciding what they want to do will be enough of a prompt to get the habit formation underway.

A third group Rubin identified will only form habits or meet external expectation if they understand why. This group she calls Questioners. They like to research more than the average person – to the point sometimes of analysis paralysis; the inability to move from research to action.  Questioners need facts, so subscribing to an evidence based website like the Greater Good in Action, or listening to a podcast like The Science of Happiness, can help shift them from planning to implementation. A great way for Questioners to manage their need for information and research is to write out a few key questions they want answered and make a plan to act immediately once they have those answers- it keeps them from getting stuck in the research phase.

Finally, there is a group that resists both inner and outer expectations Rubin refers to as Rebels. The rebels are the smallest category. “Mastering habits is a particular challenge for Rebels, because of their general opposition to anything that feels like a chain or a pre-commitment”(3). The most effective way for rebels to create change uses the strategy of identity. This strategy works for rebels as they place greater than normal value on being themselves. Rebels resist anything they have to do but are strongly motivated to do what they want to do.

So in summary…

Positive education offers many tools. Coupling these with personal habit formation types will help you and your students make these tools more likely to be adopted and increase the chance of flourishing.

What next?

Take this simple online test to identify your habit formation tendency. Then make an action plan that includes measurable goals (such as frequency and duration) to increase your wellbeing.


(1) Sheldon, K. M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2004). Achieving sustainable new happiness: Prospects, practices, and prescriptions. Positive psychology in practice, 127-145.

(2) Rubin, G (2017). How Does a Rebel Change. pg 1

Cacioppo, J. T., Hawkley, L. C., Kalil, A., Hughes, M. E., Waite, L., & Thisted, R. A. (2008). Happiness and the invisible threads of social connection. The science of subjective well-being, 195-219.

Tamara Lechner | Canada
Tamara Lechner is a Canadian educator, writer & speaker who focuses on the science of HAPPINESS, meditation, and positive habit formation. Tamara founded Positive Minds International with a goal of providing Positive Psychology based proactive wellness interventions for schools, for corporations, and for individuals. Her deep belief is that happiness happens by choice, not by chance. In 2018 she joined forces with the Institute of Positive Education to bring their ground-breaking work to North America.