Happiness Expert Gretchen Rubin Was Living in a Fog—Until She Went on a New Exploration. Here's What She Found...
Gretchen Rubin has become one of the most profound voices in the quest for happiness. The author has written numerous bestselling books, including The Happiness Project and The Four Tendencies. She also hosts the hit podcast 'Happier with Gretchen Rubin.' Helping us to smile more and live better is her passion.
Rubin's latest book stays close to her beat. The topic is stunning in its simplicity and complexity. In Life in Five Senses: How Exploring the Senses Got Me Out of My Head and Into the World, Rubin takes us on a revealing look at how she'd been failing to appreciate one of the most accessible elements of happiness: our ability to see, smell, taste, touch, and hear. “I was lost in a fog of preoccupation,” she tells The Sunday Paper. “I'd be walking on the beach, but I'd be rewriting a paragraph in my head, and I wouldn't see what was around me, or I wouldn't feel the sand under my feet or smell the ocean.”
The author explored “the universe” our senses offer and meticulously researched each one—all to lift herself out of her fog. The result is a playful look at how we can harness the power of our senses for better health, more creativity, and more profound joy.
A CONVERSATION WITH GRETCHEN RUBIN
What are we missing out on or overlooking when it comes to our senses?
We’re overlooking how we can tap into our senses to evoke memories. I think people know this but don’t realize how much we can deliberately use it. A lot of the time, we remember things without remembering that we remember them. It feels very exciting if you smell something that reminds you of summer camp, and it all floods back, but that’s opportunistic. What I’ve found is you can very deliberately reach back. I did a taste timeline where I thought back to the tastes of my life, and then I called my sister and reminisced with her. That made me feel much more connected to my past—and I didn’t have to wait for someone to serve me a coffee cake that reminded me of my grandmother’s. I could call for that memory.
It can be hard to recall memories, so considering what your childhood bedroom looked like or what your favorite clothes in college were can be grounding and allow you to explore your memory.
For part of your research, you started visiting the same place, The Met, every day. You write that this led you to go from noticing to appreciating things. Why was this a profound exercise for you?
I've always been attracted to repetition and the possibilities of repetition. I'm an all-or-nothing person, so it's more appealing to do something every day than some days. I thought wanting to visit the same place every day was idiosyncratic, but I've since talked to a lot of people who've had the same impulse. Sometimes people will walk the same route with their dog because they like to see the trees changing over time. Or people who forest bathe will go to the same sit spot to contemplate that place over and over. So I do think there's a certain kind of person who likes to see things change over time. But of course, you become aware of how you're changing over time, too. You get more from it when you bring more to it. And that was the case with The Met—it's changed. And I still go every day. I love it.
Most of us assume our sensory world is the same as everyone else's. What red looks like for you is the same for me. But you show us this isn’t the case, that, in fact, we each engage with the world through our “particular complement of senses." How can acknowledging our differences help us be more understanding?
Isn't it bonkers? Intellectually you know that's true, but it's still bonkers to confront it.
It's very important, because somebody might object to something, and you don't know why they're making a big fuss about it. So you have to realize their experience is very different from yours. There are so many examples of this. Sometimes it's genetics. Supertasters taste things with much more bitterness. So if you have a kid who cannot eat something, you may have a super taster tasting much more bitterness than you. Their experience of the way something tastes is different. Or for smell, you can't smell your home the way a guest smells it. Or if you're in a coffee shop and smell that delicious smell of coffee,, the barista may not smell it. For hearing, when I record a podcast interview for my podcast, I never stop for sirens. A producer always stops me. So it is remarkable.
There are also our preferences. Say, if you're trying to focus, you may want the coffee shop with a lot of bustle, while I prefer silence. So if you and I are working in an office, and I keep telling you to be quiet, you don't know what's the problem because you can work with people chattering in their background. And neither of us is right or wrong—and that's a mistake people often make. There is no right way. It's such an individual experience of the world. So part of it is our genetics, preferences, sensitivities—all these things add up to such different experiences.
In your research, you've found many benefits from harnessing our senses' power. What are some of these?
We can tap into it in many ways just for our health.
For our sense of hearing, music is one of the quickest and easiest ways to intervene in your mood. Music also makes exertion seem less strenuous, so if you're sluggish and find it hard to get off the couch, listening to your favorite upbeat music will make that feel easier.
If you go outside in the early morning light, you will get all the pleasure of looking around and experiencing nature, and the circadian rhythm will benefit from that early morning natural light. And they're just beginning to unearth the health benefits tied to the circadian rhythm. So if you think, I'll go out for a 20-minute walk, look around, enjoy the day, there is a cascade of positive things that will come from that.
I love the sense of smell, especially if you want to appreciate the moment. The thing about a smell is it is so evanescent. You cannot bookmark it. You can't keep experiencing it. I could listen to the same song on repeat, but because of odor fatigue, you literally cannot keep smelling something. So smell is an excellent call to mindfulness and connection. It's beautiful and free. You don't need to buy an expensive perfume or some fancy scented candle. You can smell a grapefruit or a bottle of vanilla, or you can go to a hardware store—I love the smell of a hardware store!
How does tapping into our senses offer a way to replenish ourselves?
Let's say you're trying to be healthy, exercise more, and get better enough sleep; when you give more to yourself, you can ask more. And giving yourself these little healthy treats through the senses helps you feel energized and cared for. Then it's easier to do these other things that are demanding. Because if you go through your life saying, 'I'm giving up this, I'm giving up that, I'm making myself do this,' it's very hard to keep that going. So when you find ways to give yourself notice, even allowing yourself to notice something like fresh socks that are plush and feel good, it starts to feel like a luxury and a bit of pleasure. That makes it easier to do demanding things or other things we ask of ourselves, like staying compassionate, keeping our sense of humor, and staying patient.
At the end of the book, you include a 'Five-Senses Jump Start,' a guide of exercises to tap into your senses. So is it true: Can we start doing this work immediately?
You can! You can start now or 10 minutes from now. That's part of what's so exciting about it.
That's the thing about the five senses: it's always around us. When we tap into them, there's a sense of satisfaction. One thing I love is if you want to quiet a crowd, blow on a harmonica. It's a magic trick. And how with ketchup, you can taste all five basic tastes. People are fascinated by this because we've all eaten ketchup a million times in our lives, most of us have it in our fridge, but then we discover something that's right been there the whole time. There's something exciting about realizing that the world has so much more to offer. You can walk out around your ordinary day, but your day will feel richer. It will give you new ways to connect with other people, spark your imagination, calm down or pump up. It's this multifaceted tool where no matter what your aim is, the five senses are a concrete way to think about what you could do, starting today. It's very easy to think about abstract transcendental ideals. But I always think, okay, but what do I do differently? And the five senses seem to give people a lot of ideas.
Gretchen Rubin is one of today’s most influential observers of happiness and human nature. She’s the author of many books, including the New York Times bestsellers Outer Order, Inner Calm; The Four Tendencies; Better Than Before; and The Happiness Project. She hosts the top-ranking, award-winning podcast Happier with Gretchen Rubin. You can learn more about her work here and order her new book here.
Question from the Editor: How can you start to explore your senses today? We’d love for your ideas below!