Q&A with Gretchen Rubin: How to Awaken the Senses

By Ingrid Fetell Lee
Q&A with Gretchen Rubin: How to Awaken the Senses

Last weekend, we took advantage of an unseasonably warm afternoon to head to the beach. The early spring isn’t exactly good news, but for the cabin fever we’ve been nursing these last wintry months, it has been a balm.

Graham yelped and whooped as we pulled into the parking lot, a raw exclamation of joy so visceral I felt it down at the root of my spine. He tugged against the car seat restraints. We couldn’t get him out fast enough.

Down on the beach, we dug a big hole. He climbed in it and squished his toes into the damp sand. “My foots are free!” he exclaimed.

In spring, we come to our senses. Each year I’m surprised by it — the way blossoms and warm weather pull me out of my head and into my body, out of my winter blues and into present joy.

This idea is at the heart of a new book by the endlessly curious Gretchen Rubin called Life in Five Senses. It begins with Gretchen’s realization that her very full and accomplished life was missing something, and takes us on her journey through the five senses to find it.

Personally, I think this is the most fun of Gretchen’s books. If you’ve read any of her bestselling books or listened to her wildly popular podcast Happier with Gretchen Rubin, you know she is a serious person, a disciplined researcher, a lover of structure and routines. She hasn’t abandoned these things, but here I found her playing in a way I hadn’t seen before.

Q&A with Gretchen Rubin: How to Awaken the Senses

I sat down with Gretchen to learn about how her research on the five senses changed her approach to happiness, including a discovery that helped improve her relationships, her favorite way to “goof off,” and a brilliant dessert idea that will keep your dinner party guests talking for weeks.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Ingrid: This book is a wonderfully adventurous tale, but also a really vulnerable story. It feels a journey of self-discovery that was not a hard, cold look in the mirror, but more like an unfolding, like an opening. How did it feel to you?

Gretchen: I have to say, a lot of times when I told people that I was writing about the five senses, they envisioned me doing the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 meditation in a dark room or drinking one sip of coffee for half an hour and analyzing everything.

And I’m a hundred percent not. I am skipping through a field, throwing stuff in the air. I’m trying to really just embrace the world with both hands in a kind of a messy [way].

If anything, I need to be less disciplined. So this was really my way of just enjoying and reveling in the beauty of the world and appreciating it in a way that was not effortful. I did a lot of experiments, but it was all a very joyful process rather than reflective or serious. It was more just the sheer fun of it.

What you’re saying now reminds me that mindfulness culture can sometimes be a little unfun, right? The half an hour sip of coffee — everything turns into an exercise. I love that it was about having as much fun as possible, but at the same time, the book begins with something quite serious. Could tell the origin story of this book?

It started on a very ordinary afternoon. I had pink eye. I’m a person who kind of gets pink eye and I ended up going to the eye doctor. So he looked me over, and on my way out he said to me very casually, “Well, as you know, you’re at greater risk of losing your vision, so be sure to come in for your regular checkup.”

And I was like, “Wait, what are you talking about? I did not know that I’m at greater risk of losing my vision. Why?” And he said, “Oh, well, you are very severely nearsighted, which means you’re at greater risk of a detached retina, and that can affect your vision. So if it starts to happen, we want to catch it right away.”

As it happened, I had a friend who had just recently lost some of his vision to a detached retina. So this felt very real to me. I walked down on the street. I live in New York City, so I was walking home from the eye doctor and it just hit me. I’m looking around and thinking, “You know, all this, I could lose all of this.”

Of course, intellectually I knew that already. And intellectually I knew that even if I did lose my sense, some of my senses, I could still have a rich, meaningful life.

But in that moment, I was just like: This is all here, and I’m not even appreciating it. I don’t remember one thing I saw on my way over. I’m up in my head. I’m in this fog of preoccupation. And I’m taking it all for granted.

As I was thinking about that, it was like every knob in my brain just got jammed up to 11. And I felt like I could see every single thing in front of me with super clarity. I could hear every sound on a separate track. I could smell every smell. And I live in New York City, so it’s quite smelly.

It seemed hyper-real, almost psychedelic. As I was walking home, I was overwhelmed by all of these sensations. And it was just the most transcendent thing. And you know, I’d been studying happiness and human nature for more than a decade. But I had started to feel like I was missing something.

There was something that I wasn’t quite able to put my finger on. And that walk showed me it was the five senses. It was the need to engage with the world and with myself, with other people through my five senses. And so it was really just like that startling realization. And then that, that transcendent, psychedelic walk home really pointed me into this whole new way of thinking about a happier life.

It also feels a little bit like a shifting or maybe a broadening out of the goal of life, right? So many of us get into this state where the goal is achieving our goals, being as productive as possible as opposed to just experiencing the maximum. And I think capitalism and our economy — there are so many things that channel us toward that way of looking at happiness. But it feels like this is — I don’t know if it’s a shift or a broadening or what you would call it — but it does feel like an evolution.

Because I am so disciplined, one of my exercises was going to the Metropolitan Museum every day. And this was sort of the perfect thing. For me it was a way to schedule time to goof off.

I’ve tried meditation a couple of times and it’s never worked for me. And I was talking to somebody who was really into meditation and they said, “Well, maybe your mind is too disciplined. Maybe you don’t feel it. Maybe it doesn’t feel like it’s doing anything for you.”

And I thought, Maybe so, and maybe that’s why I want to go to the Met. Because the Met is like the opposite of meditation. There’s no attempt to discipline the mind or the attention. I’m just like looking around, having fun, doing whatever I feel like in that, in that moment.

It’s funny because many people who love meditation want to claim my visits to the Met for meditation. I can’t tell you how many people are like, “Oh, Gretchen, what you’re really doing is meditation.” And I’m like, “Oh, no, I assure you that it is not, unless you just say meditation is anything you want it to be.” People want it to be, but if it is anything, I think it is an attempt to discipline the mind. It is an attempt to do something specific with your attention.

And I’m not trying to do something specific with my attention and that’s why it’s recess.

Because the thing about recess is that it’s not “we’re out here jumping rope to raise our heart rate,” or “we’re out here to stimulate our creativity.” We’re just having fun.

I think sometimes people do get very purposeful.

As somebody who loves to read, I get very annoyed when people are like, Oh, it’s really good to read because it increases your longevity or it gives you empathy for other people, or it will help your children do better on test scores.

I read because I love it. I read because it’s fun and I think it’s much more compelling to say “nothing is more fun than reading,” than it is to say “oh, by doing this you’re gonna like somehow achieve some benefit.” And I think sometimes we do get very caught up in “How do I justify this?”

Instead of saying it doesn’t need a justification, it justifies itself. It’s an end into itself.

Gretchen Rubin Life in Five Senses

It sounds like a big part of the shift for you was in the awakening to the fact that this could just be a pure, an activity purely for joy. A thing that bothers me, comparable to your reading example, is play in children. People are always talking now about how it builds this pre-literacy skill or these motor skills. But we don’t play to build skills. It’s just to play. And that’s okay. And the more that we reclaim that for ourselves, I think the more rich our lives end up.

Well, it’s funny because in in writing Life in Five Senses, I saw all these positive things, like it helped me evoke and create memories and it helped me connect with other people and it did spark my creativity and it did give me both more energy and more calm. It’s kind of like the magical elixir that works on both ends.

And so I noticed that it had these effects, but I have to say that’s not why I did it. I did it just to explore and to find, and then that’s what I observed. So it is interesting.

That’s a very interesting observation about children’s play because I remember with my daughter’s preschool, the teachers were saying that in the old days they had to help children learn how to do things like sit quietly in a circle. And now children tend to be so regulated that they had to build in more time for unstructured, undirected play because they were seeing the children would just stand there and say, “Well, what do I do now?” Instead of just knowing that they just walk over to the whole table full of kitchen stuff, go play kitchen or whatever, that they kind of were waiting to be told.

And I thought, well, isn’t that interesting how like we can swing so far in a direction without realizing it?

Often the focus is on “How do I become happier? How do I rid myself of the negative aspects of my of my experience in life so that I can just have more of the positive?” And it feels to me when I hear this story that it’s actually more about how do I live more? How do I get more richness on both ends of the spectrum? Of course, when you start to notice more, you start to notice more of the than unpleasant sensations as well. Did this happen for you?

No, it’s true. If you dial up your awareness, you dial up music and fragrance, but you’ll also dial up clatter and stink. So it does make you more aware. But I have to say, I would take that trade off. I do feel like there’s value to it and like you say, it gives you more richness to your life.

Instead of being kind of flat and foggy, things feel more rich. But it can also make you aware of what you don’t like. So I never have liked noisy restaurants, but now I really notice it.

Now I think I’ll have an overall more happy sensory experience because I’m noticing what I like and don’t like.

One of the things that I noticed in the book is that you talk a little bit about judgment in the way we process sensory information, the way we judge others and the way we judge ourselves. And I wanted to just pull a couple of examples:

“I’d always felt inadequate in my response to music, and because my way of discovering and loving music didn’t feel like the ‘right’ way—too simple, too small—I ignored it.”

“Because my love of food is often held up as a marker of an enthusiasm for life, my lack of passion has always made me feel a bit inadequate. Cooking icon Julia Child declared, ‘People who love to eat are always the best people.’ Food essayist Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote, ‘Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.’ What did that say about me?”

You did, though, have a bit of an affirming experience around music. Can you talk a little bit about that?

I had always thought of myself as somebody who didn’t really like music, but my [podcast] producer is deep, deep, deep music guy. And I said to him sort of offhandedly, “Oh yeah, I wish that I was into music, but you know, I’m just not into music.”

He said, “But I think you are into music, just in your own way.” And this was truly something that I had never considered. I thought, “Well, maybe that is true because there are certain songs that I have an incredibly intense emotional experience during, that I’ll listen to over and over and I’ll write about.”

I’m a song lover, not a music lover. In my observation of the world, it seems like a lot of people, they love lots of music. They like artists, they like genres, they like new music, they like concerts, and big, huge playlists. And I just like a few songs.

I don’t really want to go to a concert because I just like the one song. But then I realized that’s okay because that’s just another way of loving music. And so once I decided to really just embrace this song by song way of listening to music, then I could get so much more pleasure out of it. Then I created a playlist of my favorite songs and I became much more aware of thinking, “Ooh, can I add the one song to my playlist?” Instead of feeling what I really should be doing is listening to the entire entire catalog of XYZ person and trying to develop a taste for it.

You talk in the book in a really a tender way about how focusing on the senses influenced your relationships. And I would love if you talk a little bit about how we can use the senses to get closer to the people that we care about.

I think this is one of the most important things. I think most people would say, “I want to be closer to the people I love. But then how? What would that look like? And dialing into the five senses is a great sort of approach to make it clear.

So one very obvious place to start is with listening because talking and listening and laughing are all about the sense of hearing. So I wrote a whole manifesto for listening, which was about just how to listen better when other people were talking.

That was everything from, you know, put down my book and be obviously listening, making noises like uh-huh which are very important, rephrasing to try to show that I’m understanding and I’m following, not leaping in with suggestions for things to read, which is sort of my thing. Sometimes when somebody’s telling me something very painful, I want to rush in with “Oh, these books are gonna be a great resource to you.” And it’s like, okay, just wait. No one’s asking for a bibliography.

Then there are things like you can dial into with taste. I wrote a taste timeline of my own life through taste. And then I called my sister and we reminisced about all the tastes that we shared because my list from childhood was her list from childhood. And that was just a great way to draw closer to her and to memories that we shared.

You know, many memories — almost nobody else shares them.

We had a very long conversation about cinnamon Poptarts which loomed very large in our childhood because we could never have them, and we wanted them so badly. So that was a way to connect with my sister through taste.

I’m not a taste centric person. It wasn’t like I was whipping up a four course meal, but I found a way to tap into taste in a way that was right for me and made me closer to her.

And then of course, touch. I think especially because of Covid and not being able to touch people, we became very aware of the importance of appropriate touch.

A great trick I learned is that if you’re having a difficult conversation with someone close to you, try to hold their hand or put your hand on their back or have your knees touch or somehow have a physical connection because it’s much easier to stay calm and connected and have that attentive but tender atmosphere when you’re having a tough conversation.

I think these are so powerful because so often we want to connect with people and it feels like an abstract desire. And what you’re saying is that there are ways to access those shared memories that just feel lost or to feel more connected even during difficult times. And that they’re actually so basic, we often overlook them.

Yes. Here’s an example that I think you’d love because you love playfulness. So one of the things that I did to connect with friends through taste because oh, because it’s my neglected sense. So I have a quiz. I know you love a quiz — I love a quiz.

So I have a quiz: What’s your neglected sense? It will tell you what your most neglected sense is. Mine is taste. So I thought, okay, well there’s low hanging fruit here. I don’t tap into taste that much. How can I do it? So I had a taste party with friends and we did all these taste tests of like varieties of apples and varieties of potato chips and we kind of reminisced about the candy of our childhood and things like that.

It was super, super fun. But since we talked about that on the Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast, I heard of other ideas that people had about how to use the idea of taste tests, which is a very fun thing to do, to connect with other people. So for instance, somebody said that their Thanksgiving tradition in their family for dessert is instead of having apple pie or whatever, you know how they’re those ice cream flavors where you’re really curious, but you’re like, Do I really want to commit to an entire container of creamed corn ice cream?

So they go out and they buy the most bonkers kinds of intriguing ice cream flavors, and then they just pass them around and everybody takes a few spoonfuls.

And then they just talk about, “Oh, I love the anise and fruit loop one,” or whatever. Or “Can you believe anybody would eat this?”

And it’s just fun.

And everybody — grandchildren and grandparents — everybody can connect because it’s something that we’re experiencing with our senses right here, right now. Another thing people did that I thought sounded fun was they bought like seven varieties of vanilla ice cream from like cheapest to most premium, and then said, let’s rank them. Who likes what? If you pay more, is it really better? Some people like it more creamy. Some people like it more icy.

You could imagine doing this with your coworkers because it’s personal and it’s warm, but it’s not revealing in a way that might make people uncomfortable in the workplace. Or if you ask questions what was your favorite junk food as a child? That’s a way to like talk about your childhood, but again, in a way that that feels like you’re not revealing more than you would want reveal or not getting into territory where you might make someone uncomfortable.

Okay, so last question: What’s one thing you think everyone should try that would help them find more joy through their senses? What’s one thing that could help them discover on their own terms more joy through their own senses?

Oh, well, one thing that is really fun is to do a Five Senses Portrait of somebody that you love. It evokes memories. It makes you feel closer to other people. And it makes a great gift if you need a gift. And it’s super creative and interesting.

It could be a person who’s died and you want hang onto your memories of them. It could be a person who you really love and you want to sort of acknowledge that.

With the Five Senses Portrait, you know, you have seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, you can do it any way you want. The way I did it is I picked five memories or associations for each sense for person.If you were gonna pick like five iconic associations or experiences with this person, what would you say? It could be a memory, it could be something that’s part of like your daily experience of this person. It’s very creative. It takes time. You can’t — at least I couldn’t — sit down and bang this out. And then you feel like you really have something that in a very concrete represents somebody who you love.

I just did my in-laws, just had their 60th wedding anniversary. So for my toast I wrote a five senses portrait of each of them. And it was really fun and it made me feel so close to my in-laws because I really thought back over all of our experiences together and I thought, wow. And then it just brings back all these memories and it makes you feel closer to other people and also closer to the senses.

I am so glad you chose that one. That was one of my favorite things. It’s so easy to get into this pattern of not noticing the people who are closest to us and this way of really seeing them, feeling them, remembering all of their multi-sensory complexity. I think it really makes us appreciate them while they’re living, and I hadn’t thought to do it for someone who’s passed, but I love that way of remembering as well.

I think you feel like “I want to hold onto those concrete things like my grandmother’s signature perfume, or the way my grandfather had lava soap, and lava soap is so specific. And I was like, oh my goodness. It all came back. And so you can do that yourself by writing those things down.

Gretchen’s book is so full of playful yet profound ways to reconnect with the senses, and the world around you. In the weeks since I read it, I’ve found myself pausing to notice more of these ordinary sensations. It feels a little like I’m letting less of life slip through my fingertips.

Find out more about Life in Five Senses here, and pick up a copy from your local independent bookshop, library, or wherever books are sold. You can also learn more about Gretchen’s work here, and connect with her on Instagram.

Image of Gretchen, top: Austin Walsh
April 20th, 2023


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    Discussion (1 Comment)

  1. Tal on April 24, 2023

    What a great interview! I love the idea of the 5 sense portrait. As I was reading, I was thinking of how I would do that for my grandparents. I find smell to be the biggest memory trigger for me, but also very specific visual cues. For instance, when the sunlight hits through a window on a crisp spring day in a certain way, I can feel myself transported back to visiting my grandma as a child. The connection between senses and memories is so strong! I’m going to pick up this book to learn more. Thank you for sharing your conversation.


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