Is happiness connected to your five senses? Gretchen Rubin unlocks the path to living a fuller life

The happiness expert on her life-changing bout with pinkeye, tips for perceiving more beauty and the power of touch

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 4, 2023 3:00PM (EDT)

The 5 senses, concept (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
The 5 senses, concept (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Of the many trials that COVID gave me when it finally came for me this winter, the one I'm still most mad about is the way it robbed me of a multitude of little pleasures I didn't even know I'd miss. The coughing and the exhaustion had been rough, but what made me want to scream was how blah my morning coffee was, how drab and utilitarian showering had become. With my senses of smell and taste knocked out, the comforts that would normally have sustained me through an intense illness were profoundly blunted. And I was miserable. Now, months later, I appreciate the aromas and flavors and all the other tangible joys of my world differently, just for experiencing their loss even for a little while.

Gretchen Rubin had a similar kind of experience a few years ago. She'd written bestselling books on the topic, and hosts a popular podcast aimed at exploring how to be "Happier." But, as she told me on "Salon Talks" recently, "I've been studying happiness for years, and I had the sense that there was something I was missing." Then, a random comment from her doctor one day led to her own deeper understanding of the subject, and a new path toward even greater fulfillment. 

In her newest book, "Life in Five Senses: How Exploring the Senses Got Me Out of My Head and Into the World," Rubin delves into her own journey through sight, sound, taste, touch and scent, and offers her trademark wise and practical advice for engaging with all five on a more international — and enjoyable — level.

Watch Gretchen Rubin's episode here to hear about why repetition can heighten our sensory awareness, how to better filter the barrage of stimulation we're exposed to every day, and how COVID made so many of us appreciate that smell isn't just a "bonus" sense.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

What was the impetus for this book? You had an "Aha!" moment that started you down this path of exploration.

It started on a very ordinary moment. I'm a person who's maybe overly susceptible to pink eye. I had an unusually stubborn case, so I ended up going to the eye doctor. As we were finishing up, he said to me, "Be sure to come back for your regular checkup because as you know, you're at more risk for losing your vision." He said it very casually, like, "Wear your sunscreen." I said, "No, what are you talking about? I did not know that I was at greater risk for losing my vision." He said, "You're extremely nearsighted and that means you are at more risk of having a detached retina, and if that happens, we want to catch it right away because it can affect your vision." By chance, I had a friend who had recently lost some of his vision to a detached retina, so that felt very real to me. 

"It just hit me that I was taking it all for granted."

As I walked out onto the street, I looked around me. It just hit me because, of course, intellectually, I knew I could lose anything at any time; we all can. I knew that I could have a rich, meaningful life, even if I did lose one or more of my senses, but it just hit me that I was taking it all for granted. I was looking around like I'd never seen it before. I live in New York City, so I'd walked there and was getting ready to walk back. As I was realizing that I was taking everything for granted, it was like every knob in my brain just got jammed up to 11, and I could see everything with crystal clarity.

I could hear every sound on a separate track. I could smell every smell — New York City is pretty smelly. It just came to me in this kind of psychedelic intensity all the way home, and that showed me, this is happening all around me all the time. I'm not noticing it, I'm stuck in my head, I'm in this fog of preoccupation. I've been studying happiness for years, and I had the sense that there was something I was missing. There was some peace, some essential element that I had been overlooking, and that walk showed me, it was my five senses. That was what was missing. That was the way that I could get that direct contact with the world, with other people, with myself, that I had felt that I'd been missing. So, it really came from pink eye.

I have two kids, and I feel like I had pink eye for 20 years.

I know. It comes and it goes, but usually it does not come with an epiphany, so I feel like there was an upside that time.

You are a happiness expert. What is it about happiness that is meaningful?

Well, happiness is happiness. I think that sometimes people feel like in a world so full of injustice and suffering, is it morally appropriate for me even to seek to be happier? In fact, research shows that happier people are more interested in the problems of the world, and they're more interested in the problems of other people. They're more likely to donate their time, they're more likely to donate their money, they're more likely to vote. They have healthier habits, they make better leaders and better team members. There's a feeling sometimes that people who are happy just want to sit by the beach and drink margaritas all day. But it seems like people who are happy start having thoughts like, "I think there might be a better way to distribute malaria nets. Maybe I need to get involved in that." By thinking about our own happiness, well, we're happier. Also, it really equips us to think more about the happiness of other people, as well.

You start this pursuit of understanding the senses with a really interesting project for yourself. It's very New York City-specific. 

I've always been very drawn to repetition and familiarity, and how experiences change with familiarity and over time. So as part of this experience, I wanted to do something every day. I'm also kind of an all-or-nothing person, where I like the idea of doing something every day more than doing it sometimes or most days. I wanted to go to the same place every day. I live within walking distance of the Metropolitan Museum, which I'm so incredibly fortunate that I have the time and the freedom to visit. Living in New York City, we can visit for free as a New York State resident. I did join as a member because I wanted to go every day and see how it changes.

"Happier people are more interested in the problems of the world and they're more interested in the problems of other people."

When I started this, I thought that was pretty idiosyncratic, but what I found is that many people do this, or many people have the impulse to do this. People who do forest bathing will have a sit spot. Often they go back to the same place every day, or they'll do the same walk with their dog. There's something about seeing something change so gradually. I know I heard from a guy who goes to the same drugstore every day, and I thought, I get that because there's a lot going on in a big drugstore. There's a lot to see and to smell and to taste and to touch, and people there.

I feel incredibly fortunate that I could go someplace like the Met, but I've heard from so many people who have done it in their own way, and I think it's the kind of thing that some people would never dream of doing. They're like, I like more variety, or I don't want to feel stuck. Other people are very deeply attracted to the idea of doing something every day. There's a power that comes from that.

It can be a drug store, it can be your walk.

Yeah, your daily walk with your dog, and you watch the same tree throughout the year, and then throughout the seasons, or you watch the plants change in your neighbor's garden.

You say in the book that this is not meditation. What's the difference between this and the mindfulness practice that we've heard a lot about? 

"I was too rigid with my mind. I was too focused, too controlled. I wanted recess. I wanted to let my mind off the leash."

A lot of people want to say, "This is a walking meditation," and certainly, people could do it in a way that would be meditation. But, I wanted the opposite of meditation. Meditation, if it is anything at its core, because of course there's many kinds of meditation, is an effort to discipline the mind. You're doing a certain thing with your mind, where I felt like I was too rigid with my mind. I was too focused, too controlled. I wanted recess. I wanted to let my mind off the leash. I wanted something where I would just do whatever I felt like, for as long as I felt like, and I would just think whatever I felt like, and if I felt like thinking about this, I would.

I remember somebody saying to me, "If you're going to do this, you need to sit in front of an artwork and study it for half an hour," and I'm like, "I don't have to do that, because that does not appeal to me." For some people that would be very appealing, and I've been going every day for such a long time. Maybe one day, that would be a fun exercise to do. This is really much more playful, much more undisciplined, much more just doing what you feel like. For some people, they need to bring that element into their life, and other people might not feel that need. For me, I felt like I needed to schedule time to goof off. I needed to find a way to put that on my calendar, to give myself recess.

A lot of the books and the conversation around mindfulness and meditation are, "I can be more productive later," and this is not about that. This is about its own thing.

It's about its own thing. There is a huge amount of research showing that time off or downtime, this open time is a time of creativity. You tend to make unexpected associations. Like Virginia Woolf said, "My mind works in idleness." It's all about understanding ourselves and what we need to bring ourselves into balance. Some people are very drawn to meditation, but no tool fits every hand, and I don't find it to be a useful tool. OK, well then, what would I bring in to have mindfulness? In a way, this is a kind of mindfulness, it's a kind of attentiveness, but maybe a more playful, loose kind of mindfulness or attentiveness. These are very broad terms that people use in different ways.

Let's get into the senses. You start with the visual and you say, early on that all of our senses are important, but in a competition, if they're all competing for our attention, that our visual senses will win.

Well, usually trump.

Why is that? And what did you learn from the visually impaired people that you talked to for the book?

We're wired that way. Sight has more real estate in the brain and that's just the way we are brought into the world. Talking to people who are visually impaired, what you see is that there are many ways that the other senses can be recruited. Sometimes that's through technology, because now technology's bringing all these new tools, or even just the tools that we have that we bring into the world with us, like touch. You can use these to fill in whatever gaps that you need to fill in.

You make a connection between hearing and touching. How do those two senses work in harmony together?

"If you put a jelly bean in your mouth with your nose plugged, it would just taste very sweet."

You're talking about the ones that help us to engage, because one of the most important things we do with our hearing is listening to other people, and one of the most important ways that we engage with other people is through appropriate touch. What I found is that if I was having a difficult conversation, say with my husband, that if I would reach out and touch him while we were doing it, it would immediately change the nature of the conversation. It would make it more tender. It would make it more attentive. It's just much harder to say you're super irritable with somebody if you're actually physically touching them. Those are ways that you can use those two together, to help you connect with other people.

One of my favorite things is the connection between smell and taste. I love the way they work together, or don't work together. A lot of us, myself included, went through COVID.

Did you lose your sense of smell?

For a long time, and it made me really sad. I was so sad because I couldn't smell. It was like nothing gave me pleasure. 

It's interesting because traditionally, especially in the West, the sense of smell has been kind of treated as a bonus sense or kind of a nice-to-have sense. It hasn't been particularly emphasized or understood as important. I think post-COVID, because so many people went through that experience themselves, or they know somebody who lost their sense of smell, we're much more aware of its importance to a sense of vitality and connection.

Now versus five years ago, there's a much greater understanding of how it affects the sense of taste because without our sense of smell, with taste, we just smell the big five of sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. If you put a jelly bean in your mouth with your nose plugged, it would just taste very sweet. But if you unplug your nose, then you get all those complex flavors that might be like cherry or root beer, those bonkers flavors that they have, pina colada. You need your sense of smell. Of course with COVID, when people lost their sense of smell, it also affected their sense of taste. A lot of times people, that's what they notice first. Which did you notice first? Sense or smell?

It was the smell.

You noticed the smell right away?

Yeah. I felt so sad, Gretchen. It made me sad.

People say you feel claustrophobic. You feel like you're behind glass, everything feels stale, and then the food loses its pleasure. It's interesting, some people lose weight because they get no pleasure from food. And then, some people gain weight because they can't get satisfied.

It was really intense, and this speaks to the ways in which our senses are connected with our emotions, and smell is so deeply connected with emotion and with memory in a way that almost no other sense is.

This is the argument, but in my own experience, I feel like all the senses are really important for a memory. If I hear a song that was my favorite song in high school, that takes me back. If I saw my favorite shirt from when I was three years old, that would take me back. People do often say that smell has a special role, and I wonder if that's because with smell, we're surprised. It's invisible. It comes on us, and we're just flooded with memory because there's a lot of arguments about why the physiology of smell is particularly strong.  

I feel like they all kick up memory, and I'm a huge fan of the sense of smell. I went into this really appreciating the sense of smell. That's just one of these things where I haven't done any research on this, and many people say there is this special role for this sense of smell. But I feel like they're all so powerful in evoking memory.

You put me next to a fuzzy blanket or a fuzzy coat, and I will just be right back in my kindergarten coatroom. 

"We are all in our own sensory universe."

See, there you go. My grandfather was an engineer in the Union Pacific Railroad, so we had this lava soap, which is this special gritty soap thing. The feeling of that, flooded, flooded, flooded, flooded. Even just seeing the package in the grocery store. Would it be stronger if I smelled it? I don't know. For me, it was the touch of it, so I think they're all so powerful.

Here's the problem. We almost have too many coming at us at once now. We are just flooded with sounds, smells, visuals — it's a barrage all the time. How do we filter those so that we're getting the good sensory experiences and somehow put a muzzle muffle on ones that give us stress and anxiety? 

A lot of it is really addressing our sensory environment and trying to take control of it where we can, because there's some things that are not within our control. You can't stop sirens from going down your street. But to a very great degree, we tend not to fuss with our sensory environments to the degree to which many of us can, to make it suit ourselves. If you're a person who really cannot put down your phone, if you feel like it's really grabbing your attention in a way that's like crowding out other things, turn your phone to grayscale. Because if it's black, white and gray, you'll find it much more difficult to use your phone. It's just harder to use, and it's a lot less appealing.

If you feel distracted by notification sounds, turn off your notification sounds or turn off your notifications if you find that very distracting. For focus and productivity, create the auditory environment that works for you. Let me ask you, if you need to really focus, really concentrate, do you prefer silence? A busy hum? Like in a coffee shop, music with words or music without words?

I like white noise. I put on my rain sounds.

So you like white noise, but this is a thing that's very useful because often people don't think through, "What really helps me do my best work, and then can I put myself in a circumstance where I have that?" It's like,"Oh, I have to deal with whatever's here," and sometimes again, it's not within our control. But often it is, and we can take steps to try to bring our environment into more alignment with what works for us. Some people are extremely sensitive to different kinds of touches. For some, it's smell, they can't bear to have any smells. and I also think this is why we really want to show more consideration for other people, because to a really astonishing degree, we just live in completely different sensory universes.

"I have to say now, being more aware of my senses, I notice more beauty, but I also notice more racket and stink, but I like that."

I knew this intellectually, but realizing I really do not hear a siren because I hear sirens so often, my brain doesn't even bother to alert me. Or, we can't smell our home the way guests would smell it because it's so familiar to us, our brain doesn't alert us to the smell of air freshener or cats or dog food, or whatever it might be. Guests will smell something that we will not smell. So, if they're struggling with something in an environment where you're like, "It's no big deal, I don't understand what you're fussing about," it can be very different for them because we are all in our own sensory universe.

Talk to me about why you say in your book that we need a little bit of ugly.

Often, a little bit of ugly is what we need to make something truly beautiful. If you're creating a beautiful perfume, they often have notes that are very bad smelling in it, but overall, it gives the perfume or the fragrance a rich depth. With colors, there was this hilarious attempt by Australia to come up with the ugliest color, which what does that even mean? It's a very paradoxical ambition. They wanted to do it to make cigarette packaging as unattractive as possible, so they came up with a sort of greenish brownish, which allegedly is the ugliest color. Of course, if I go to the Met or you go to go anywhere and look around, you see it all over the place as part of beauty, because every color can be beautiful in the right context. 

In music, dissonance, at least to Western ears, sounds dissonant, but it's often used in a way that's extremely effective. Some of the most renowned songs in music will use dissonance in an artful way. With taste, a little bit of vinegar, a little bit of bitterness will add. You need a little bit of ugly sometimes if you're going to create beauty.

That's a good way to look at life, in our five senses.

I have to say now, being more aware of my senses, I notice more beauty, but I also notice more racket and stink, but I like that. I'm not sorry that I'm more aware of the negative because I do feel like it adds depth and richness to my life, to the universe.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Books Gretchen Rubin Happiness Life In Five Senses Salon Talks