For more than ten years, Gretchen Rubin has studied and written about happiness and human nature, drawing from cutting-edge science, the wisdom of the ages, lessons from popular culture, and her own experiences. In her new book Life in Five Senses, she takes readers on a journey into the mysteries and joys of the five senses – and shares practical suggestions for heightening our sensory experiences in pursuit of happier, more mindful lives. We caught up with Gretchen ahead of Aspen Ideas: Health (June 21-24) for a Q&A about her inspiration for the book, the experiments she did with her senses, and how we can all identify our most neglected senses.
Your past works have explored the science of happiness, personality types, and habits. What inspired you to write your new book about the five senses?
One afternoon, I had an epiphany that changed my life.
Because of a stubborn case of pink-eye, I’d gone to the eye doctor. As I was leaving, he remarked, “Remember, because you’re extremely nearsighted, you’re more at risk for a detached retina, which can harm your vision.”
I’d never known about this risk. My eyes! As I walked home, I realized that it had been a long time since I’d really looked at the New York City streetscape that I loved. I turned a corner, and in that instant, all my senses seemed to sharpen. It was as if every knob in my brain had suddenly been dialed to its maximum setting of awareness. That walk took only twenty minutes, but it was transcendent. I realized a profound truth: I had my one body and its capacities right now, and I wouldn’t have them forever.
I’d been studying happiness for years, and I’d done countless things that made my life happier, yet I realized that, too often, I felt stuck in my head—disconnected from the world and other people, and also from myself.
That unforgettable walk helped me discover what I’d been missing: I needed to connect with my five senses.
I also knew that if I wanted to change, I must make a change. Over time, I’ve learned that I gain more from taking specific action than from making lofty but vague resolutions. So, for each sense, I started with research, and then, to engage more fully, I devised a mix of playful, practical exercises: took classes (the more we know, the more we notice), planned adventures, or tried simple experiments. I learned that by tuning into our five senses, we can transform our everyday lives, within our ordinary days—without needing to spend a lot of time, energy or money.
We all learn about the five senses – sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell – at an early age, but cutting-edge research is deepening our understanding of the ways in which humans experience the world. What did you discover about the science of the senses that surprised you?
When I started working on the book, I knew intellectually that each of us lives in our own sensory world. But I was astonished to realize just how different those worlds are. I perceive what my brain decides I need to perceive—and your brain may decide something very different.
One example: I can’t smell my home the way a guest would smell it. Our brains are difference detectors, and they often screen out information when it becomes very familiar. So for that reason, when I walk into my apartment, I don’t smell it—even if a visitor might perceive a very strong smell. Does my apartment smell like dog food? I’ve started to wonder about that! Because now I realize that I wouldn’t know.
Similarly, different brains make different decisions about the importance of sounds. When I’m recording an episode of the Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast from my home office, my producer often has to stop to tell me to wait until a siren has passed by. As a New Yorker, I just don’t hear those sirens—my brain doesn’t bother to alert me.
And of course, we all remember “the dress.” Back in 2015, a woman posted a photo on Facebook of a striped dress she planned to wear. People argued about whether the dress was colored white-and-gold or black-and-blue.
When I look at that famous dress, I can’t manage to see it as black-and-blue, its actual colors. I only see white-and-gold. With most optical illusions, I can make my eyes flip between two interpretations—duck or rabbit, vase or faces—but not with this photograph.
The disagreement seems to be due to the different assumptions a brain might make about lighting conditions. Brains made different guesses.
You went through some self-experimentation to awaken your senses. Tell us about some of those experiments and what they taught you about the connection between your senses and your well-being.
My most ambitious experiment? Visiting the Metropolitan Museum every day for one year. I’m incredibly fortunate—I live within walking distance of the Met, and I have the time and freedom to visit. But I’d lived close to the Met for years, and I’d hardly ever visited. For this experiment, I wanted to go every day.
This exercise appealed to me because I’ve always been powerfully attracted to routine and repetition, and I take great pleasure in the expected. With these daily visits, I explored what I saw, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched over time, and I gain many insights through familiarity. In fact, I love this exercise so much that I still go to the Met every day.
Another favorite exercise was throwing a “Taste Party” where my friends and I compared and reviewed different tastes. We compared varieties of apples, potato chips, nuts, and chocolate bars. I poured out a small cup of a mystery drink (Red Bull). I gave each person a dollop of ketchup, so together we could appreciate the magic of Heinz Ketchup: it’s the rare item that gives us all five of the basic tastes of sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami.
This Taste Party was tremendously fun. My friends and I weren’t just socializing; we were sharing a sensory experience, and our conversation felt unusually warm and intimate. Learning little details—one friend was sensitive to food texture, another dislikes most fruits—somehow gave me a better sense of their natures.
Do we have more dominant and neglected senses? Why is it helpful to identify these?
Of the Big Five, most of us have a few senses that we particularly enjoy, and others that we tend to neglect.
An appreciated sense is a sense that’s a great source of satisfaction and engagement. We pay attention to it; we seek out novel experiences; we’re interested in learning more; we swap recommendations; we enjoy reminiscing about our encounters with that sense.
On the other hand, a neglected sense is the sense that we least often turn to for pleasure or comfort. We probably don’t spend much time exploring or cultivating it. We may be more concerned with avoiding the negative than appreciating the positive.
It’s great to identify our neglected sense because this is where we have low-hanging fruit! Because we don’t tap in to that sense as much as the others, there’s a lot of fresh, fun opportunity.
It can be surprisingly challenging to identify our own neglected sense, so I worked with a brilliant team to create a quiz:
“What’s Your Neglected Sense?”
It has been fascinating to hear from people about their reflections about their neglected sense. For instance, one woman said that she neglected her sense of smell because she had bad allergies that could be triggered by many odors. So she was trying to make a point of enjoying smells that didn’t bother her, such as the smell of the ocean.
For me, I discovered that my most neglected sense is taste—which, for many people, is their most appreciated sense. So, as I describe in Life in Five Senses, I found new ways to tap in to the sense of taste for more happiness.
Today’s society can leave us feeling hyper-connected and disconnected at the same time. What’s one easy way to re-engage with our senses each day?
People don’t seem very excited about the metaverse; we’re more interested in the universe! That’s why so many experiences bill themselves as “immersive” these days. We crave to experience the world through our five senses.
One simple exercise that I find immensely valuable is keeping a Five-Senses Journal. I write down “See,” “Hear,” “Smell, “Taste,” and “Touch” down the page of a notebook, and at the end of every day, I note my most memorable sensations.
My Five-Senses Journal is invaluable as a quick daily reminder to maintain my focus on my five senses forever—and it also feels like a gratitude journal. I’m paying tribute to the richness of the world around me.
The views and opinions of the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.