Magazine / SENSES: Gretchen Rubin’s Guide to Getting Out of Your Head and Into the World

SENSES: Gretchen Rubin’s Guide to Getting Out of Your Head and Into the World

Creativity Happiness Podcast

What do your five senses — sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch — have to do with happiness? According to Gretchen Rubin, a great deal. The world around us, she says, has the potential to dazzle, to entertain, to trigger a state of rapture…if only we pay attention. Today on the show, she shares with Rufus the tools she’s developed to delight in the physical world.

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What Gretchen learned by going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art every day.

Rufus Griscom: You went to the Met every day for a year. One day you went with your friend Sarah Sze, who’s this extraordinary artist. She gave you some suggestions about how to look at art differently, little tricks we can all use.

Gretchen Rubin: She said, “Look for shifts in scale. Look for where things enter and exit a painting. Look for what’s left empty. Look at things from very close up and then from far away. Squint so that you can see the big shapes. Notice how every color changes every other color.” It was just fascinating to go with her because she was seeing so many things that I did not see.

Why surgeons listen to music while they operate.

Gretchen: There’s something mysterious about music. It’s this incredibly powerful force. It helps us come into synchronization with other people. It plays a hugely important role in everything from religion to work. And it’s universal. All human cultures have music, but they don’t really know why. It makes exertion feel less arduous, which is why all gyms play music. It helps people focus. That’s why they often play music in operating rooms. It helps people stay energized, stay focused, and stay in rhythm with other people.

Rufus: This has been verified in scientific studies that music makes surgeons more focused and relaxed. I definitely want my surgeons listening to music, probably not to AC/DC.

Gretchen: But here’s the thing though. You have to think about yourself. So that’s what the research shows, but is everybody going to feel that way? I don’t know. Your mileage may differ. So, for instance, I was going in for an MRI and they were like, Oh, do you want to listen to music? And I was like, No, music would make this more stressful for me. I don’t want that. Just because research shows something doesn’t necessarily mean that’s going to be your own individual experience. And I think realizing that we have all these differences can allow us to show more compassion to other people and also more compassion to ourselves.

How taste and smell are bound together.

Rufus: My favorite new term, which I learned from your book, is “retronasal olfaction.” Apparently we can smell through the inside of our mouths.

Gretchen: You can test this yourself very easily. Take something that has a very strong, complex flavor, like a Jelly Belly. If you plug your nose, it will just taste very sweet. But if you unplug your nose, all of a sudden it will kind of burst into complexity. It’ll be cherry or pina colada or root beer because you need your nose to pick up all these different tastes. To taste and smell are very bound together. A lot of people saw this during Covid. Many people realized they had lost their sense of smell only because it affected their sense of taste. They noticed the loss of taste before they noticed the loss of smell.

The power of (appropriate) touch.

Gretchen: Appropriate, desired touch is incredibly powerful. If babies don’t have it, they will not thrive. And adults also need it. We have a whole system of just picking up human touch, affectionate touch. So clearly it’s extremely important to the body cuz it’s so carefully monitored. But of course it has to be appropriate. That’s why there’s a lot of rules and conventions about it.

What I found in my own life is just touching somebody really changes the nature of engagement. WhenI’m with my husband and we’re having, not even like a difficult conversation, but one about boring logistics that we’re both kind of crabby about, if I put my hand on his back or if I make sure that our knees are touching, it will change the atmosphere. You feel more tender and more affectionate to somebody when you’re touching them.

Edited and condensed for clarity.

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