Some shifts in perspective take years; others take a split second. For Gretchen Rubin, the bestselling author of The Happiness Project, podcaster and lifelong investigator of human nature, the epiphany happened at the end of an eye exam. “Make sure you come in regularly for check-ups,” her optometrist said as she gathered her things. “You’re at higher risk for losing your sight.” That moment led directly to her latest book, “Life in Five Senses.”
Sight, smell, taste, sound and touch. Rubin spent years researching how we experience the world — and how those sensory experiences directly influence how well we thrive within it.
We spoke with Rubin about her discoveries, including how to leverage the senses to live every day in technicolor.
What’s sparking joy for you right now in your daily life?
During the pandemic, I decided to go to the Met every day for a year, and I’m still doing that. I’m so lucky that I live within walking distance. Some people are drawn to novelty, but I’m very drawn to repetition. I’m interested in repetition and familiarity and how they influence experiences. My experience at the Met? It’s inexhaustible. I like doing it more all the time.
From your NYTimes bestselling book, “The Happiness Project,” to your HAPPIER podcast, you’ve focused your writing career and life (thus far) on exploring the meaning of happiness. Marie Kondo’s philosophy, meanwhile, centers on joy. So I’m curious — would you say that joy and happiness are synonyms or different concepts?
I started my career in law, so I have happy memories of spending an entire semester arguing about the definition of a contract. If anything, happiness is an even more elusive concept. It’s whatever you want it to be. Happiness is sort of broad enough to be anything — it could be joy, contentment or well-being. I don’t like to think of it in terms of definitions, though. I prefer thinking about it like this: How do we have more of what we want? That looks different for every one of us.
“ You have to know yourself. You have to be able to answer: What is true for me? ”
Happiness seems to be a regular subject of study and discussion in 2023, and everyone has a slightly different take, but you’re widely acknowledged as a leader in the field. In a 2010 New York Times profile, you said, “I don’t have anything that’s really original, though I do think I had a few original ideas, which was very exciting to me.” If it’s not original ideas, what do you think sets your definition of happiness apart from all the noise?
I think it’s a couple of things. I’m a student. I talk about what I learned, what I tried and what I found out. People can think, “Well, maybe that would work for me,” but I’m not telling people what to do.
I find it’s really easy to tell people what you think they should do — to give people advice. But that isn’t me. Instead of being the expert who says, “This should work, and if it doesn’t work, there’s something wrong with you,” I prefer exploring. My approach is more like, “I’ll do all the research and distilling, so you don’t have to.”
Second, while I personally love the transcendent ideas [about happiness], in my work, I think: How could an ordinary person put this in practice for a typical day? How could it make a difference? What would that look like?
I’m always interested in the practical implications of big ideas. People respond to that. I think people get energized and excited to try [my ideas] because they can — they can put them to work in their own lives.
Do you feel any pressure as an expert to be happy all of the time? People look to you as an expert, but none of us does happiness perfectly, right?
I don’t feel that pressure because I don’t put myself out there as an expert. To me, expertise is giving people advice that might steer them in one direction or in a way that might affect their long-term health. Instead, I come from a perspective of, “Research shows that happiness…XYZ.” Because it’s not personal — because it’s not me taking responsibility for or intervening in someone’s relationships — there isn’t pressure there. We’re in it together.
Your new book is a deep dive into the five senses. What drew you to that topic?
There was the inciting incident and the epiphany. One morning, I woke up with pink eye and went to a doctor. And as I was walking out, he said to me very casually, “Make sure you come back for regular checkups because you’re at a higher risk of losing your sight.”
This was the first I’d heard anything about this. I’m very near-sighted, so I’m at an increased risk of a detached retina. He tells me this, and immediately, I’m thinking of a friend who’s very recently lost her sight.
I’m aware that anything can happen at any time, but something shifted in that moment. My brain jammed up to the max. I just realized I was taking so much for granted.
On the way back from the appointment, I could see everything more clearly. I could hear everything. I could smell everything. It was a psychedelic experience. [When I got home,] I realized I wanted to connect with my family in all five senses — to see them but also smell them.
The epiphany was so…vivid. I realized I’d been stuck in my head. Lost in this fog. And the way I could get out in the world again was through my five senses. Over the years, I’ve had the feeling that there was something I was overlooking [in my work on happiness] — some piece of it that was eluding me. I realized, “Oh this is what I need to do.”
“There are seasons of sacrifice, and that’s freeing. You get to think, 'It’s not forever, but this is what works for me right now.' ”
What did you discover during your research that you were least expecting?
If I were to tell you that we all have unique sensory experiences of the world, you would agree, right? Maybe you’d think, “Right, there are supertasters and regular tasters.” That’s a common one most of us have heard. But the degree to which that is true — that astonished me.
We live in different sensory environments from each other. The brain cues you to what it thinks you want to know. Often we think in terms of: “Someone’s complaining about something. Why is this person so hyper-sensitive about that?” When we recognize how different our senses are, we realize we must be more considerate of other people’s preferences.
I used to turn down microphones at events because I thought I spoke perfectly loudly. Now I always take one when offered. If there’s a room with a microphone, there are probably people who can’t hear you.
Why do you think it’s such a struggle to connect with our senses in the modern world?
Right now, so many things are hyper-processed, oversaturated and bumped up very high. The way we often experience the world is thin and virtual and flat. Let’s say you go to a movie. You experience it through sight and sound, but you don’t smell anything.
I think there’s a desire to get away from that. The pandemic played a part in that — all that isolation. The “great pause” made people focus on their quality of life. It gave them a moment. It doesn’t often occur to us to step back and say: Well, could I be happier? And I think we’re now in a place of: I want to be more present. I want direct contact. I want to touch it for myself.
Unexpectedly, the pandemic also raised people’s appreciation for the senses of taste and smell. Smell is typically considered an add-on bonus sense, but as so many of us lost it [as a symptom of COVID-19], we began to value it differently.
Marie’s recent admission that she has a messier life with children arguably rocked the internet. She sees her priorities in stages, and her happiness right now requires putting her focus elsewhere — on three kids first, tidying second. I’m curious if you have thoughts on joy through the decades. Does our happiness evolve?
That’s interesting. I think the approach to happiness — the elements of happiness — likely stays the same. But our experience changes. Routines that you could effortlessly maintain when you were alone become burdensome when you’re living with a family or young children. Things have to give.
It can be helpful to think of it in terms of seasons. My sister, [Elizabeth Craft], who co-hosts my podcast, often talks about this. There are seasons of sacrifice, and that’s freeing. You get to think, “It’s not forever, but this is what works for me right now.”
To be happy, you need to be in a constant state of self-reflection because these things shift. You have to know yourself and continue to get to know yourself over time.
“Ancient philosophers would agree that if you had to pick one secret to a happy life, it would be strong relationships. Enduring bonds. People you confide in. People you can rely on. You need to both get and give support.”
That’s a perfect segué. What are some things you’re deeply passionate about or curious about right now that you’re talking about with your sister or other family over dinner?
I have to say, I am kind of a happiness bully. I really try to hold back from offering up my ideas, so I love it when people are like, “Do you have any thoughts about how I can improve this habit?” or “I’ve always loved the sense of smell, what did you learn about the sense of smell?” Then I’ll go all night.
I love to quiz people about their experiences. One question we’ve asked recently on the podcast is: What hacks have you found for using the five senses?
The answers are fascinating. One of my favorite responses: If you need to quiet the crowd, blow on a harmonica. The room will immediately fall silent. That’s all it takes. I think of all the times I’ve tried to get the attention of a room — the tapping on the glass to make a speech — and it never seemed to work. With a harmonica, it’s like everyone in the room remembers that it’s time to come together in the circle, just like they did in kindergarten.
Or there are visual hacks. I’m no Marie Kondo, but I love clearing clutter, so I beg my friends to let me come over [to help them organize and tidy]. One friend had this hideous bright orange neon t-shirt, and I thought, “Oh, this is easy. Let’s get rid of that.” But she stopped me! She has two children, and it turns out that the whole family has these matching bright t-shirts. They wear them when they go somewhere crowded — like when they go to Disneyland — so they can always spot each other. What a great hack for using your sense of sight.
Taste. Someone shared that they eat a cold orange in the shower. I loved that. Or Elizabeth does this thing where when you’re on vacation, you pick a vacation drink. Their last trip was an espresso martini, but it could be anything — a coconut smoothie in Hawaii. The drink becomes the memory.
People use the senses to comfort themselves, energize themselves and hold onto memories. I can’t get enough of those stories.
Marie’s latest book is on kurashi, or living one’s ideal life. What do you think are vital elements of a life well-lived?
Ancient philosophers would agree that if you had to pick one secret to a happy life, it would be strong relationships. Enduring bonds. People you confide in. People you can rely on. You need to both get and give support.
It also helps to think about your body. That means getting enough sleep. Exercise — not too much — but moving around. It means not letting yourself get too hungry or thirsty. Our physical experience colors our emotional experience.
As for how and where we live, you know it’s interesting, especially thinking about Marie Kondo’s philosophy. Nobody wants things that are broken or joyless. But there are two different kinds of people. Some people are about simplicity — clean, empty shelves, minimal decor. Others are about abundance, and they thrive in profusion and piles. So the bigger question is: What’s the environment in which you thrive?
We tend to think too literally, as in, “There is one answer, and if I figure it out, I’ll be happy.” I should be a morning person. I should be a finisher or an opener. You have to know yourself. You have to be able to answer: What is true for me?
Well, now I have to ask: Are you about simplicity or abundance?
I have to say, I’m for simplicity, although you wouldn’t know that if you saw how much I have in my house. I keep my old laptops because they’re like my old friends.
But I like getting rid of things that no longer serve me.
“Our physical experience colors our emotional experience.”
How do you think objects like those laptops — how we fill our homes and lives — affect our happiness?
That’s something I found really refreshing about Marie Kondo’s approach — that it’s more [about keeping what you love] than minimalism.
A lot of people are minimalists. “Get rid of everything. Lighten up, lighten up, lighten up.” To my mind, that is not the common experience of humankind.
We project our identity into our environment through possessions. Possessions play a significant role in our feelings of connection. I think it’s better to respect and work with that feeling instead of denying it. If you ignore that power, then that’s when people start to get overwhelmed.
How would you define your kurashi, your ideal life?
I’m going to quote Sandra Day O’Connor, who I clerked for when I started my career. She said we all need work worth doing. I think that’s an excellent answer, especially if you consider work in the expansive sense: the work of parenting, the work of being a friend. That’s my ideal life. Doing work worth doing.