When The Happiness Project author Gretchen Rubin, 57, developed an eye condition that left her at a heightened risk for a detached retina, the prospect of possibly losing her vision sparked her quest to increase awareness of all five of her senses. The result is her latest book, Life in Five Senses: How Exploring the Senses Got Me Out of My Head and Into the World, which offers insights and practical advice about heightening our seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching to better experience the world around us.
1. What was the most surprising thing you learned while writing Life in Five Senses?
The most surprising thing is just how different our sensory worlds are. Intellectually I knew that, but our brains tell us what they think we need to know and screen out a lot of other things. I was doing a recording, and all of a sudden the person said, “Let’s wait for that.” I was like, “Why are we stopping?” She said, “Don’t you hear the siren?” Because I live in New York City, my brain is like, “You don’t need to hear those sirens.” Or like the way we can’t smell our home the way guests could smell it. We’re so accustomed to the smell. So if you’ve ever walked into a house [that] really smells like air freshener, or maybe really smells like cats — it’s because the person who lives there can’t smell it … it’s partly genetic, it’s cultural, it’s upbringing, it’s preferences, it’s experiences. … We’re all walking around in our own world.
2. What is one new habit that you’ve cultivated because of your research for the book?
I go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art [in New York City] every day that it’s open. I did that for a year for the book, but I’ve just kept going. I don’t have a lot of rules. I might have a little quest. On Presidents’ Day, I might go look and see how many presidents I can find, or I might see if I find the Pantone Color of the Year. Sometimes I just look at the new exhibits.
3. You have quizzes on your website to help readers identify their sensory weak spots. What is your most neglected sense, and how are you working to tune in?
My neglected sense is taste, so I’ve done things to try to enjoy the tastes that I enjoy more. I had a taste party because I did this thing called Flavor University where we did a lot of taste comparisons. We tasted varieties of apples and potato chips and ranked them. There’s all kinds of ways to have fun with taste by just noticing the differences among items. … I’m much more aware of distinctions, and the world is more enjoyable because I know how to pick what I like best.
4. What is the biggest misconception about happiness?
The biggest misconception is that there’s a one size fits all — that somebody can tell you the “right” way. Everyone has to figure out their happiness project for themselves, because it depends on your values, your interests, your nature, your challenges. Each of us has to decide for ourselves. … The misconception is that there’s sort of one right way that would work for everyone.
5. You’re known for keeping a running list of the “secrets of adulthood.” Do you have a favorite?
Turning things off and on often fixes a glitch. Accept yourself and expect more from yourself. Soap and water removes most stains. Look for an object where it’s supposed to be. I’ve got a million of these. I love them all.
6. How has your research affected you as a parent?
It’s made a huge difference. Partly I think I’m such a better parent because I’m calmer. … I hope I also model the kinds of things I think contribute to happiness, like spending time with friends, making time to read, paying attention to my body and all those kinds of things. … It’s funny because sometimes people assume that if you study happiness, you really want everybody to be happy all the time. But really, life is full of times when you’re not happy, and you don’t do well to deny that. I think I’m much better about acknowledging the reality of their feelings.
7. What’s on your current reading list?
I have so many things. This summer, I want to do the summer of rereading. So I’m going to reread The Life of Samuel Johnson, The Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux, Crowds and Power by Elias Canetti and The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. These books are all kinds of tough and demanding. I can’t wait.
8. In your previous legal career, you clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Can you share a special memory?
After I had written The Happiness Project, I went by her chambers when I was in Washington, D.C. I said to her, “Justice, what do you think is the secret to happiness?” Without a moment’s hesitation — clearly she had thought about it — she said, “Work worth doing.” The more I think about it, the more true I think that answer is, because she doesn’t say what the work is. I think that's very in keeping with her personality, because she’s a very hard-working person.
9. You created a joy index of 10 of the best places to visit. Any advice for travelers?
Always leave some room in the suitcase. Leave extra time to travel — it always takes longer than you think. One thing from the five senses that can be fun is to pick a signature scent for a big trip: maybe a new kind of shampoo, a new fragrance, a new soap or just some kind of scent — maybe an offbeat flavor of toothpaste. Use it on the trip, and then that will always kind of be a sensory memento you have of a really fun memory.
10. Your sister, Elizabeth Craft, is a Hollywood showrunner, and the two of you cohost the Happier With Gretchen Rubin podcast. Do you plan to develop an onscreen project together?
We’ve never talked about that. How bonkers is that? We should do it even just for our own amusement. I’m truly startled by the fact that has never occurred to us.
11. You’re known for your good habits, but do you have a vice?
I twist my hair. That’s something that I always struggle against because I twist it and break it off.
12. Any bucket list items before you turn 60?
I would like to do the urban hike. You walk around the perimeter of Manhattan. I’ve always wanted to do that.
Renew your membership today and save 25% on your next year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal. Get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life.