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We enjoy the world through our five senses, so why don’t we do more to heighten them? We explore the techniques and science of the senses with Gretchen Rubin.
Link to episode transcript: https://tinyurl.com/4s3wv9mv
When Gretchen Rubin found out she was at greater risk of losing her eyesight, she started to recognize what she had been taking for granted and her appreciation for sight — and the rest of her senses — was reignited. Since then, Gretchen has been committed to discovering how our five senses shape and enhance our experiences of the world. Like how certain odors can trigger good memories and how our sense of touch stimulates the vagus nerve, which has a calming effect on our brains and bodies. We explore techniques to enhance each of our senses, and the science behind how they contribute to our well-being.
Gretchen Rubin is an acclaimed journalist and author.
Read Gretchen’s latest book book, Life in Five Senses: How Exploring the Senses Got Me Out of My Head and Into the World: https://gretchenrubin.com/books/life-in-five-senses/
Follow Gretchen on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/gretchenrubin/
Follow Gretchen on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/GretchenRubin
Follow Gretchen on Twitter: https://twitter.com/gretchenrubin
Resources from The Greater Good Science Center:
Happiness Break: Finding Presence Through Your Senses, With Dacher Keltner (The Science of Happiness Podcast): https://tinyurl.com/y63mphep
How to Gain Freedom from Your Thoughts: https://tinyurl.com/hp8s5wv6
10 Steps to Savoring the Good Things in Life: https://tinyurl.com/y9636sku
Why Physical Touch Matters for Your Well-Being: https://tinyurl.com/m2ea524m
How to Deal with Sensory Overload as a Sensitive Person: https://tinyurl.com/y7epvsmu
More Resources for A Good Night’s Sleep
Scientific American - Making Sense of the World, Several Senses at a Time: https://tinyurl.com/34djh4p4
BBC - Hacking our senses to boost learning power: https://tinyurl.com/y7e8f89c
TED - How your sense of smell helps you savor flavor: https://tinyurl.com/2yx5n5pm
Washington Post - Why music causes memories to flood back: https://tinyurl.com/2s47stkk
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Woman: So, out of the five senses, which is your favorite?
Woman: That’s a hard one.
Woman: If I had to pick, I would say smell.
Woman: I would say it’s a hard toss up between taste and smell.
Man: My favorite sense is touch.
Man: My favorite sense is sight.
Man: Like a warm summer nights.
Man: When I saw my kid for the first time when she was born.
Woman: I love looking at the world. I love color.
Woman: When you think of taste, you think of culture, you think of experiences.
Woman: I feel like hearing has evoked these strong emotional responses within me.
Man: All of them. Duh.
Man: All of my experiences come from my senses.
Gretchen Rubin: I went to the eye doctor and as I was walking out, my eye doctor said to me, “Well, you know you’re at greater risk for losing your vision.” And I was like, “Wait, what?” I was walking home from the eye doctor and it was like every knob in my brain was jammed up to maximum and I could hear everything and smell everything, and feel everything and see everything. And I thought, this is around me all the time and I just have been taking it for granted. And this experience showed me I was stuck in my head and I needed to get back out into engaging with the world and other people and myself, through my five senses.
Dacher Keltner: Welcome to The Science of Happiness, I’m Dacher Keltner. Today we’re paying homage to the senses — taste, touch, smell, sight, and sound. We don’t focus much on the senses in the field of positive psychology but intuitively, we know how important they are, how much delight and meaning our senses bring to us. And the literature backs that up.
Studies find for example that odors can be particularly powerful keys to unlocking meaningful memories. That beautiful visual sights can bring us awe and reduce focus on our self. Music — that wonderful conveyor of sounds can have all kinds of powerful emotional impacts on our well-being and so on.
Joining us today is Gretchen Rubin, a journalist and author of the book Life in Five Senses: How Exploring the Senses Got Me Out of My Head and Into the World.
More up next.
Dacher Keltner: Welcome back to The Science of Happiness, I’m Dacher Keltner. Today we’re exploring our five senses, and how they bring meaning to our lives.
You know we asked people about their favorite sense and a lot of people said smell because it’s connected to their memories.
Woman: My dog’s feet smell like corn chips, and that always brings me joy.
Woman: Smells can really bring up memories. Sometimes ones that are forgotten.
Woman: Perfume that I used to wear in high school for like a certain boy.
Woman: The perfume that my mom wore when I was like a really young kid.
Woman: Gardenias remind me of my dad.
Woman: It just reminds me of just like feeling loved when I was young.
Dacher Keltner: Today we’re joined by Gretchen Rubin, author of Life in Five Senses: How Exploring the Senses Got Me Out of My Head and Into the World.
Gretchen dedicated years to learning about the senses. The science behind them and creative ways to engage with them more in her own life, to bring about more happiness and well-being.
Gretchen, thanks so much for joining us on The Science of Happiness.
Gretchen Rubin: Thank you. I’m so happy to be talking to you.
Dacher Keltner: So I want to take us on a tour and just get your favorite highlights on the five senses.
Gretchen Rubin: Okay.
Dacher Keltner: Let’s start with odor — what a rich sensory experience for happiness. Right? Just the olfaction bulb it gets right into the hippocampus and memories. You know studies show that if I think about odors or experienced odors, it can trigger good memories that are good for the inflammation response. What have you learned about odors and happiness?
Gretchen Rubin: I think there’s tremendous pleasure in that sense. Tying it to memories. One thing that some people do that I think is great, and Andy Warhol did, he took a perfume and would wear it for a certain period, like three months, and then he would retire it so that whenever he smelled it, he would remember that period of time, and I’ve heard of how people will do things like, they’ll have a special kind of very scented shampoo they use on their honeymoon trip or something that they only use on their summer vacation at their lake cabin every year. And so the smell of it will transport them. So they very consciously use it to evoke memories.
DACHER TRACK: Next up — sense of taste.
Woman: It’s just mind blowing how you can experience culture by eating different things from different parts of the world.
Woman: It’s like so many different things that you can experience through taste.
Woman: I love the fact that 29 years later I can still taste something and be like, oh, this is the first time that I am tasting this flavor. And it takes me back to moments that I savored, taste-wise, but also life-wise.
Dacher Keltner: So give us a Gretchen Rubin like quick exercise. How would I find greater meaning in taste?
Gretchen Rubin: I think taste is particularly social. You know, we sit and have a meal together. But there’s all different ways that you can do to like lean into the social aspects of taste.
I had a taste party where I had some friends over and we all like compared tastes of like apples and potato chips and like we ate one almond. Like when you eat one almond you’re like, this is amazing. This almond is amazing. Anyway, so I had people taste ketchup and people couldn’t get over it. It is the rare item that can give you all five tastes. It’s sweet, it’s salty, it’s bitter, it’s sour, it’s umami. I had a friend and she’s like, if I didn’t know this was ketchup, I would think that this was like this rare ingredient that you had spent like a thousand dollars on. It’s so complex. And so that was really fun for me and it really opened this whole new world for me of understanding that there’s a way for me to enjoy tastes, because, you know, it’s this whole realm of pleasure of the senses.
Dacher Keltner: Yeah.
Another favorite sense that people mentioned was sound.
Man: Life has this kind of constant soundtrack. You know, all the sounds you hear walking down the street, birds, all that cool stuff. But you can also control your soundtrack with really good music.
Woman: Anytime like when you hear a singer like really emote it. I don’t know. I just think it’s very tied in with emotion for me.
Woman: It has reduced me to tears. It brought smiles to my face. That sight and other senses, didn’t.
Man: One of my most memorable experiences was probably the first really good concert I ever saw. I was just in awe for the entire show. I just couldn’t stop smiling. It was just incredible. I just couldn’t believe I was there listening to it.
Dacher Keltner: There’s incredible research showing just sounds of water activate the vagus nerve. Music, lots of research showing that, you know, music brings contentment and perspective on stress. What did you learn about sound and its place in our well-being?
Gretchen Rubin: Well one of the things that was really interesting to me was music. Like you mentioned, there’s just this tremendous research on music because it’s this universal human custom, all human cultures have music. You know, and I’m surrounded by people who love music. It’s such a big thing. But I always thought of myself as somebody who just wasn’t that into music, and I always felt like that was a real limitation and I really faulted myself for it.
But then a friend recently — I have a podcast Happier with Gretchen Rubin and the producer Chuck is a huge sound guy and a huge music lover. And he said to me, “I think you do love music, but you just love it in your own way.” And what was different for me was that I like songs. Like I like one song here and there. Most people, it seems in my observation, they will like an artist or a genre of music, or they like new music or they like going to concerts and I just like various songs, but I do have a very strong emotional reaction to them and I love them. I have to be careful not to wear them out.
Dacher Keltner: Can you give us an example of a song and how you explored your emotionality with that?
Gretchen Rubin: I did an audio apothecary of songs to like cheer me up and give a mood boost and energy. And the number one song, it’s the song that never fails me, is Mule Skinner Blues by Dolly Parton.
This is a song, it is such a happy, cheerful, high energy song. It’s kind of goofy because she’s yodeling. It’s Dolly Parton. But they’re all just these wonderful high energy songs. And so I can use it when I wanna intervene in my mood.
Dacher Keltner: After this break, we’ll delve into touch, and sight – and ways they can enrich our lives.
Welcome back to the Science of Happiness, I’m Dacher Keltner. We’re continuing our tour of the senses and what they can mean for our well-being with I think an often underrated sense, and that’s touch. We know from a broader science of touch that its a fundamental senosry modality for happiness. We know neurophysiologically that touch stimulates the vagus nerve, it can lead to the release of oxytocin, and it can actually lower stress hormones like cortisol. Socially, a simple touch to another person can calm them, encourage them, express kindness and lead them to be more collaborative. Joining us today, Gretchen Rubin, author of the book, Life in Five Senses: How Exploring the Senses Got Me Out of My Head and Into the World.
I love how you write about touch in your book. You know, it’s this fundamental sensory modality for happiness, just calming babies and building trust between people. So how did you cultivate that and what’d you learn about the modality of touch?
Gretchen Rubin: So when I went into this, I didn’t think that I paid that much attention to touch. And then by the time I was done, I realized, oh my gosh, I’m extremely sensitive to touch in so many ways. So one is just sheer texture, which is things like — I realized why I never wore some of my clothes because I’m like, I don’t like them because I don’t like the feel of like smooth cotton on my skin, which I had not noticed. But then it’s also the touch of human beings because there’s that feeling of connection that you really can’t replace. You know, you can’t sit in a massage chair and get the same feeling, I don’t think that what you would get if you’re being touched by an actual person.
So I’ve become much more deliberative, making sure that I’m very physically in contact with the people who are important to me, especially my family.
Dacher Keltner: And finally, our last stop on this tour of the senses is sight.
Woman: I love design. I love to see how the world comes together, both in nature and by creativity, by artists.
Woman: Anytime I can just sit and look at the mountains.
Woman: Yeah It’s just amazing to be able to see all the different things that nature has created for us.
Woman: I love being able to look at my friends and family, my dogs. It fills me with so much joy.
Dacher Keltner: And vision — what did you do to sharpen your sense of vision?
Gretchen Rubin: Well, a big part of this was going to the MET every day because I experienced the MET through all my senses, but it’s obviously designed for the sense of, of sight and, you know, and the sense of sight does take up the most real estate in the brain. We’re wired for sight and this was just — I mean, talk about transcendent and being able to tap into a feeling of awe. I mean, it’s built for that, you know, just with these soaring ceilings and these masterworks of human culture from all over the world throughout time. I set out to do it every day for a year when I was in town and the MET was open. But then I haven’t been able to stop.
Dacher Keltner: Yeah I know you what you mean.You know I experience awe visually everyday just walking to work and looking at trees and their leaves or looking up at the sky. And we know from a lot of science that if we find awe visually or beauty, it activates parts of the brain involved in reward, it gives us pleasure, it makes us creative, it puts life into perspective. So good thing to seek out is that awe in the visual sense.
I’m curious just as you take a step back and you think about what you wrote about in your first book on happiness and then this five senses book. Tell us about what we need to focus on in the field more broadly. What are you hoping to give to people?
Gretchen Rubin: I do think that sometimes we ignore the body.
Dacher Keltner: Yeah.
Gretchen Rubin: And the physical experience always colors the emotional experience.
Dacher Keltner: Yeah.
Gretchen Rubin: You know, many people are interested in brain function and serotonin and you know, that’s all important. But I do think — thinking hard about, well, what are the ways maybe that we’ve overlooked, how can we go from the outside, inside — I don’t know, I just, I think there’s more room to explore that.
Dacher Keltner: So what do you, what advice do you give people?
Gretchen Rubin: Well, I think you can tackle it in one one of two ways. You can bring in more good or you can eliminate things that are bothering you. I think both of them will increase your overall happiness.
And I would say just go through your day and just pay attention. Like one of the things that surprised me was realizing how little action I had taken in the past to shape my sensory environment. I was very passive about it. And then when I was like, okay, well are there annoying sounds? Can I turn off those notification sounds? Is there something here that’s really like making my eyeballs pop out because it’s so unpleasant to look at? Well, can I do something about that? Are there bad smells that I’m encountering regularly? Can I fix that? Are there ways for me to bring more beauty into my life or highlight beautiful things like creating an audio apothecary so I don’t just run into a song, I can actually tap into it very deliberately.
Dacher Keltner: Wonderful. Well, Gretchen Rubin, thank you for being on the show and taking us on a tour through life in five senses.
Gretchen Rubin: Thank you. I so enjoyed talking to you.
Dacher Keltner: Close your eyes — if it’s safe for you to do so, of course — and touch your nose. You just used your sixth sense — the sense of proprioception, or where our bodies are in space. In next week’s happiness break, we’ll do meditation to tab into this lesser known sense.
Who in your life could use a reminder to get into their senses and enjoy the simple pleasures of life more? Share this episode with them. We’ve got a link you can pass on at the end of our show notes.
You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or use the hashtag #happinesspod. Tell us what experiencing the world through your senses means to you, we always love hearing from you.
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I’m Dacher Keltner, thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness.
Our Executive Producer of Audio is Shuka Kalantari. Our Producer is Haley Gray. Sound designer Jennie Cataldo of Accompany Studios. And our Associate Producers on this episode were Ruth Dusseault, Bria Suggs, and Maarya Zafar. Our editor in chief is Jason Marsh. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX.