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Find more joy through your senses
Author Gretchen Rubin on the value of tuning into the world through your five senses
“Intellectually, I knew that at any time I could lose everything and I knew that I could still have a rich meaningful life if I lost my sight or any of my senses—but what was hitting me was this realization that it’s all here. … I have it now, and I may lose it.”
Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman talks to author Gretchen Rubin about how paying attention to the world through our five senses can bring us more gratitude and vitality. Gretchen, whose work revolves around happiness, became hyper-aware of her senses after an eye doctor told her she was at high risk for vision loss. Her conversation with Scott is a lovely reminder to delight in the minutiae of everyday life.
You can catch the complete episode (1 hour) on YouTube.
It’s easy to neglect your senses. Our everyday stresses and concerns distract us from taking in—and appreciating—details in our physical surroundings. Chances are you may be observant with one or two senses, but not all. (A friendly reminder that your senses include sight, smell, touch, hearing, and taste.) Noticing sensory details around you can bring more joy and comfort.
Knowledge permeates across senses. We often imagine learning in the context of reading a book or listening to a lecture—but you can also gain new knowledge through the other senses. Maybe you’ve seen an eye doctor (or some other physician) who keeps a model eyeball (or another relevant body part) in their office, a plastic one that you can take apart. It’s visual, yes, but it also offers a tactile way to learn.
Personality frameworks are meant to give insight, not constraints. Some people love personality tests; others hate them. Gretchen herself has developed one—the Four Tendencies framework, which categorizes people based on how they respond to expectations. Acknowledging that these typologies can be polarizing, she says that they’re meant to see yourself more clearly, not box you in. She offers a catchy aphorism for this: Define, not confine.
We all live in our own unique sensory worlds. In other words, we don’t all perceive the world around us the same way. Our genetics, upbringing, environment, and culture affect how we view and interact with things. This is a simple truth that’s easy to take for granted. We judge, even shame, people for having different preferences from us, not understanding the context of why they perceive something a certain way.
A viral example that came to mind: the disputed color of this dress.
Sensory experiences help connect people. It’s no wonder that peak-COVID social distancing was so isolating, even with the very best Zoom hangs. Much of our relationships are built around shared sensory experiences like eating, hugging, and going to concerts and other events together.
Gretchen suggests having a taste test party as a fun way to tune into your senses with friends. (If you do, make ketchup a blind tasting item. Apparently, ketchup hits all five sensations of taste: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami.)
Tapping into your five senses helps fuel creativity. Think going for a walk, spending time outside, listening to music (or the opposite: silence), and so on. Gretchen shares about her “muse machine”—a Rolodex of aphorisms she uses for inspiration. When she’s feeling creatively blocked, she pulls a card from it at random. The printed saying gives her something to think about, which often sparks a new thought or idea. Before creating the muse machine, Gretchen collected these aphorisms in a doc on her computer. Adding a physical element—the Rolodex—makes for a much more interactive and stimulating experience.
Dear reader, do you consider yourself an observant person? I’d like to think I pick up on subtle visual details around me, but sometimes when I point them out, my husband says, “Oh, that? That’s been there.” Oof. I think at its heart, this conversation is all about cultivating mindfulness, though Scott and Gretchen hardly use that term. I wonder if that’s intentional—maybe because to some, mindfulness sounds hokey or woo-woo. Anyway, this is a lovely and maybe more concrete reframing of what I think mindfulness can look like. I’m writing this as someone who doesn’t practice mindfulness exercises—but who is now trying to pay a little bit more attention to the world.
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