1-Sentence-Summary: Life in Five Senses is a personal but science-driven exploration of what it takes to truly activate our powers of perception and fully witness life in all its depth and color, offering clever insights and simple practices to help us connect more with the world, ourselves, and others.
Read in: 4 minutes
Favorite quote from the author:
Little did she know that, of all things, a visit to the eye doctor would prompt her to write her next book. She was almost out the door, but then: “Remember your checkup. You’re at risk for a detached retina.”
Gretchen Rubin knew someone with that condition. They lost part of their vision. Suddenly, she was wide awake. “All my senses seemed to sharpen,” she writes. Ah, the prospect of losing something important.
“For too long,” Gretchen realized, “I’d been taking it all for granted—the colors, the sounds, the feel of everything around me.” She vowed to make a change. Life in Five Senses: How Exploring the Senses Got Me Out of My Head and Into the World is the result.
In this New York Times Best Seller, Rubin combines her learnings from science, literature, and self-experimentation for a deep dive into our five senses. She shows us how we can be more mindful, perceive better, and live more engaged lives.
Here are some simple lessons and practices for 3 of our 5 senses that you can try to live a richer life:
- We don’t value our ability to see as much as we rely on it, but there are 5 things we can do about it.
- Train your nose with 3 simple exercises to improve a sense most of us are bad at.
- Try 4 practices to get more out of your sense of touch, a unique way to connect with others and the world.
Ready to rediscover the incredible power of your senses? Let’s get to it!
Lesson 1: Sight might be our most undervalued sense, and there are 5 ways we can fix this.
As a writer, my odds of enjoying work into old age are decent. Arthritis? We’ve now got great dictation technology. But what if I go blind? That’d be a real wrench in the system. My eyes being my most important sense, I rest them whenever I can. I also try to appreciate my gift of sight whenever I look at a beautiful view.
Here are 5 ideas to help you do the same:
- Visual homework. Challenge yourself to spot five animals or count all circular-shaped objects on a walk around your neighborhood.
- Spotting new details in familiar sights. How has your husband’s face changed in the last few years? Does your living room carpet look differently than it used to?
- Paying attention to colors. Which colors do you like and why? State your opinion about colors more often for more self-awareness.
- Looking at the same thing more than once. Revisit pleasant sights regularly. Look out your office window or walk to a monument nearby. How does it change over time?
- Changing your phone to grayscale. I wrote about this years ago, and it is still powerful in its intended effect: If your phone is all gray instead of bursting with colors, it’ll be easier to put it down and look at the real world.
There’s a difference between looking and truly seeing. Practicing these habits will make it easier to remember it.
Lesson 2: Most of us are bad at smelling, but there are 3 simple exercise we can use to train our nose.
If you’ve ever eaten a spoon of chocolate pudding while pinching your nose, you’ll know: Without smell, there can be no taste. We eat 3 times a day, yet, even with our noses un-pinched, many of us are bad at smelling. I struggle to identify fruit notes in wine, for example.
A mastered sense of smell keeps us anchored in the present, Rubin says. Odors are fleeting. Anything visual, we can save in our pocket computers. Smells? Not so much. Except if you buy Elon Musk’s Burnt Hair essence, perhaps.
Here are 3 simple exercises to smell more out of life:
- Linger on smells to educate your nose. Take a deep breath over your coffee mug in the morning. Savor the black gold. What you smell regularly, you can identify and appreciate anywhere.
- Actively shape the smell of your home. Visual decor is on everyone’s map, but what about how our houses smell? Whether it’s a diffuser, flowers, or scented candles, try some aromas, and
seesmell what sticks.
- Pick a signature scent. Find a fragrance you love and can own, and it’ll quickly become a part of who you are.
About that last one: Andy Warhol used to only wear perfumes for 3 months at a time — so he could later re-trigger memories of that period simply by rebuying that perfume. “Of the five senses, smell has the closest thing to the full power of the past,” he said. “[It] really is transporting.” Don’t underestimate the power of smell.
Lesson 3: Touch connects us to ourselves, the world, and others, and we can do 4 things to get the most out of it.
We rarely consider it as such, but our skin is the biggest organ of all. Affecting the whole body, touch is a powerful social and emotional tool. There’s the touch that happens in the bedroom, of course, but also the firm handshake with a colleague that makes you feel proud or the comforting hugs from friends in times of need.
Rubin discovered 4 ways touch can ground us, enhance our quality of life, and even help us think better:
- Use props to stay calm when stressed. People holding warm coffee cups are more likely to think favorably of strangers. Extend this concept beyond first dates! Keep the microphone in hand while giving a talk, for example.
- Swim. Complete immersion in water is the only time we use our skin to its full extent. Repeat it frequently.
- Practice embodied cognition. Embodied cognition is the idea that our entire body is involved in thinking and creativity, not just the brain. Combine physical activities with learning, like walking up and down a hallway while memorizing notes.
- Keep a talisman. I used to carry one of Ryan Holiday‘s Memento Mori medallions everywhere. Right now, a stone sits on my desk. Feel your talisman throughout the day. Keep a familiar, precious-to-you object in your pocket, and you can ground yourself through touch at any time.
Not everything important in life can be touched, but touch is important to fully experience life. Tune into your senses regularly, and you’ll feel more alive all around!
Life in Five Senses Review
Life in Five Senses is both a wake-up call and a kind invitation to be more present. Live where you are — in the physical world! Learn to heighten your senses thanks to Rubin’s practical ideas, and you’ll ultimately feel happier, more vibrant, and more engaged with life.
Who would I recommend our Life in Five Senses summary to?
The 15-year-old teenager who is just learning about the senses in school, the 45-year-old researcher who just had his first health scare, and anyone who feels like they don’t have a good nose.