How to Be More Present

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

If you’re like most of my counseling and coaching clients, you could benefit from cultivating a stronger connection with your five senses in order to be more present. Sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste are not only sources of information and pleasure, they are also your lifelines to the present moment. Learning how to grasp these lifelines with intention is a valuable life skill that can help you feel happier, more at ease, and more connected to the world around you. 

This skill can be especially important for clients who come to therapy for anxiety. One of the tragedies of anxiety is how it steals your ability to fully inhabit your life. When you’re busy worrying about things that haven’t happened and may never happen, it’s impossible to appreciate the tiny moments of beauty unfolding around you every day. But your senses are powerful tools for returning to the present moment and appreciating it fully, and this article will show you how to use your senses to be more present.

If you’d prefer to listen, I’ve also created an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on this topic. It’s a conversation between myself and the fantastic Gretchen Rubin, the author of several New York Times bestselling books on happiness and human nature. We’re discussing her latest, “Life in Five Senses: How Exploring the Senses Got Me Out of My Head and Into the World.” You can find the episode on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

Grow Together

Schedule a Free Consultation Today.

Mindfulness and Anxiety

Does this sound familiar? You’ve been feeling pretty balanced all day as you work, take care of your kids, or run errands around town. Then you lay down in the quiet of your dark bedroom, and anxious thoughts immediately begin racing through your mind. Your anxiety may be quiet all day long, but the moment your mind isn’t engaged in something else, it starts chattering. 

Of course, anxiety can strike at other times. You could be sitting with friends at dinner, half listening to the conversation and half running through all the things that could go wrong at work this week. Or you might be driving home, barely noticing the passing scenery as you worry about all the things you need to do. It’s even possible to watch an entire movie, then realize as the credits begin to roll that you weren’t really paying attention because you were so preoccupied. 

As anyone who struggles with anxiety knows, you can’t “just stop worrying.” Blanking an anxious thought out of your mind only leaves a void that another anxious thought will soon rush to fill. To stop your anxiety, you need to replace your anxious thoughts with something else, and I recommend starting with the easiest mindfulness technique ever: savoring.

Your senses offer you an anchor for connecting to the present moment. When your thoughts begin wandering off into the frightening territory of the uncertain future, you can savor one of your senses to pull them back to the here and now. Try watching leaves flutter in the wind, or noticing the distinct flavors in your cup of tea, or listening closely to all the ambient sounds you can hear in a quiet room. 

Even if you only do this for a few seconds, your anxious thought pattern will be temporarily broken as you turn your attention toward your present experience and away from your internal commentary. You’ll also be seizing an opportunity to appreciate a moment in your life, rather than missing it because your mind is so busy with anxiety. You’ll feel happier instantly, and the benefits over time will add up as well. 

If you make a habit of this, the constant mental chatter will lose some of its insistence. Your muscle for redirecting your thoughts to the present will grow stronger, until mindfulness becomes effortless for you. This will help you feel less anxious and more connected to the fleeting moments of your life — rather than feeling like they’re passing you by. 

How to Be More Present Using Your Senses

There’s a reason that people who lose one of their senses often feel profound grief. Even if the loss isn’t disabling — for example, people who lost their sense of smell due to a covid infection — losing a sense is like having the light turned out on an important part of your experience. 

But when our senses are functioning normally, we don’t spend much time thinking about them. Every day you receive a wealth of information about how your life looks, smells, sounds, feels, and tastes — are you making the most of it?

Many people are determined to take their senses seriously, and to derive as much enjoyment, peace, and present-moment connection as they can from them. They might be artists, sommeliers, or chefs, or they might be ordinary people who intentionally seek out sensory experiences to cultivate contentment, richness, and pleasure in their lives. 

Listening to music without distractions, or paying close attention to the flavors in your food, or even just buying yourself a nice candle and keeping it on your desk for an occasional sniff are all ways to become more aware of your senses. As you do this, you’ll learn more about the textures, aromas, flavors and sounds that make you feel happier and less stressed

Support for Mindful Living

You deserve to feel calm, confident, and connected with your life. A good therapist can help you gain new tools for managing anxiety when it arises and designing your life for greater peace and wellbeing. If you’re interested in therapy for anxiety with a clinician on my team, I invite you to schedule a free consultation.

xoxo, Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

P.S. —  For more tips on mindful living for a happier life, check out our mind-body wellbeing collection of articles and podcasts. 

Listen & Subscribe to the Podcast

How to Be More Present

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Free, Expert Advice — For You.

Subscribe To The Love, Happiness, and Success Podcast


Music in this episode is by Brian Eno with their song “Reflection.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to if further questions are prompted.

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you’re listening to the Love, Happiness, and Success Podcast. Do you ever feel like your mind and your body are completely disconnected? Like physically, you’re sitting at dinner, or taking your morning walk, but your brain is busy with a million unrelated thoughts. Meanwhile, life is happening all around you, and you’re not really there. 

You’re missing it. If this is sounding familiar, today’s episode is for you. It is all about how to intentionally use your senses to get out of your head, back into your life, and reclaim your happiness.

Setting the mood for us today is the one, the only Brian Eno, the master of ambient sonic journeys. Right now, we are enjoying one of his newer pieces called Reflection, and he has actually all kinds of new stuff. Brian Eno has been making amazing new music for 30-40 years and keeps on going. So you can keep track of what he is up to his new albums on his Bandcamp page, which is Brian Eno All Saints — 

This piece is Reflection. And you know, while we’re here, I’m also going to give a little plug for the place that I first heard about Brian Eno. I am an enjoyer of ambient music. One of my favorite sensory experiences when I’m working, when I’m thinking, I turn on Hearts of Space. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Hearts of Space, but it’s actually an ambient music program that probably started in the 80s. They used to play it on NPR late at night. 

I can’t stay up that late anymore. But I do have a monthly subscription to Hearts of Space. And it’s an interesting collection. They do world music, they do space music. Certainly, Brian Eno makes a regular appearance. But if you are an ambient music enthusiast, you might want to check that out too. Its Hearts of Space. So it’s It’s the website. Okay, enough about music. 

Although we’ll be talking more about music over the course of our conversation today with Gretchen Rubin as we explore her new book Life in Five Senses. Gretchen, I’m a huge fan. And I’m so excited that you’re sharing your wisdom and insight with our audience today. Thank you.

Gretchen: Thank you so much. I’m so happy to have the chance to talk to you today.

Lisa: Well, I have to tell you, I just finished reading your book early this morning, and I couldn’t put it down. I absolutely love it. It was fascinating. I learned so many things, and I figured we could start with this. I mean, you begin the book with the story of a personal epiphany that led to this sensory experimentation. And would you share your story?

Gretchen: Absolutely. I’m so happy to hear that the book resonated with you. Yeah, I got the epiphany that led to this book, and a very ordinary moment in my life. I had pinkeye, which I get from time to time and usually goes away on its own. But this was lingering. So I did finally go to the eye doctor. So he checks me out. Yeah, I got pinkeye. And then as I was getting ready to leave his office, he said very casually, just like, you know, “Remember to wear your seatbelt.” 

He said, “Well, you know, be sure to come in for a checkup on time because as you know, you’re at greater risk for losing your vision.” Then I was like, wait. What? No. I did not know. And he said, “Yeah. You’re extremely nearsighted. And so you are at greater risk for having a detached retina, and that can affect your vision.” So if something starts to go wrong, we want to catch it right away. 

As it happened, I had a friend who had recently lost some of his vision to a detached retina. I understood very well what that meant, and this just startled me deeply. Of course, intellectually, I knew that at any minute anything can happen. I also knew that even if I did lose my vision, I could still have a happy and meaningful, and fulfilled life.  But it for some reason really penetrated to me, you know, that I was taking everything for granted. You know that I wasn’t paying any attention to my senses.

I’m walking home. I live within walking distance of my doctor. I live in New York City. I’m walking home, and all of a sudden, it is as if some invisible knob in my brain has just been shot up to 11 everything, all my senses seem to just go into this kind of psychedelic hyperdrive, where I was seeing everything, hearing everything, smelling everything. I could feel the air in my face and the sidewalk under my feet, and it was all just so intense and overwhelming. 

It just made me realize, you know, I was stuck in my head. I was living in a fog. I was stuck behind screens or just kind of in my own thoughts. I was taking so much for granted. I was not, I was disconnected from the world, from other people, and from myself. That walk home made me realize that, first of all, I had been taking everything for granted. Second of all, the way that I could reconnect with the world was through my five senses, because of the beautiful intensity that I experienced, made me realize that I wanted to capture that in my everyday life.

Lisa: Yeah. Gosh. You know, when I read that and just sharing the story now, I can so relate. I think so many of our listeners right now can relate to what you were talking about. I think we’re probably cut from the same cloth a little bit Gretchen. You talk about spending a lot of time reading. I read constantly about reading, writing, talking to people, how you were like, would be, you know, with your family, or whatever, and rewriting a paragraph in your head. 

I was like, “Oh my gosh, I totally do that.” But it’s so poignant because you talk about this awareness, where you just realize that you’re missing the moment that you’re in because of that. The internal focus of preoccupation. And this recognition of what a loss it was, in some ways.

Gretchen: No, absolutely. That’s exactly what it was. This, just not paying attention to what was happening right in front of me. Right under my nose, right under my fingertips, and wanting to really experience that — to really feel direct contact with the world.

Lisa: Yeah. This led to some very interesting experimentation, which I want to certainly talk more about. But I’m also just curious to know. You’ve spent so much energy and thought and research into happiness, and the ingredients that kind of lead to a happy life, a happy experience. That’s why I’m such a huge fan of your work because it’s so empowering. It’s really, my understanding is all around what is within our control to create happiness. 

I’m wondering if it was due to some of this research or awareness that you’ve gained over the years. Your books, The Happiness Project, you realized that the sensory experience that you were taking for granted was important and connected to your happiness somehow?

Gretchen: No, absolutely. I am the street scientist and I am my own guinea pig. For more than a decade, I’ve been sort of researching, writing, thinking, and talking to people about how to be happier. I am sort of the Ben Franklin of happiness, where I want everything to be very practical, very concrete, and really something that I can do. I never think about things like dopamine. I can’t control my dopamine, but I can make my bed, that kind of thing. 

I do think a lot about it. One of my first exercises for myself was to look for what was overlooked. This was exactly as you say. One thing that I was overlooking, I think, in my study of happiness was the power of my five senses. I thought a lot about the body because I was very well aware of the fact that our physical experience colors our emotional experience. I thought a lot about things like being outside in the morning or getting enough sleep. 

Things like that thinking about my body as a source of sort of energy and just the weather of my life. But I hadn’t thought about it so much in terms of sort of sensory experiences. This was just a way to take that study of the body in a much deeper way and a much more sophisticated way of understanding the physical experience. Not just like, “oh, you need to get enough sleep”, but like, “oh, you need to turn off the notification sounds on your phone”, because that’s draining.

Lisa: Yeah. No, I got it, and understand that sort of doing different physical things as hacks almost to make yourself feel differently rather than kind of just coming into the sensory experiences themselves and using them for what they are and can be, which are real connections to a lot of powerful experiences. I just love the way that you describe this sort of new awareness that you had. 

I think, a quote here where you said, “I had been treating my body like the car. My brain was driving around town, but my body wasn’t a vehicle of my soul to be overlooked when it wasn’t breaking down. My body through my senses was my essential connection to the world, and to other people. And how easy it is to forget that.”

Gretchen: I mean, you’d think, how could you forget it? What is more vivid? What is more intense? What’s more present? And yet, it’s just very easy to take it for granted, and not realize that. I think what really surprised me about this was, how little I knew my own preferences? Because you would think, well, obviously, you’ll know if you’d like this tea better than that tea. Or this variety of olive is better than that variety of olive, or this is the way you like to listen to music.

But what I realized is that I didn’t pay any attention whatsoever. I just wasn’t tuned in enough to even notice things. I had a pair of yoga pants that I’d had for like five years, and my mother’s like, “Oh, it’s nice that they’re navy blue instead of black.” I was like, “Oh my gosh, I never noticed their navy blue.” Like, literally, how did I not notice that? 

And yet I was just so absent-mindedly going through the world that I didn’t even notice things about my own experience of just even very simple things.

Lisa: I really want to talk about this journey you then went on, but I am curious about one thing. I can totally relate to what you’re talking about. I am a thinker. I often, you know, internal processor. Do you think that this experience of being very internally focused, not noticing how things taste, or what color things are, is more true for some people than it is for others?

I’m wondering if introverts tend to be more vulnerable to this, or people who tend to be internal processors, versus, are some people kind of generally more externally oriented in the world? Or do you think this is really just a common vulnerability for everybody, if we’re not intentionally trying to connect with our senses, we just won’t?

Gretchen: I think there’s a huge range. I think some people might be very focused on certain kinds of things. You might have a foodie who’s extremely focused on flavor distinctions and, maybe to a lesser extent, smell because it’s all wrapped up in that taste. Or a musician who’s very, very, very focused on the sense of hearing. There might be people who are just really tuned into their senses, generally, like they’re really good at noticing. 

I’m not sure that it would be introverted or extroverted because I can imagine extroverted people saying, “Well, I’m just so busy talking to people and engaging with people that I don’t like, I’m just shoveling anything into my mouth, I don’t notice what room I’m in.” I know people where they’re, they can sit at a desk for seven hours and not even notice it because they get so caught up in something. I’m not sure. 

I don’t know what it would correlate with. But I definitely think there’s a very big range in terms of how much people appreciate their senses, how many of their five senses they appreciate, how neglected their neglected senses are, and how many of their senses they neglect. I mean, back to this about preferences. It’s very funny because, I mean again, how did I not notice? 

When I started this, I was like, “Okay, well, which are my most appreciated senses, and which are my most neglected senses?” 

I thought of touch as being one of my most neglected senses. But when I started thinking about it and pushing myself to think about touch and talking to other people, I realized actually, I’m very, very focused on touch. I’m really kind of a connoisseur of touch. I have a friend, and we spent an hour talking about silky, slick, and being in water versus not being in water and all these things related to touch. 

Everybody around us is like, “What are you people talking about?” I didn’t even know that about myself. I just had never paid attention to realize how important it was. I looked at my closet. I’m thinking, “oh, the reason that I don’t wear all these shirts is because I don’t like the feeling of cotton.” Like a cotton shirt, I don’t like that feeling. I had four cotton shirts because I had never noticed that before. 

But I think there are other people who are much more attuned to that, whether in all their senses or maybe just in a handful. I think there’s a big range. But I think for just about everyone, there are things to do to dial that up. There might be a few super performers out there from whom the rest of us can learn. Who are really, really good at appreciating all their five senses. They can lead the way.

Lisa: Wow. That’s such a cool idea. Honestly, I had never thought about that before for myself either until I read what you had written about your own recognition that you are more oriented towards certain senses than others and how that is fairly common. That we all have kind of a primacy around one or two. It was not even a concept to me. But then I was like, “That is totally true,” and how we pay attention more to some aspects of our experience than others. 

Thank you for that. I’m going to be continuing to explore, but let’s talk about your exploration. When you made this awareness that you’re like, “Wow, I am not really in the world a lot of times.” You set out to change this. It took you through so many interesting experiences and practices. Can you share with our listeners just a little bit about what you did?

Gretchen: Yeah. Well, there were sort of different categories of things that I tried. One thing I realized is that the more we know, the more we notice. And if I knew more, I would appreciate it more. Part of it was just learning about the five senses, which is just sort of on a scientific level, and that was fascinating. But then I also took a couple of courses. I went to Flavor University and learned a lot about the way things about flavor. 

I took two courses in perfume. I learned a lot about perfume, the sense of smell, and the sense of, and kind of how fragrances are built. Then sometimes, I would indulge in a splurge. A modest splurge, where I would buy something because it just because it delighted my sense. I bought a sense of really great markers, colored markers. Because I thought, they’re just like, it’s a way to play with color. It’s a way to hold color in your hands. 

One of the most ambitious exercises that I did was, I decided, I live within — I’m very, very, very fortunate — I live within walking distance of the Metropolitan Museum here in New York City. I thought I’m gonna go to the Metropolitan Museum every single day that it’s open. For a year, I wanted to do it for a year. But basically, I have not stopped since. That year is now been over for a while. If I’m in town, and the Met is open, I will go. 

 wanted to see how an experience of my senses would change over time. I go to the Met.  I think about what I’m seeing there, but also what I’m hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching. Because there are cafes in the Met, you can taste things there. Don’t lick a painting, but you can have a cup of coffee. I wanted to see how that experience changed over time. What would it be like to visit the Met if I went every single day? And it changed dramatically. 

By setting myself these exercises, it really helped me to dial into the senses. Some of them were creative exercises that allowed me to tap into my senses, but in a way that unleashed creativity. Like writing a five senses portrait of my husband, or making an album of now, where I took photographs of everything about my present. Because I don’t know about you, but when you think about the past, aren’t you more interested in what did my bedroom look like when I was 10 years old? 

Or what did the kitchen look like in my first house, rather than what did the Eiffel Tower look like when we went to France that time? I mean, it’s just the ordinary. It’s so easy to overlook the ordinary. And so I made an album of now. These were creative exercises. I did many things that were meant to make me draw closer to the people in my life because one of the most important things that we can do through the senses is to connect with other people. 

I did dining in the dark with my husband and my daughter, I took my mother-in-law on a taste tour of the Lower East Side because she grew up eating sort of traditional Jewish foods, and that’s the place in New York City where they’re famous for their traditional Jewish foods. I went on a tour with her, and she told me about what she remembered about growing up. That really made me much closer to my mother-in-law. 

I wrote a taste timeline about all the tastes of my past and then called my sister. We just laughed at everything we ate as kids, what we ate in our grandparents’ house, all that stuff. I sent myself a bunch of different sorts of exercises trying to take all these different approaches to enlivening the senses in my life.

Lisa: Yeah. I mean, just reading your descriptions, first of all, it sounds like you had a fantastic time doing it. By the way, it was so much fun to read. 

Gretchen: It was such a joy to write this book. Such a joy.

Lisa: To have the experiences, I don’t know, it was just a lot of fun. But can you also say a little bit more about what you noticed that was changing and transforming in terms of your own experience because of these exercises and really trying to cultivate your senses in this intentional way?

Gretchen: Well, it changed me so much. One of the ways that it changed me was- one of my main principles in life is I want to accept myself and expect more from myself. That can be hard to know when are you accepting yourself and when should you expect more from yourself? There were ways in which one thing that I’ve always sort of dissatisfied about myself is that I didn’t love music the way other people did. 

People listen to music all the time. They’re always listening to new music, they’re going to concerts, they play instruments, they read music reviews, and they’re just very engaged in music. Of course, music is this universal human cultural tradition. All human cultures have music, which is kind of funny because, from an evolutionary standpoint, there’s not agreement about exactly why people want music so much and love music so much, but it’s certainly true. 

And if this was something where I’m like, “Yeah, I’m just not so into music.” It was kind of, and I always thought, “Well, maybe if I just studied harder, maybe I should take a class or listen to the Great American Songbook or force myself. I tried to learn to play the ukulele a couple of years ago. I was talking to a friend of mine who knows a lot about music. And he was like, “Gretchen, you do love music, but in your own way.” 

And that made me stop and think for the first time. What is my way? Because when he said that, it’s absolutely true that there are certain songs that I love deeply. They give me a very, very powerful reaction that I’ve listened to hundreds of times, that I still cry every time I hear them, or whatever. So was it like I just was unmoved by music? But I realized I like music in a way that’s different from the way that many people like music. I like a song and other people like music. 

I might love a song by a particular artist, but it doesn’t make me want to go listen to more songs by that artist, go to a concert from that artist or like, or listen to all the music in that genre. I won’t listen to a bunch of new music just for fun. I just want to hear the songs that I already love. I can enjoy it that way. Once, I was sort of like, I have my own way of loving music, and that sort of allowed me to own that identity and think, “Well, I’m a song lover, not a music lover.” 

My way is right for me, just as your way might be right for you. There’s nothing wrong about my approach. There’s nothing that needs to be fixed. But once I recognized that, I was like, “Okay, well, given that’s true, what can I do to develop my love of music in that way?” So I was able to tap much more effectively into the way I love music because instead of having this sort of vague preconception of what I ought to be doing, I was really like, well, given what’s true about me, how do I do it? 

So I learned a lot about myself in sort of how to engage with what’s true for me, or like I mentioned, touch, it’s like now, I am like, well, I love to peel hard-boiled eggs. That’s one of my favorite kitchen chores, rather than sort of not even noticing because I was realizing what was true for me. This was related to something else that really surprised me, which is the degree to which we all live in our own sensory worlds. My world is not your world. 

Lisa: Yeah, fascinating. 

Gretchen: Even though we’re in the same room, we’re experiencing something different. The way that changed me is, first of all, it makes me much more empathetic toward people who are saying like, this doesn’t work for me. This is too much, this is draining, this is overwhelming. Now, I understand just because it’s fine for me doesn’t mean it’s fine for them. I can’t make any assumptions about that. 

Also, to understand that people really do have different experiences, and we can all learn from that, but we should be very aware of that. It’s funny because I guess I intellectually knew that we weren’t all experiencing the same sensations, but it surprised me over and over. You have a podcast.

Okay, tell me if you’ve experienced this. I was doing an interview, a podcast interview, and all of a sudden, the interviewer said, “Oh, stop, let’s wait.” I was like, “Why are we stopping?” She said, “Don’t you hear the siren?” Then all of a sudden, I’m like, “Oh, yeah, I hear the siren.” I live in New York City. My brain doesn’t tell me about a siren. I don’t need to know that, so my brain brings that way down. But to her, as the podcast recorder, she was very, very aware of all these sounds because that’s what her brain was alerting her to. 

Then she said, but in Los Angeles, people don’t hear helicopters because they hear helicopters all the time. Whereas in New York City, we don’t have helicopters fly overhead very much. I’m much more aware of helicopters. So different sensory worlds.

Lisa: Definitely. Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting, the degree to which we can notice different things. I was actually thinking about that a lot as I was reading your book. You just provided these really interesting, concrete examples. I had an early personal experience with us. I was a biology major. No, actually, this was actually in high school. I was such a nerd, card-carrying my whole life. 

I was in AP Biology in high school, and I had this really funny science teacher. She wanted to demonstrate this. It may have even been one of the taste experiments that you described having where there was a substance like, I think, dipped in litmus paper, that’s the way it was presented in my science class. I think it was related to one of the compounds that are in broccoli or something and that different people in this class would taste this paper. 

Some of them would have this, like, blaugh reaction, and I was basically just chewing on a piece of paper, like, what. What’s going on, because, like, I literally did not taste the same thing that they tasted. You provided a number of examples of that in your book with taste, also with smell.

Gretchen: Yeah. No, what you’re talking about is whether some people are supertasters and they actually will taste more. It’s funny because you might think a supertaster would actually love food and be a big foodie, but it’s actually often negative because you might eat and enjoy broccoli. But to somebody who’s a supertaster, they are tasting so much more bitter that to them, it doesn’t taste good. 

I have a friend who doesn’t like anything sweet. He’s like, it’s just too sweet. He can’t bear anything like birthday cake. Exactly, so we’re putting the same substance in our mouths, but we’re tasting something very, very different. Then, of course, it’s also affected by our culture and our upbringing. Our preferences are affected by the things that we’re used to eating even before we’re born. 

There’s all this fascinating research showing that if a mother eats carrots before the baby is born. When the baby is born, they will show a preference for things that have occurred flavor. So we’re being inundated with sensory information even before we come into the world, and these things will affect the way we experience sensation.

Lisa: Yeah, yeah, I just thought that was such an important point with many implications because, so by trade, I’m actually a marriage and family therapist. I can’t even tell you how many arguments I have attempted to mediate, where two people are having very different experiences of the same reality. They think that we can say, this objectively happened. I saw it. I heard it. I tasted it, and really did not understand that, literally, physically, somebody else is having a different experience, and that the things that we sort of feel to be true in concrete ways are very much subjective. 

Our experiences are unique. I think that there’s a certain almost humility that comes with that, like allowing other people’s experiences to be true and their own. I don’t know, just reading about this in your book, it made me think of it a different way. Because I think it can somehow be easier to discuss differences of thought, diversity of thought, as opposed to somebody’s experience of physical reality, but that’s really very different, too.

Gretchen: One way that this comes up with is I think a lot of times people are trying to argue who’s right and who’s wrong, instead of saying it’s a matter of preference. So if my husband is like, well, I like to have music playing when I’m home, so I’m going to turn on the music, and I’m like, I don’t like having music playing because I don’t like having background noise. He might show me research showing, oh, if you listen to background music, I’m just making this up. 

There’s probably some research about this. Yeah. Oh, it boosts creativity. It’s energy. It’s this is that. Then I’m like, okay, here’s my research paper that says no, this, that. The other thing is like, it’s sort of like, well, you have one preference, and I have another preference. So then it’s a matter of like, well, how do we live together comfortably in the same space rather than trying to argue about who’s right and who’s wrong, because there is no right or wrong. 

For some people, they love having music playing all the time. For me, I will walk in, and without even noticing that I’m doing it, I will start to turn off things that make noise. I don’t like having background noise. But people get into a lot of arguments about that for sure.

Lisa: I was also so struck by how your journey into sensory experience really strengthened your relationships. I remember there was one point that I just thought was so poignant, and you were talking about how you’re being in the present moment, like, literally looking at your husband, which is so easy to not do. I mean, I’ve been married for a long time. Who is that guy, right? 

But just really like being in the moment with him, seeing him, hearing him, smelling him, and that this thought came to you, which was the day may come, when I’ll think I would give anything to look at him again, the way that I’m looking at him right now. Just this recognition that our time here is short, and that these small moments that we’re taking for granted are all so precious, that I think can only be really appreciated if you have lost someone who is precious to you.

Gretchen: It’s funny how it’s part of human nature, where it’s very easy to take things for granted, and it’s often when we’re faced with loss that we appreciate. I think one thing to do is like, are there ways that you can try to encourage or discipline yourself to appreciate something before you’ve lost it, and not wait until that moment comes? So I think that’s what happened to me, is that sort of the shock of awareness that I could lose something very precious to me made me realize, like I don’t want to waste another minute. 

Certainly with my husband, what’s ordinary is the easiest to overlook. I think I just see him all the time. So why would I look at him? But then when I started really looking at him, I noticed a lot of things that I hadn’t seen before. So I do think it’s really valuable to remind ourselves to see what’s happening right in front of our eyes.

Lisa: Yeah. Well, the relationship between your senses, your memory, and life experiences, I thought that was fascinating.

Gretchen: Well, I’m a person who doesn’t remember things well. Some people have sort of an encyclopedic memory of everything. I feel like I don’t remember things nearly as well as I wish I did. So I’m always looking for ways to dredge up memories or hang on to memories. I’m constantly trying to figure out what things I can do to help myself have a richer sense of memory. 

What I found is that the senses, they really powerfully help us connect with the past. What is really fun about it is there are a lot of memories that I had that were right there. They were right there when I reached for them, but you just don’t reach for that particular index card. You’re not thinking about, well, what did the locker room of my gym smell like when I was in fifth grade? Then when you start thinking back, like, oh, I absolutely remember that, and it all comes flooding back

So it really was very exciting that by constantly stimulating my five senses and tuning into them, I was able to connect with a lot of memories that I forgot that I remembered. We’ve all experienced that. I think especially with the smell. There’s sometimes like a shock of memory coming back. You walk by a construction site and all of a sudden you think about summer camp, and it’s very exciting and out of nowhere because you didn’t expect that to happen. 

But all of our senses. One of the things that I did that I really loved was it somehow occurred to me because I was thinking about my grandparent’s house. Both my grandparents have died many years ago, so I haven’t been in their house in a long time. Somehow it occurred to me that while their house sold, maybe there are pictures online of when the house was for sale.

I went online and Google maps. I could look at the outside of the house, and there was just like I remember it’s so fun to see it. The petunias were still in the flower box, the way my grandmother always had them. Then there were actually pictures on the inside. It was empty. Of course, their furniture was gone. But just walking through those rooms, the picture of those rooms, I was like, oh, I forgot about the knobs on the drawers had kind of this Western feel to them that I loved as a child. 

I completely forgot about that, but the minute I saw them, I absolutely remembered them and I remembered how I’d respond to them as a seven-year-old. It all came right back. So it is exciting to feel this connection to memories and to the past. Of course, it reminded me of my grandparents. 

Seeing the patio reminded me of my grandfather and how he would grill hot dogs and how he got food poisoning one time, and the joke he would always make. It all came right back. It was all there. I just had to find a way to retrieve it. 

Lisa: Yeah. Wow. Gretchen, as you’re talking, I’m flooded with memories right now. It’s amazing. So I am a proud first-generation Belgian-American. I eat a lot of mayonnaise. Anyways, but my grandmother in her house, she had these, it was an old house with these like, crystal. They weren’t glass. Well, maybe they were glass, actually. It was old enough, like the crystal doorknobs, and like just seeing the radiator. 

Oh my gosh, but it’s so crazy, because like I am plagued with the same affliction, and I think it’s probably because I frequently am preoccupied. I’m thinking about things like what am I going to talk to Gretchen Rubin about tomorrow like that whole thing. 

Gretchen: Yes, yes.

Lisa: What we know is that the way that your brain encodes both short and long-term memory requires you to be absorbing sensory information to create a memory in the first place. Just when you were talking about your childhood memories, I, too, have such clear memory, not that I thought about them for a while, but it’s like being four years old, and being much more like in the physical world in some ways. 

I feel now it’s like little children are sensory creatures. Do you know what I mean? Like, the power of those early memories, I just wonder if there’s a connection there.

Gretchen: Well, and there’s something called the reminiscence bump, which is that, and I’m trying to remember what the age is, I think it’s 15 to 23, is the period in our lives that people tend to remember the best. So there are periods of our lives where we actually do tend to remember things more clearly. I think you’re right, there’s the sensations of childhood. If you think of something like paste, like the glue that’s in the paste form, instead of the liquid form that always like I can just even conjure it up in my mind, and it takes me back. 

But one of the things that was fun about doing like the taste timeline, and obviously you could do this with smell, or hearing or any of your senses, you could do a timeline where you think about what are the associations with that time. That really does help bring that time back. It’s sort of a way to allow your mind to search through memories in a way that’s very vivid. There’s this wonderful website called The Nostalgia Machine that listeners might like to check out. 

What it does is it’s organized by year, and it has what the top songs were for that year. So you can just click on it, and listen to the song. So if you could pick the year you graduated from high school or like the year you got married or whatever year is important to you, and just listen to a bunch of the songs. It’s hilarious how much you’re right back in the car with your friends, or whatever you were doing at the time, because of the songs. 

I think people are aware that a song is often very closely associated with memory. So we really can tap into all these, but maybe one person only uses hearing, but then there’s like, oh, well, let me think about tastes and how I could use that to bring back memories. What I like about a lot of these exercises is you have to think but then you can create the timeline or the like a five senses portrait of someone else. 

It’s not that hard to actually do, and you feel really excited by the process. But you’re not writing page after page after page or creating something that’s arduous in itself. It feels creative and productive, but it’s not onerous.

Lisa: Yeah, it could be fun. Well, so there’s, I think, a lot of value, what you’re describing, in using your senses to almost have like an anchor to previous chapters of life and in previous memories, because as a therapist, I there are limits to how much time it is useful to spend in the past. I think it’s also helpful to be in our present and to be thinking about our future. I think to really understand ourselves and gain insight into the experiences that shaped us is very important just in developing self awareness and also self compassion. 

I love what you’re saying about using your five senses deliberately to help make that practice of understanding yourself and kind of connecting the dots of your own life experience more powerful in some ways. It’s really helpful.

Gretchen: I think that knowing ourselves is- you think what’s easier than knowing myself? I just hang out with myself all day long. And yet it’s one of the great challenges of our lives, is to know ourselves and to have perspective on ourselves. So I think yet thinking about the senses was a real really interesting way to try to gain insight into my own nature.

Lisa: Yeah, for sure. Well, and there were so many interesting things in your book. I felt like I was being kind of lobbed with thought bombs, Gretchen. There are so many things that I, well, either I didn’t know or I had never thought of before. Like the fact that Andy Warhol intentionally wore a specific perfume for a few months and then stopped in order to capture the memories of this specific moment in his life.

Gretchen: Isn’t that fascinating? I am very preoccupied with Andy Warhol’s writing. I don’t really like his visual art very much, but he was the most extraordinary thinker. So I’ve read so many of his interviews and his writings. In fact, he has a quotation that is the epigraph to the book, which is, “Nobody really looks at anything. It’s too hard.” I’ve thought about that so many times, but he was very intentional and how he used his senses. 

He was buried. The story is that he was buried with a bottle of perfume. Yeah, so he had an extraordinary relationship to all his senses.

Lisa: I wonder which perfume he chose to be buried with. 

Gretchen: Well, I think I should know that. Do you want me to take a second? I think I could look that up. 

Lisa: Oh, no, I was thinking like, what layer of his life was ultimately the most important to him? Would there be a clue to that that would be connected to that scent? I’m logically curious. I can’t stop myself. 

Gretchen: Kind of a rose bud. What was this, rose bud. Now, I think I’m not sure it may be an apocryphal story, but I think that’s actually knowable what was allegedly buried with him, but I do not remember the name of the perfume.

Lisa: Okay, well, research project. Okay. Well, I also love how you talk in your book about some really just practical strategies that I think we could all use to more intentionally develop our senses. One of the ones you described that I think I’m putting into practice starting today was this idea of a sensory journal. Can you tell us a little bit about that practice and what it did for you?

Gretchen: Well, it goes back to this idea that you were talking about before about being preoccupied and not appreciating the moment and having it happen without really being intentional about what we’re experiencing. So I started a five senses journal. So each day, it’s seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching, and I would just write down one remarkable moment. So it could be good, it could be bad, something I noticed. 

So I was downtown here in New York City, and church bells rang out, and I was like, that’s interesting. I didn’t know there was a place in New York City where, like, the hour rang with church bells. So that was hearing. What it did is it helped me pay attention, because I was always sort of on the lookout for what’s sort of a noticeable or remarkable sensation that I’m experiencing, but also what it really turned into was a kind of gratitude journal. 

I have tried to keep gratitude journals in the past, and like all the happiness experts recommend this. It’s absolutely true that gratitude is an essential element of a happy life. I absolutely believe that. But keeping gratitude journals always kind of bugged me. I did not find that to be a useful strategy. But this I liked, and it really turned into a gratitude journal. It’s gratitude for the world around us, for nature, for creations, like a wonderful perfume, and it really enlivened things. 

It’s fun kind of as a journal too, because you flip back and you’re like, oh, well, when I was on vacation, I was having this extremely different sensory experience, or oh, it’s fun to see six months ago, it was 50 degrees hotter than it is today because we were in a totally different season, or whatever it is. It is just an interesting way to record the experience of life.

Lisa: Yeah. I was thinking about that too. Because to notice, really, is to appreciate, and that there are just so many things that it is easy not to notice or appreciate. I think that what struck me the most about this idea of the sensory journal is that it’s really cultivating an appreciation and gratitude for the very mundane things that you would otherwise not notice, and just this recognition that all of our lives are, in fact, like overflowing with these things that are.

Gretchen: Yeah, absolutely. Because you might think, Oh, I’m going to go to this wonderful, famous restaurant, and so I’m going to really, really pay attention to my senses, and maybe I’ll write my journal about what I experienced. But really, I think these kind of peak experiences are sort of like an almost touristy experience where you’re sort of there for a visit, but it’s not where you live. 

In the end, I think that they’re less meaningful than just sort of the ordinary experiences, the elevation of the ordinary day, and the ordinary experience. To me, in the end, it’s more interesting and richer, which is what I see in the shop window when I pass by. How do I look at that the way I would look at something in the Metropolitan Museum?

Lisa: Yeah. Well, the connection to art in some ways. As you’re talking, I was thinking about the work of some photographers that I appreciate the most, and I think it is their ability to help us see this beauty in these moments, thinking that, like Saul Leiter, just capturing the the way light is kind of shining on the ground after a rainstorm and how beautiful it is. But those are exactly the moments that are accessible to us if we just turn that on intentionally.

Gretchen: Yes, it’s all right there. Yes.

Lisa: Yeah. Just a couple more things I wanted to get your perspective on. So one of the things, too, that I was thinking about as I was reading your book, and this is putting my therapist hat on here. I often talk to many people who struggle with anxiety, and I think that’s just such a common experience. But anxiety in many ways, really being preoccupied with potential problems in the future. 

Your mind is going out into the future to think about what could happen, or maybe going into the past, worried about what did happen, but it’s really the opposite of being present and connected to your physical reality. I wondered if you experienced any of that in yourself through this experiment. I mean, I don’t know if you are personally prone to anxiety. I know I am. 

But do you feel like it helped with your inner experience of just wellness or calm or inner peace when you were more connected to the world?

Gretchen: Absolutely. I think that’s true of all the senses. The one that was interesting to me was the sense of touch, and I think there’s a lot of awareness now of how touch can help with anxiety, whether that’s like using a fidget spinner, or pop toy, or therapeutic dough, things like that, that are sort of specifically for anxiety, restlessness, focus. Those are very nice to use. Also, just human touch, appropriate human touch itself, is calming. 

This is why getting a hug from somebody you love calms you down, or if you’re feeling upset, pulling a dog onto your lap and petting their fur is very calming. One of the things that surprised me is, so I had read this celebrity memoir by Andrew McCarthy, and he was describing how when he had to do a really big scene, he was very nervous about whether he would be able to perform at that level. 

At the last minute, he added a set of bongos, played them during the scene, and talked about how having a prop helped to unleash the performance he wanted because it grounded him and sort of gave him a focus. It’s funny because I started asking around, and this is something that many people do in ordinary life. They have a prop. So I realized that this was something that I had done to manage anxiety, but without even consciously knowing it. 

I only realized it kind of looking back that I hold a pen in my hand, and maybe you’re the same. We sound like we are cut from the same cloth. I find myself holding a pen in situations where I don’t need to hold a pen. I don’t even have any paper. Why am I holding a pen? I’m at a cocktail party or behind a stage getting ready to give a big talk, and I’ll have a pen in my hand. It just makes me feel grounded. 

It makes me feel calmer to have a pen in my hand. Then I’ve talked to people who are like, teachers, when they’re teaching, will hold on to a mug of coffee, or somebody will hold on to a clipboard. Or I was talking to a photographer who had to take photos of people in the wine industry. They were often very uneasy about having their pictures taken, so he’d give them a wineglass or a wine bottle or a basket or whatever would be appropriate. 

He said that helped them like calm down and like have their picture taken. Somebody else was saying that when she felt like people were going to be looking at her, like if she had to present, she’d get very hot and sort of feel like she was floating outside her body. So she would hold a water bottle filled with ice water, and that made her feel very grounded and kind of in her body. 

I think it’s just that having something in our hands, even if it’s not something explicitly like, “this is meant to relieve anxiety” like a fidget toy. Even something sort of an ordinary prop can be helpful. Holding on to like a stone, or there’s something about hanging on to something. I think this might be one way that people don’t let go of their phones. I think for some people, just like having it in their hand.

Lisa: Security object

Gretchen: Yeah, it’s a comfort object, and it’s not even so much that it is the phone, but it’s a familiar object that’s the right weight. They hold it. You hold it in your hand, and it just makes you feel more grounded to have it. So it’s nice to know about something like this because then you can think about using it consciously as a tool. So now that I know this about a pen, I always make sure I have a pen. 

I don’t unconsciously reach for one, but I’m like the two-year-old with the lovey. You don’t get in the car without the little stuffed dinosaur, and I don’t walk around in a lot of places, unless I have a pen in my pocket to grab if I need it.

Lisa: That’s awesome. But I love that, and that was actually another takeaway from the book that it sounds like your exploration of your senses really helped you gain some new and important self-awarenesses. I’m sure that this is very different for different people, but like recognizing what kinds of sensory experiences energized you and which ones would soothe you. 

Then with that knowledge, be able to deliberately employ those things in order to manage your mood, manage your energy levels.

Gretchen: Yeah, absolutely. One of the quickest, easiest ways, people can intervene in mood is through music. So now, I created an audio apothecary of the songs that would, because I talked about I’m a song lover, but a lot of the songs that I love kind of put me in a melancholy, thoughtful mood, which I enjoy sometimes. But then sometimes, you want to, like bring up your energy and your cheer, so I made a separate playlist for that, so that if I wanted to intervene in my mood that way. 

Something wonderful that I learned that has, because I am a sleep zealot, I really, really believe in the power of sleep, and I need a lot of sleep myself. What I found is that I have a couple podcasts that I listened to, I highly recommend in our time, for instance, the BBC podcasts. Where if I can’t sleep, I will listen to that podcast, and I’ll turn it to like 30 minutes, so it will turn off after 30 minutes so it doesn’t run through the night.

But what I find is if you’re a person who has kind of racing thoughts or like who will start kind of like thinking about something that keeps you awake, like rewriting a paragraph or like thinking about okay, well, what am I going to put in that article, and I start thinking, and your thinking wakes you up. I’m like, I don’t want to be awake in the middle of the night. 

So listening to a podcast is enough to hold my attention so that I’m not woken up by my own thoughts, but it’s not so engaging and suspenseful that I’m on the edge of my, you know, on the edge of the bed waiting to hear what comes next. Of course, I know if I fall asleep, I can listen. I just rewind it. What I find is that I go to sleep far faster when I actually take the trouble to start a podcast than if I just lie there. 

I’ve been astonished by how effective this is. Of course, some pockets like Sleep with Me are sleep podcasts. I find those so boring that then I start thinking about my own thoughts again. I need something that I’m actually listening to. 

Lisa: Yeah. 

Gretchen: Then I drift off. So again, it’s these little things we’re like, what that’s such a big deal, and it’s not hard, and it’s not subtle, but I didn’t notice it. I wasn’t using it consciously as a tool to make my life better.

Lisa: Exactly. I do exactly the same thing with falling asleep.

Gretchen: Do you?

Lisa: I do. I do. It’s so funny. But I love what you said, like just recognizing what helps you and then being able to do it. So, just another thing that just struck me so much, and I think, maybe we can even kind of end with this idea, is that throughout the book, you mentioned a number of times the fact that our senses fade with age. Our hearing fades, taste, and smell. 

I was recently in Abiquiú, New Mexico, and went to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, which was so fun, but I didn’t even realize this, is that even she went blind towards the end of her life. You talk about touch certainly being the first reality, and I think our final reality. 

But just this recognition that our senses can and typically will fade over time somehow made all of these experiences that are so easy to overlook seem that much more precious and kind of felt like a full circle, back to the original story, like having pinkeye and talking with your doctor about like, you know you might not be able to see at some point in your life. There was just something about that recognition that made me feel more motivated to be here now. Was that your takeaway?

Gretchen: Absolutely. Of course, you can have a happy fulfilling life if you lose your senses. 

Lisa: Yes, absolutely. 

Gretchen: But you don’t want to look back with regret and think, well, why didn’t I visit the desert when I had the chance? Why didn’t I look around me when I had the chance? Why didn’t I take advantage of the opportunities, right? In fact, at that point, I think sometimes it’s thinking about possible loss that helps us to appreciate what we have. So I think that recognition, it’s true, and it’s also something that can help us to be more mindful in the present.

Lisa: Yeah. Yeah. Well, this has been such a wonderful conversation. Again, I loved your book so much. I would encourage everyone to read it. It was interesting. It is also helpful and really inspiring. There was actually one passage at the end that I thought was so beautiful. Would you mind if I took a moment to just share this with our listeners? 

Gretchen: Oh sure. I’m so curious about what you chose. No, I would love to hear that.

Lisa: Well, it was actually about the orange traffic cone. The orange traffic cone. You wrote about being on a walk with your dog, and how you happen to glance at this orange traffic cone. I mean, we all see them all the time, right? But there was this moment where you really saw it. So you said this was an orange shape glowing against the gray-blue of the asphalt as if lit from within. 

Then you go on to say that once in a while, in the midst of an ordinary day, an object or an action will take on this transcendent meaning. Can you tell us more about what that experience was like for you?

Gretchen: It’s hard to put it into words because really, it is true that in my life, there have been a handful of times where I truly felt like divine forces had come busting down out of the sky, and had somehow become embodied. I’ve been in conversations where I just felt like the air shock. What’s funny is, it’s a long another story. But I was in conversation with two other people, and then like years later, I was like, do you remember that really short, forgettable conversation? 

They were both like, oh, I 100% remember it because it was so startling. The thing about this cone, it was just like, all of a sudden, I felt like I was outside of the cave and seeing some kind of platonic ideal of form, but in a joyful way, not in a serious way. But it just kind of like the joyful embodiment of geometry or creation. Because a cone feels manmade, but it also feels natural, like sea glass, and the colors, it just was glowing. 

The combination was like nothing I’d ever seen. It was as beautiful as a Japanese kimono. Then it passed. The moment kind of sprang into my awareness, and then everything became ordinary again. It was a beautiful moment. It was definitely one of the most meaningful moments in my life, and all I was doing was standing on a street corner looking at a traffic cone, but I will never forget it.

Lisa: Thank you so much for sharing that with us. I think it’s just this, I love how empowering the idea is, how accessible it is, because these- all of these things are all around us all the time. But it is just tuning into it, and really just being in the world and seeing and appreciating the beauty and just the joy that comes with it is available to all of us. Your book is just such an inspiring reminder to be here, to notice, to see, and to experience that.

Gretchen: Well, thank you so much. I think you’re like my ideal reader because that’s exactly what I wanted to communicate. As a writer, you always think, uh, well, am I communicating? It sounds like, yeah, you sound like you got from the book what I really wanted to convey. You’ve made me very happy that you’re such a reader.

Lisa: Well, thank you so much. I enjoyed the book, and thank you for coming in and sharing your experiences and your book with our listeners today. So for people who would like to learn more about you and your work and buy this amazing book, how would they do that?

Gretchen: Well, if you go to my website,, you can find like it’s a whole hub of- you can read articles that I’ve written. You can read up about my books and preorder it or order it, and learn more about it, my Four Tendencies personality framework quiz that a lot of people really love. You can find that on the website. I also have a podcast myself, Happier With Gretchen Rubin, where every week with my sister Elizabeth Craft, who’s a Hollywood showrunner. 

We talk about ideas about how to be happier, healthier, more productive, and more creative in our own lives. I have a weekly newsletter, Five Things Making Me Happy, which is exactly that, where I write about five things making me happy. I’m all over social media @GretchenRubin. I love to engage with people with insights and observations and questions and resources. We can all learn from each other, so I love it when people get in touch.

Lisa: Excellent. Well, I will be sure to follow and subscribe to your newsletter. Gretchen, this was just wonderful. So thank you again so much for taking the time to speak with us today. This was great. 

Gretchen: Thank you. 

Lisa: Wow, fantastic conversation. Fantastic book. I hope that you guys got as much out of it as I did. I thought that was fantastic talking with Gretchen. Thanks for listening. It’s always such a pleasure to be here with you. As I was reading this book and sort of reflecting on my own favorite experiences, one of them is coming and talking to you and making podcasts for you. I get such genuine pleasure out of doing this with you and for you, so keep in touch with me if there are things that you want to hear about, questions that you have, comments, or reactions. We’re co-creating this together, so I’d love to hear all about it. You can get in touch with me at, track me down on Instagram @DrLisaMarieBobby. But either way, I’ll be back in touch soon with another episode, and in the meantime, please enjoy more Brian Eno. I invite you to have your own sensory experience through sound and check out more of his work, at

Therapy Questions, Answered.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *