Gretchen Rubin and Susan Cain on the power of five senses

Gretchen Rubin and Susan Cain on the power of five senses

by Suswati Basu
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Gretchen Rubin in conversation with Susan Cain

In a captivating conversation between Gretchen Rubin, host of “The Happier with Gretchen Rubin” podcast, and Susan Cain, renowned writer and author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” the topic of the five senses, introversion, extroversion, and the pursuit of joy is explored. As two individuals with a deep appreciation for the intricacies of human experiences, they delve into the significance of sensory stimulation and its impact on happiness, productivity, and creativity.

Harnessing the Five Senses

Rubin initiates the conversation by emphasising the importance of tapping into the five senses to enhance productivity and creativity. She highlights Cain’s recent newsletter Kindred Letters, where she describes the joy of sitting in an outdoor café, sipping coffee, writing, and people-watching—a true five senses experience. She shares that she intentionally reserves these sensory pleasures for her work, making it a daily pleasure that ignites her productivity. They discuss how individuals thrive in different sensory environments and the importance of recognising one’s personal preferences to create an optimal workspace.

She says: “People talk all the time about writing being this incredibly difficult or act of drudgery, and I have never experienced it that way, because from the very beginning, I did all my writing in lovely cafes. And so, for me, I started where the writing was kind of an excuse to sit around in cafes, which are my favourite sensory experiences of the people, and the sunny window.”

Neglected Senses and Sensory Rituals

Rubin introduces the concept of neglected senses and explains the benefits of identifying one’s own neglected sense. Cain, who is also the author of Bittersweet, reflects on her neglected sense, which was the sense of smell until she discovered the joy of scented candles. She emphasises the importance of authenticity in finding pleasure and explains how her sensory rituals, such as lighting a candle and savouring chocolate and coffee, enhance her work environment. They discuss the role of rituals in association with work and the profound impact of sensory experiences on productivity and creativity.

The Connection between Introversion and Silence

As the conversation shifts to introversion and silence, Cain sheds light on the association between introverts and quieter environments. She explains that introverts are drawn to places with less stimulation, both sensory and social, as they tend to thrive in environments with fewer inputs. However, they acknowledge the need for individual variations and the importance of recognising one’s own preferences. Cain describes her love for sitting in a quiet church and how it provides her with a sense of peace and solitude.

Recognising and Meeting Individual Needs

Rubin highlights the significance of recognising the diverse needs of individuals in the workplace. She emphasises the danger of assuming that what works for one person will work for everyone, using the example of open office plans. Cain adds that understanding our own cravings for stimulation and solitude is crucial for maintaining productivity and well-being. They encourage individuals to be aware of their personal responses to different sensory environments and adjust accordingly.

Finding Joy and Reframing Perspectives

The conversation delves into the importance of joy and reframing perspectives. Cain expresses her belief that all productivity, especially creativity, should happen in conditions of joy. Rubin shares her insights on using sensory pleasures to enhance even the most challenging tasks. They discuss the power of associations and the ability to reframe tasks as opportunities for indulgence and pleasure, rather than chores.

The Journey of Writing and Sensory Pleasures

Rubin shares her experience of writing “The Life in Five Senses” and the journey of designing its cover. She emphasiess the importance of aesthetics and sensory appeal, highlighting how the cover’s texture and design were carefully crafted to evoke the senses. She said: “One of the things I found in writing Life in Five Senses is, like, people really thrive on different sensory environments. And when it comes to productivity and focus, some people like total silence. Some people like a busy. Like, clearly, that’s you.”

“One of the things I found in writing Life in Five Senses is, like, people really thrive on different sensory environments”

Gretchen Rubin

Rubin’s attention to detail is evident in her inclusion of hidden icons within the book’s cover, representing each of the five senses. This playful addition adds an element of joy and discovery for readers.


In this thought-provoking conversation, Gretchen Rubin and Susan Cain explore the profound impact of sensory stimulation on happiness, productivity, and creativity. They emphasise the significance of recognising and honouring individual preferences, harnessing neglected senses, and finding joy in everyday experiences. By tapping into the power of the five senses, individuals can create environments that nourish their well-being and unleash their full potential in all aspects of life. Listen to the episode about Susan Cain’s book Quiet.

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