Tag Archives: scent

Embrace Good Smells. In a Museum.

One of my very favorite resolutions is my resolution to Cultivate good smells. I’m obsessed with the delights of the sense of smell.

Loving beautiful fragrances quickly leads to a greater appreciation of perfume, and I’m now a perfume fanatic.

So you can imagine my delight at visiting the Museum of Arts and Design’s exhibit, The Art of Scent 1889-2012. The exhibit present twelve pivotal fragrances in history of scent.

I visited it for the second time last night, and had the chance to hear the brilliant Chandler Burr, organizer of the exhibit, explain why these particular perfumes were chosen. Jicky, Chanel No. 5, Drakkar Noir, Angel, Light Blue, L’Eau D’Issey, Osmanthe Yunnan, Untitled…such intriguing scents.

You might think, “How do you exhibit a perfume?” The room is spare, with a wood floor and white walls. Along the walls are twelve depressions; you lean your head into a depression, and a puff of perfume rises up.

It was such a pleasure to experience these perfumes in a beautiful place, and to learn about them and their histories. It also reminded me (though I don’t really need reminding) to appreciate the fragrances of my ordinary day, as well: the smell of vanilla, cinnamon, clean laundry, hardware store, baby lotion, my husband’s shampoo, rainstorm, flower shop.

What are some of your favorite smells from your ordinary day? Or favorite perfume or cologne?

Why I’m Sometimes Tempted to Fight My New Passion–And Why I’m Embracing It, Instead.

Assay: For the last month or so, I’ve been possessed with a passionate interest in the sense of smell. I follow the resolution to Cultivate good smells, I’ve read lots of books, I’ve started disciplining myself to be more aware of the smells that I encounter in my day, I’ve been eliminating sources of bad smell in my home (a very worthwhile endeavor, by the way), and I’ve also become interested in perfume.

I’ve never had much interest in perfume, but suddenly I am, because so much of the energy and writing around the subject of smell is related to perfume.

I’m newly fascinated by perfume, but I’m also fascinated by my own process of becoming fascinated. As Virginia Woolf noted in her Diary: “I must remember to write about my clothes next time I have an impulse to write. My love of clothes interests me profoundly: only it is not love, & what it is I must discover.”

Because of the happiness project, I spend a lot of time asking, “What elements are necessary for a happy life?” I’ve become convinced that one of the greatest supports to a person’s happiness is passion – whether for musical theater, video games, constitutional history, camping, stamps, shoe-shopping, teaching English as a second language, or whatever.

Now, it might seem that some passions are “better” than others – they help other people, or they’re of a “higher” nature, or they’re more healthy or wholesome. Maybe. But any passion is a great boon to happiness.

A passion gives you a reason to keep learning and to work toward mastery. It can often give you a reason to have the new experiences so key to happiness. It gives you something in common with other people, and so fosters social bonds. It gives you purpose. It often has a satisfying physical aspect—rock-climbing, fly-fishing, knitting, smelling. It gives meaningful structure to your time. It makes the world a richer place. When you’re in pain, it can be a refuge, a distraction, a solace.

So now, when I feel a flicker of interest, I pursue it. I used to fight these impulses, because I thought they were distractions from my “real” work, but now I know what joy they can bring.

So I let myself go. I’m swamped with work right now, but I reckon I’ve read more than a dozen books about the sense of smell and perfume in the last few weeks. I’ve dog-eared my copy of Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez’s Perfumes: The A-Z Guide. I’ve made special trips to wonderful stores (very unusual for me, an inveterate under-buyer) like CB I Hate Perfume and Frederic Malle, and there are more places I want to go. I’ve spent way too much time on sites like Now Smell This and Michael Edwards’s Fragrances of the World. I’ve ordered so many samples from Perfumed Court—really, a lot. In a short time, although I’m no expert of course, I’ve become knowledgeable enough that when I was reading a particular book (I won’t name the title), I thought, gosh, isn’t this full of factual errors? I looked at online reviews and, indeed, reviewers had noted the many mistakes. I felt so pleased with myself!

But yet again, I find myself battling the same foolish impulses:

— my impulse to convince myself that I like what I “ought” to like: “Of course I love L’Heure Bleue. Everyone loves L’Heure Bleue.”

– my desire to be very grown-up: “Is it babyish of me to love soliflore perfumes so much? shouldn’t I prefer more complex scents?” (A soliflore is a fragrance that captures the scent of a single flower, like rose or lily of the valley.)

– should I squelch my interest in smell because it’s embarrassingly primal and therefore awkward to talk about?

–should I squelch my interest in perfume because it makes me seem materialistic?

–would it be cooler not to be interested in perfume, because so many people now make a point of not wearing it, or at least cooler to insist on a perfume that doesn’t use any synthetic ingredients? (Even though in my heart I embrace the use of synthetics. Bring it on! More smells!)

–isn’t it kind of goofy to be so enthusiastic about this? Shouldn’t I be less easy to please? Or least, shouldn’t my interests be more…original?

–is perfume a subject worthy of my precious attention, time, energy, and money?

–when I find a perfume I love, shouldn’t I save it for special occasions? (otherwise known as the spend out problem).

–on the other hand, is it wasteful to acquire “smells” that can’t be used as perfume? Like CB I Hate Perfume’s Black March. Gorgeous, but what can I do with it?

Over and over, I remind myself of my first personal commandment: Be Gretchen. Follow my interest as far as it leads. Stay true to what I actually love, not what I think I “ought” to love or what others tell me is “better.” Allow myself to be swept away by enthusiasm, and in a way that lifts up other people, rather than trying to maintain my dignity. Imitate the spiritual master and patron saint of enthusiasts, Julia Child.

It’s a Secret of Adulthood: I can choose what I do, but I can’t choose what I like to do. I can decide not to pursue my interest in perfume, but I can’t make myself develop an interest in chess. One of the sadnesses of a happiness project is recognizing my limitations, the truth about who I really am. But it doesn’t matter who I wish I were. I am Gretchen.

And the thing is, every time I keep my resolution to “Be Gretchen,” I find my life enlarged, my pleasures deepened, my knowledge expanded, my ties to other people strengthened. Ah, the smell of Lys Mediterranee! How happy that beautiful fragrance makes me. How sad it would have been if I’d missed the chance to discover it.

* If you love to read, be sure to check out Slightly Foxed, “the real reader’s quarterly.” It’s a delightful quarterly magazine filled with book essays — not reviews of recent books, but writing about books beloved by the writers. I never read an issue without making several terrific discoveries. Also, it’s a great gift for a book-lover, if you’re not sure what books to buy — that’s how I found it.

* Sometimes people ask me to contribute a copy of The Happiness Project for auctions or benefits for non-profit organizations, and I’m very happy to do that. Just email me at gretchenrubin1 at gmail dot com.

Ever Had Such an Intense Interest in a Subject That Learning Was Easy?

As I’ve noted here before, I’ve recently become obsessed with the sense of smell — which has been an interesting experience, for several reasons.

One reason: this obsession has reminded me about the nature of learning. I’ve been struck by how much I’ve learned in the last few weeks. I went from knowing almost nothing about the scent of smell to knowing…well, quite a bit more. And without any effort, any drilling, any assignments on my part. Quite the contrary. I’m gulping down books, jumping around websites, eager to learn more, more, more.

The same thing happened when I was working on my Churchill biography. In college, I’d taken classes that covered World War II, and I had to force myself to do the reading, and I struggled to memorize the facts. But through the lens of my limitless fascination with Churchill, I couldn’t get enough of these materials, and I remembered facts easily.

And what’s strange — for me, at least — is that this interest clicks in so suddenly. Two months ago, if you’d handed me Chandler Burr’s The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York, I would have been only mildly interested. But last week, I was racing to the library to get it off the shelves. Same thing with Churchill. I went from mild interest to wild curiosity in the space of an hour. I remember that hour very well.

The desire to learn strikes me as quite significant. Sheer curiosity! It’s so powerful. When researchers tried to identify the factors that allowed third and fourth graders to recall their reading, it turned out that the students’ level of interest in the material was very important — thirty times more important than how “readable” the material was.

I was talking about this aspect of learning with a friend, and she said, “So you’re saying, being motivated to learn makes the learning process easier.”

“No!” I answered. “There have been plenty of times when I’ve been motivated to learn, but I didn’t desire to learn.” Law school, say. I was highly motivated to learn, but I had to make myself learn the material. And I saw people around me who loved the material, who learned effortlessly.

In the past, I might have fought against my interest in the sense of smell, out of a belief that it was unproductive to spend so much time and energy on it. Now, however, I let myself follow such interests as far as they lead — and these passions give me great happiness. Happiness from my interest in the subject, and also from the happiness that comes from the atmosphere of growth created by gaining knowledge.

I started asking my friends, “Do you have an area of weird, crazy knowledge? Where you know far more than most people, without making a special effort to study? A limitless curiosity about a particular subject?” A surprising number of people answer “Yes.” How about you? Do you have an area where you have an intense desire to learn? And that subject could be anything — baseball statistics, song lyrics, anything.

*This subject makes me want to pull Johnson’s Life of Samuel Johnson off the shelf, because I keep being reminded of passages that I know I shouldn’t quote at length here — so the next best thing is to re-read them all.

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Cultivate Your Passions.

Many of my happiness-project resolutions are meant to help me keep my vision wide. To counteract my impulse to work all the time, I push myself, with moderate success, to follow resolutions like Force myself to wander, Take time for projects, Read at whim, and Take notes without a purpose.

And my most important resolution, of course, is to Be Gretchen.

These resolutions have dramatically changed the way I react when I develop – as I sometimes do — unusual interest in a new subject. Nowadays, I allow myself to follow a new passion as far as I want.

Sometimes, it’s true, I’m lucky enough to have been able to turn these passions into my work. When I became obsessed with Winston Churchill, I wrote a book about Churchill. What a joy it was to write that book! My preoccupation with St. Therese ended up playing an important role in The Happiness Project.

In fact, quite often, my inexplicable passions end up having a profound effect on my work. But I no longer worry about whether they’ll be useful in that way, or not. I just let myself go.

That’s because, a few years ago, it finally dawned on that I didn’t have so many passions that I could drop one without losing an important source of happiness. Children’s literature, for example. When I cultivated my passion for children/young adult literature, I added a huge engine of happiness to my life.

I’ve just been hit by a new passion: a passion for scent. It came on me slowly. First came my resolution to Cultivate good smells, which led me to the wonderful Demeter Fragrance Library. Then came my resolution to Take a field trip, which led me to the incomparable CB I Hate Perfume.

Yesterday, I developed the classic symptoms of a full-blown passion:

  • a return from the library, with a huge stack of books on a single subject
  • purchase of more books that my library didn’t have
  • purchase of other learning tools (in my case, from the amazing Aftelier site)
  • the desire to talk about this subject with every single person I encounter
  • the taking of notes without a purpose
  • a list of places I want to visit
  • a dramatic new appreciation of the influence of the subject in my life

In the past, I wouldn’t have indulged this passion. I would have thought, “Gretchen, you’ve already said enough about smell. Move on. Don’t let yourself get distracted from your main work. Don’t make purchases. Don’t waste time.” Now I remind myself, “How lucky I am to have a new passion. Time, money, and energy spent on things I love isn’t wasted.”

I love the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, of “flow” fame. In his book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, he wrote, “When something strikes a spark of interest, follow it.” Cultivate your passions.

How about you? Have you allowed yourself to cultivate a passion? What was it? Did you have to push yourself to do so?

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

* Sign up for the Moment of Happiness, and every weekday morning, you’ll get a happiness quotation in your email inbox. Sign up here, or email me at gretchenrubin1 at gmail dot com.

Take a Field Trip. In My Case, To Cultivate Good Smells.

One of my very favorite new resolutions is to Cultivate good smells. It’s astonishing to me how much pleasure my sense of smell gives me, now that I’ve tuned into it more forcefully.

In the course of my research, along with Demeter Fragrance Library (I love the idea of a “fragrance library”), I discovered a site called CB I Hate Perfume — and learned that an actual store exists in Brooklyn. Fortunately, I have a good friend who is also a smell enthusiast, and together we made a field trip to the store.

I got the idea for the resolution to Take a field trip from my six-year-old, who gets extremely excited at the prospect of a kindergarten field trip. To her, it’s such an adventure, such a treat. Sometimes, I get to go on field trips with her class, and I always enjoy them tremendously, and finally, it occurred to me to look for occasions to assign myself my own field trips.

Visiting the store with my friend was a deeply pleasurable experience. She handed me the wonderful bottle of “Hay,” I handed her “Burning Leaves.” She found “At the Beach 1966,” I found “To See a Flower.” She found “Black March,” I found “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday.”

The resolution to “Take a field trip” yielded so much fun; it was a real adventure to make a special trip to visit this quirky store (which, for the record, we’d been planning to visit long before Geoffrey Gray’s recent New York magazine story about the store’s founder, Christopher Brosius.) But before my happiness project, I would never have dreamed of taking this kind of field trip. First, it involved making a modest splurge, which I almost never did. Second, it meant forcing myself to wander, which I almost never did. Third, it involved an interest in perfume and smell, which I never thought about at all, so I never would have heard about CB I Hate Perfume.

But I did take this field trip — which gave me a wonderful outing with a friend, a memorable New York City adventure, and the continuing pleasure of spraying myself with “To See a Flower.”

Do you take your own field trips? Where?

* I was thrilled to be included in this list of 7 must-read books on the art and science of happiness. I’ve read them all.

* Want to launch a group for people doing Happiness Projects together? Email me at gretchenrubin1 at gmail dot com for the starter kit. Want to see if a group exists in your area? Look here. Want to talk to people about starting a new group? Start a discussion here.