Take a whiff: Smells of nature promote relaxation, positive well-being

CANTERBURY, United Kingdom — Did you wake up on the wrong side of the bed this morning? Stop and smell the roses — literally. New research finds smells experienced in nature help promote relaxation, joy, and an overall positive well-being. A few whiffs around nature can even make people feel physically healthier, study authors say.

Put together by a team at the University of Kent’s Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE), the study reports smells and odors play a significant role when it comes to reaping the well-being benefits tied to spending time in nature. More specifically, smells experienced in nature showed a strong connection to people’s personal memories, as well as specific “ecological characteristics and processes” — such as fallen leaves dying in autumn and winter.

It’s no secret that getting outside and spending some time around greenery and wildlife is good for us. Numerous studies have connected nature with a better mood and stronger well-being. However, previous research has been quite narrow regarding which specific attributes of nature (such as smells, sounds, and colors) affect human well-being and why.

Study authors choose to focus on odors in nature and their connection to well-being. Ultimately, their analysis indicated that smells influence multiple varieties of human well-being, most frequently physical well-being in relation to either comfort, relaxation, or rejuvenation.

Interestingly, removing smells altogether also appeared to promote an improvement in physical well-being. In such scenarios, the absence of smells “provided a cleansing environment due to the removal of pollution and unwanted smells associated with urban areas,” thus enabling relaxation.

Relaxation, scientifically speaking, lowers stress and cortisol levels, which have a connection to numerous health concerns.

Nature’s smell reconnects people with their childhood

These findings, based on research conducted across woodland settings during all four seasons, also suggest smells evoke memories tied to childhood activities. Numerous participants created meaningful connections with specific smells as opposed to the woodland itself, associating the odor with a memorable event. Consequently, these fond childhood memories appear to influence well-being by provoking emotional reactions.

“Nature is a multi-sensory experience and our research demonstrates the potential significance of smell for wellbeing,” says study co-leader Dr Jessica Fisher, a postdoctoral research associate at DICE, in a university release. “The study provides findings that can inform the work of practitioners, public health specialists, policy-makers and landscape planners looking to improve wellbeing outcomes through nature. Small interventions could lead to public health benefits.”

The study is published in the journal AMBIO.

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