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Smells experienced in nature improve wellbeing and mental health by making us feel more relaxed, joyful, and healthy

Smells experienced in nature, like smelling the rain or damp grass on a wet day, or smelling smoke coming from a fire whilst camping, can improve our mental health.

More relaxed, joyful, and healthy

According to new research led by the University of Kent’s Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE), these scents, when experienced in nature, can make us feel relaxed, joyful, and healthy.

How can smells improve mental health?

Smells in nature were found to play an important role in improving mental health because they are often associated with an individual’s personal memories and specific ecological characteristics and processes (e.g. fallen leaves rotting in the winter).

For example, a person may feel happier or more relaxed when they catch the scent of damp, rotting leaves in winter because they associate this smell with happy memories.

Many smells evoked memories related to childhood activities. Many participants associated meaningful connections and a memorable event with particular smells as opposed to the woodland itself.

This, in turn, influenced wellbeing by provoking emotional reactions to the memory.

Forest floor covered in leaves and moss
© Kristof Lauwers

The role of smell in wellbeing has been understudied

It is well-known that nature is vital to our mental health and overall wellbeing and the pandemic only made this more obvious.

However, previous research investigating which attributes of nature (e.g. smells, sounds, colours) affect human wellbeing and why has been limited.

This study published by Ambio (A Journal of Environment and Society) examines the role of smell in influencing wellbeing through nature.

The study was carried out in woodland settings across four seasons. The findings indicated that smells affected multiple types of human wellbeing. Physical wellbeing was noted most frequently, and contributed to a person’s relaxation, comfort and rejuvenation.

Absence of smell promotes relaxation

Absence of smell can also provide a cleansing and relaxing environment. For example, by removing unwanted smells associated with urban areas, such as pollution, a person is more likely to feel settled and relaxed.

Relaxation is important because not only does it reduces stress and lowers cortisol levels, it also decreases the likelihood of a person developing a multitude of diseases. And therefore, this study could advise public health professionals.

Nature is a multisensory experience

The study was co-led by Dr Jessica Fisher, a Postdoctoral Research Associate at DICE.

Fisher commented: “Nature is a multisensory experience and our research demonstrates the potential significance of smell for wellbeing.

‘Small interventions could lead to public health benefits’

“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.”

Source: Smells experienced in nature improve mental health