Previous studies have shown that nature is important for physical and mental health. But, there is a gap in the research, as experts have yet to determine which aspects of nature (e.g., smells, sounds, colors) impact well-being and why.
A new study led by the University of Kent has shed some light on the subject. The researchers concluded that the scents we experience in nature help us feel less anxious and more cheerful.
The study was carried out in a woodland environment during February, April, June, and October of 2019. The researchers found that the participants did not necessarily experience a connection with the scent of the woodlands. Rather, they associated the smells in the woodlands with notable events in their lives, prompting emotional responses to the memory.
Think of fresh cut grass, which might bring back feelings of summer vacation as a child and the freedom that came with it. Participants mentioned that the smell of pine trees reminded them of Christmas.
Interestingly, people also felt more relaxed in the absence of scent. The experts believe this is due to the many unpleasant odors encountered in urban environments. The absence of these smells represents “fresh air” or the removal of pollution, so people find it pleasant.
“We found smells affected multiple domains of well-being with physical well-being discussed most frequently, particularly in relation to relaxation, comfort, and rejuvenation,” wrote the researchers. “Even absence of smell was perceived to improve physical well-being, providing a cleansing service, removing the pollution and unwanted smells associated with urban areas, therefore enabling relaxation.”
Public health professionals may consider these findings especially relevant since relaxation relieves stress and lowers cortisol levels which are associated with various diseases.
Study co-author Dr. Jessica Fisher is a postdoctoral research associate at Kent’s Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE).
“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,” said Dr. Fisher.
The researchers point out that people of different cultures will not experience smells in the same ways and encourage further studies to investigate how age and different landscapes affect scent interpretation.
The study is published in the journal Ambio.