The smells we experience in nature can have various positive impacts on our overall well-being.
It is “well-established” that being close to nature affects people’s well-being, the researchers wrote in their paper, published in Ambio journal. Spending time with nature yields benefits for our physical and mental well-being. For instance, it can help improve our mood, reduce loneliness and even boost physical health.
However, there aren’t a lot of studies that looked at the specific factors behind this link.
“Engaging with nature is a multisensory experience,” the researchers explained. “Smells clearly have a prominent influence, but a significant knowledge gap remains in the nexus of nature, smell, and well-being.”
For their study, the team focused on how smells experienced in woodland settings across four seasons can impact the well-being, the University of Kent noted in a news release. A total of 194 people participated in the study. They were told that they were taking part in a “woodland scavenger hunt” and asked to write down the various elements of the woodland they noticed.
The researchers found that smells impacted people’s emotional, spiritual and cognitive domains. However, the most frequently noted aspect was physical well-being, particularly when it comes to feelings of being relaxed, rejuvenated and comforted. One participant, for instance, noted how they “wanted to just switch off for relaxation.”
Relaxation can reduce stress and cortisol levels, the researchers explained. High stress levels are a risk factor for various diseases, and even represent “a significant global public health concern.”
Interestingly, the absence of smells associated with urban settings was also linked to improved physical well-being.
“Really relaxed. You’re just breathing it [fresh air] in and it’s lovely. Clean out all the smog from the towns where you’ve been living,” one participant reportedly said.
Others cited emotional impacts of the scents, with one saying the smell of pine “for some reason, it makes me happy.” Researchers also found a “strong link” between the smells experienced in nature and people’s personal memories. Many of the memories the participants cited weren’t even related to woodlands, but the smells still prompted memories related to childhood activities.
One participant, for instance, recollected helping their father in the garden on an autumn Sunday morning from the scent of a “classic leaf mold smell.”
“Individuals appeared to create meaningful connections with particular smells, rather than specific places, and associate this with a memorable event,” the researchers wrote. “This, in turn, appeared to influence well-being by provoking emotional reactions to the memory.”
Overall, the study demonstrated the important role that smells play in delivering the well-being benefits of interacting with nature. The researchers are encouraging other experts to recognize the wide benefits of a “multisensory natural environment” to our well-being.
“The study provides findings that can inform the work of practitioners, public health specialists, policy-makers and landscape planners looking to improve well-being outcomes through nature,” said study co-lead Dr. Jessica Fisher, of the University of Kent. “Small interventions could lead to public health benefits.”