Smells found in nature bring about positive wellbeing, new research finds

Old Youth/Unsplash

When it comes to spending time in nature there are many benefits. Now, a new study explores how smells experienced in nature settings can evoke feelings of relaxation, joy, and health.

The research, published in the journal Ambio, was led by the University of Kent’s Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) in Canterbury, England. The investigators set out to examine how smells experienced in two woodland areas contribute to wellbeing across four seasons.

Researchers recruited 194 individuals via a social research company to attend one of four workshops held in February, April, June, and October 2019. According to the study, during each workshop, participants visited one woodland area in the morning and the other in the afternoon. At the start of the workshop, participants took part in a scavenger hunt and were invited to look around and notice the different elements of the woodland and then write down what they noticed in terms of colors, textures, sounds, shapes, and smells. Participants were asked to focus on the natural attributes of the woodland and to indicate whether they liked, disliked, or felt indifferent towards each attribute. They were given an hour to complete the task at each location and were asked to undertake it individually.

Following the visit to each woodland, participants were divided into groups of 10 participants where they discussed the woodland attributes.

Researchers found that smells affected multiple types of human wellbeing, with physical wellbeing noted most frequently, particularly in relation to relaxation, comfort, and rejuvenation. Absence of smell was also perceived to improve physical wellbeing, providing a cleansing environment due to the removal of pollution and unwanted smells associated with urban areas, and therefore enhancing relaxation. In addition, the study found that smells evoked memories related to childhood. Many participants created meaningful connections with particular smells, rather than the woodland itself, and associated this with a memory. This, in turn, appeared to influence wellbeing by provoking emotional reactions to the memory.

According to the authors, these findings highlight the need for researchers to consider that experiences are likely to be multisensory, and that different domains of wellbeing can be influenced by smells.