Here’s How Smell Can Scientifically Make You Happier
Experts say your memories have a lot to do with it.
If you think about your favorite fragrance, chances are that it will bring a smile to your face. It’s one of—if not the most—alluring things about perfumes: their ability to change and lift our mood. One spritz of our favorite fragrance and we swear we become happier people—and it turns out there’s some scientific proof behind why certain scents make us feel happy.
There’s a lot of research on the fact that certain smells are positive and others are negative. Those are observational studies, which we have done over millions of years. If you go back to, let’s say the old sciences, whether it’s Chinese Feng Shui or it’s Indian Ayurvedic sciences, all of them use essential oils or homeopathic medicine—they all use smell.Gurdesh Bedi, M.D., FAAN, medical director of the Kinisi Institute of Movement at St. Croix Regional Medical Center and a fellow of the American Academy of Neurology
Dr. Bedi explains that when we smell something, we inhale molecules that go through the back of our noses to where our sensory cells are. These then send a signal to our brain and go through the olfactory cortex to decode what we’re smelling.
“The brain does its calculations and it says when you were two years old, you were told that this is mint, or when you were 10-years-old, you were told that this is truffle oil,” he says. “That’s how you make that connection.”
After our brains identify the scent, they then determine whether it’s a positive or negative smell. How this happens involves the parts of our brains that are tied with emotion and memory.
The smell area, which is the olfactory cortex, the memory area, which is the hippocampus, and the emotion area, which is the amygdala, are very close to each other. So, there’s a lot of communication that happens between them—they’re almost intertwined. So, suddenly, the smell can induce an emotion or a memory faster than a visual could because the visual cortex is very far away [from those areas] and the connections aren’t as good.Dr. Bedi
Pamela Dalton, a cognitive psychologist at Monell Chemical Senses Center (MCSC), agrees and says that the olfactory system is part of the brain where emotions are processed, thus having an immediate pathway to evoking an emotional response or mood change.
Most of these occur because of our past experience in the presence of odors, [which] can often reinstate the original mood or emotional state that was present when first experienced. Because [these emotional responses} do so in a very immediate way, the change in emotion seems to come out of nowhere but is likely a very complex set of associations between the odor, the memory, and the emotion or mood it evoked.Dalton
This all makes sense, but why certain smells are categorized as positive or negative still needs to be explored. Dr. Bedi explains that while we may know certain smells induce certain reactions, there’s no definitive answer to explaining why that is. Many factors determine whether a scent can make you happier or not—while scents are generally categorized as positive or negative in our brains, it is our life experiences that ultimately decide whether that scent has any effect on us emotionally.
[Think of] new car smell; it’s generally a positive scent. It’s not by itself, it’s not a positive emotion-inducing smell, but it’s almost always associated with success and excitement. But what if you always got to have a new car and every time you got one you ended up scratching the side every time you drove out of the parking lot—the smell will be negative for you.Dr. Bedi
There’s a reason fragrance is one of the most personal beauty products: what we gravitate towards is dependent on so many factors. “Overall, the scents that make us happier are very specific to the individual,” says Linda G. Levy, president of The Fragrance Foundation. “However, many people share similar scent memories that could be linked to happiness. There are many common ingredients that can enhance mood and feelings of happiness or relaxation.”
These common scents include lavender, which Levy says is known to reduce anxiety and increase relaxation, and citrus notes like lemon, orange, and grapefruit, which she says can help you feel energized and refreshed. She further explains that florals can bring a delicate note of calm and serenity, while wood notes like sandalwood, cedarwood, and vetiver, are used to help people feel grounded and balanced.
Studies have shown that these scents do have positive effects when inhaled. In recent years, Dr. Bedi has done some work on aromatherapy and has introduced scents such as lavender, citrus, juniper, rosemary, and bergamot to help his patients feel relaxed.
Where these known “happy” scents are placed when making a perfume depends on the project. Fragrance expert and Find Your Happy Place fragrance developer Ann Gottlieb explains that, typically, top notes are where you’ll find citrus scents, the heart is made of florals, fruity, and spicy notes, and the base is where you’ll find deeper scents such as wood and gourmand—but these aren’t strict guidelines for when she makes fragrances.
I take concepts and translate them into scent, but there’s no one recipe on how we get there. A beautiful scent needs to be well-rounded, and often, we need to add a little of this or that to make it pop.Gottlieb
There is no right or wrong way to find a fragrance that makes you happy. With so many options out there, you’re bound to find the right one for you. In this instance, your nose knows best.