You couldn’t travel home for the holidays, so you find yourself making Mom’s famous spaghetti and meatballs. As you sit down to watch It’s A Wonderful Life with a bowl of carby goodness and a pine-scented candle, it’s amazing how comforted you feel. That’s not a coincidence. We’re sure your mom’s spaghetti is a culinary masterpiece, but it’s actually those nostalgic scents that are giving you the warm fuzzies and making you feel less alone. Two recent studies tie scent and memories to the good feelings and yummy tastes that we’ve come to associate with comfort foods.
Jordan Troisi, an assistant professor of psychology at Sewanee, The University of The South, conducted a study in 2011 that found that for people who think of their relationships in a positive light, eating comfort food can actually make them feel less lonely. Troisi built on his findings in a 2015 study that looked at the question in reverse: what effect does feeling lonely have on the taste of comfort food? Sure enough, the researchers found that comfort foods taste even better when we’re experiencing feelings of isolation.
How do you explain these results? People tend to associate the tastes and smells of comfort foods with certain loved ones, as well as social gatherings in general. When you dine on food that triggers those associations, you enjoy those memories all over again. By comfort foods, by the way, we don’t just mean sweets or even high-calorie dishes. For example, culturally important foods like kimchi soup can be just as comforting for certain people.
As Reid told TIME, “Humans have a fundamental need to belong. Because nostalgia often centers around personal events involving people they care about, the evocation of nostalgia is one way people can obtain a sense of belonging even when the people they are close to are not close by.” The next time you’re inhaling homemade meatballs, call a loved one. They might be eating an ice cream sundae and missing you!
This post originally appeared on Curiosity.com