How scent impacts mood

Waking in the morning to the smell of freshly baked bread and the rich aroma of coffee… Breathing in that earthy fragrance of warm ground right after rainfall… the scent of a freshly mowed lawn wafting on a summer breeze… Few things in this world have the power to evoke emotions in quite the same way as our sense of smell.

The connection between what we smell and how we feel is inherent to our existence. As one of our five key senses, the ability to smell undoubtedly played a key role in the survival of our ancestors, helping to guide them towards desirable locations, and away from danger. Nowadays, our use of this powerful sense is perhaps a little less “animal” but is still just as important, impacting on a range of things including our sleep, moods, stress, self-confidence and even our physical performance. 

How it works: 

The impact of scent on our thoughts and feelings is caused by associative learning. Our olfactory receptors (or “bulbs”) are directly connected to the limbic system, a set of structures in the brain that deal with emotions and memory. As our olfactory bulbs register a smell, the brain makes a connection between the odour (or elements of that odour) with a previous event or experience. And voila — as the memory is evoked, so too is the emotion. 

Is it always subjective? 

Seeing as our “feeling” response to smells is caused by our memory of past experiences, does that mean that every person will have their own unique reaction to smells?  Well, yes and no. There are definitely instances where a certain smell might conjure a memory and feelings that are unique just to you — like the smell of old tobacco reminding you of your Grandfather, or the scent of perfume that was worn by your favourite Aunty. But, for the most part, we all experience similarly pleasant or unpleasant associations with typical smells. 

Some scents to try: 

While there are no guarantees, here are some commonly agreed upon scents and their associated moods. Why not try them out for yourself to see if you recognize any impact on your experience? 

  • The clean, refreshing scent of lemon is thought to increase feelings of confidence, reduce stress and promote wellbeing and calm. If you’re having a difficult day at work, worrying about a looming deadline, or perhaps feeling overwhelmed by a messy house, try a whiff of fresh lemon! 
  • Peppermint is generally invigorating. The scent has been shown to increase activity in the part of the brain responsible for waking us up in the morning, according to Bryan Raudenbush, a psychologist at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia. His research has also shown that athletes run faster and do more push-ups when exposed to the scent, so why not try adding a few drops of peppermint oil to your wristband before a workout? 
  • Jasmine is usually recognized as a sleep aid. As Raudenbush says, “Research has shown that the scent of jasmine in your bedroom leads to a more restful night of sleep and a greater level of alertness the following day.” Use jasmine oil in an aroma diffuser next to your bed, or try a few drops of jasmine oil on your pillow. 
  • The symbol of love, roses are memorable for more than just their beautiful appearance — their aroma can actually help memories to set!  In 2007, researchers from the University of Lübeck demonstrated that taking a whiff of rose scent while learning a task, and then being exposed to the same smell during sleep, led to an improved level of recollection the following day. So, the next time you’re struggling to learn a new task or remember a speech, why not try adding a rosy fragrance?
  • Lavender has long been prized for its relaxing properties. Exposure to lavender scent can decrease heart rate, which makes it perfect for unwinding at bedtime. Add a few drops of lavender oil to your bath, spritz your sheets with lavender water, or add a vase of lavender stems to your bedside table. 


(Photo by Leah Kelley from Pexels)