The Reason Nature Is Good For You Is Right In Front Of Your Nose

“Ben, does my armpit smell?” I lift my arm in the air, ushering my friend’s nose closer, perhaps one of the clearest acts of true friendship. I’m not usually bothered by body odor, but I was repelled. I needed a second opinion. Out of what I sensed was honesty, and not politeness, Ben said I smelled a little, but it was nothing to worry about. A few days later, I’m sniffing onions, encouraged by my partner to test her theory: I’m experiencing what has come to be known as armpits and onions.

The bizarre side-effect of coronavirus has made the rounds online, and now I was experiencing it first hand. In December, I lost my smell completely. Not long after a second infection in June, I noticed how certain scents had a peculiar, altered tone to them, like something close to familiar, but weirdly alien.

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I’ve always had a keen sense of smell, and the significance of this loss hit home when, walking in a nearby forest, my friend remarked on how nourishing the scent of pine was. It was a welcome change from exhaust fumes, days-old rubbish, and a million odors that make the distinct city perfume, she said. The subtle smell, one I used to breathe in freely, was hard to detect, creating a barrier to full immersion in the sensory pleasure nature had to offer. 

By now, most of us appreciate nature’s benefits on wellbeing. But why is that the case? My loss of smell disconnected me from one of nature’s alluring qualities, the aroma of flowers, trees, freshly cut grass, and the earth itself. That got me thinking about the relationship between nature and wellbeing. Research shows exactly why nature is so beneficial to happiness — and city living detrimental — and the answer lies with the senses.

Smell, Nature, and Wellbeing

family going on a hike

By coincidence, shortly after I realized my sense of smell had reduced, I came across a new research paper that linked smell with nature’s benefits. The author’s wholesome intention was to “examine how smells experienced in woodlands contribute to wellbeing across four seasons” to further understand the positive role of smell. This was a deviation from conventional studies of nature, that focus on visual elements, or look at offensive smells and their role in detecting danger.

Smell is an underrated factor in wellbeing. Most people fear going deaf or blind, no longer able to hear or see. But losing smell also minimizes a significant source of joy in the natural world. Who doesn’t love the smell of freshly cut grass, lavender, or petrichor, the name given to the sweet scent that follows rainfall on a warm day? Smell is the only sense to travel directly to the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for processing emotions, and the hippocampus, responsible for learning and memory.

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The biggest example of the power of smell and well-being is the frequency of people who develop depressive episodes following the loss of smell (known as olfactory disorders). The reverse is true, too — some experiments have found that certain smells boost happiness, the ethos of aromatherapy. Participants in the recent study noted that woodland smells benefit many different domains, from emotional, cognitive, physical, and spiritual.

Smells play an important role in delivering wellbeing benefits from interacting with nature,” the authors concluded. “And they are unique amongst the senses in how they are interpreted by the human brain.” In cities, it’s hard to experience fresh air. But in nature, even the absence of smell was significant in its benefits.

Cities and Mental Health

young woman in allley way sad

These recent findings are the latest in a long line of research that suggests urban living can have a damaging impact on mental health. According to King’s College London, the risk of developing depression is 20 percent higher, and anxiety 21 percent higher, when living in a city. Even more surprising, the risk of psychosis increases by 77 percent. Of course, there’s not just one factor, but multiple complex causes as to why this could be the case.

The lack of natural smells is one thing, air pollution, and breathing in toxic chemicals, is another. And then there’s light pollution, noise pollution, or access to green spaces, all of which can have a negative impact on mood.

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That’s not to say it’s all bad, as cities have many benefits. Access to high-quality education, an abundance of activities or entertainment, better access to healthcare, and cultural inspiration from people from diverse backgrounds, all enrich life. The future could be brighter, too; aware of research on the negative impact of cities, an increasing number of urban planners are looking at ways to make cities more supportive, from green spaces to access to cycle lanes and car-free areas.

Integrating Nature

Couple sitting on a rooftop at sunset by Khamkeo Vilaysing on Unsplash
(Photo by Khamkéo Vilaysing on Unsplash)

I’m happy to report my sense of smell is returning, more noticeable with each stroll. Onions and my armpits smell more tolerable, too. Due to its absence, I feel an added sense of gratitude as I walk amongst the trees, being extra mindful of my surroundings, taking in deep breaths through the nose, and letting nature do its work. The smells of nature have taken on extra significance.

I’m lucky to now live on the outskirts of Berlin, having been immersed in the center of the hustle and bustle for a number of years. Before that, I lived in two big cities in the UK.

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City-living is all I’ve known. Having had a number of countryside retreats over the years, I feel a yearning to live even more remotely in the future, aware it’ll likely improve my wellbeing and match my pace of life.

Over the years, though, I have developed ways to make city-living more bearable. I’ve taken regular breaks into nature when I can, find green spaces nearby, and protect my home from light and noise as best I can (with mixed results; my home before where I live now was a few hundred meters from a tram line). Above all else, I’ve accepted that, yes, perhaps living in a city isn’t the best for my mental health, despite many benefits. But for now, it works for me.

Additional Pointers for City-Living

man running

Living in a city doesn’t mean you have to be resigned to having poor mental health. Away from the stimulation of the senses, a common factor in research relates to the sense of loneliness many people feel, even in densely populated areas. Perhaps finding like-minded people, to create smaller communities within the hustle and bustle, is one way forward. Take breaks into nature when you can, of course, and look for other ways to optimize city living, in order to honor your wellbeing.

To conclude with practical takeaways, experts at the University of Southern California provide additional steps to make urban living as joyful as possible. They are:

  • Give your senses a break: acknowledging city life is intense on the senses, from traffic to sirens to fast-paced movement, is a good start. Consider giving your senses a break as part of a self-care schedule. Although it’s tempting to blast the headphones to drown out the noise, or relax after a day of work, find a quiet space to create a sense of calm.
  • Recharge in green spaces: taking a trip to nature is the best solution, but you can also bring nature to you. Studies show that the benefits of green spaces still apply to city parks or even potted plants. Find pockets of nature nearby, and take time to make visiting those places a priority.
  • Sleep in darkness: even in the middle of a city, there are ways to promote healthier, more restful sleep. Invest in some blackout blinds and quality earplugs in order to allow your senses to switch off as best they can, as you get some rest.
  • Exercise outside: it’s tempting to join a gym and go from one room to another, going through the motions of your workout inside. But why not combine green spaces with exercise, and jog around the park, or do some light stretching near a local river or lake?
  • Breathe fresh air: that includes exercising away from main traffic areas. Living in a space with fewer cars is ideal, but if you’re not able to do that, consider investing in an air filtration system (plants work towards this, too).

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