The Scent of Happiness: Why Happy People Smell Differently
Joy is in the air.
You’re walking down the street and pass someone who’s smiling and looks happy. You can’t help but inhale their scent — it’s warm and inviting, like you imagine the person to be. Do happy people smell differently, you wonder? “Aroma has a direct link to our emotional state of mind, so a scent can trigger a feeling of pleasure,” Amy Galper, bestselling author and clinical aromatherapist and educator, tells TZR in an email. “But it can also trigger feelings like fear — think smelling smoke from a fire.”
Scientifically speaking, our personal aroma is linked to a complex and sophisticated mix of molecules that collect on the surface of our skin, she explains, and begins with secretions from a certain kind of sweat gland, called the apocrine glands. “These glands are usually linked to hair follicles and found in areas of our body, like armpits and genitals,” says Galper. “They form in the womb, but mature during puberty and are triggered by our emotional/stress responses. The molecules secreted by these glands then mix with our skin's microbiome, and natural oils, to create a unique aroma specific to the individual, kind of like a fingerprint.”
Some studies have linked the secretions from our apocrine glands to our body's pheromones — which are chemicals excreted by our bodies that can be noticed by others. “No two people have the same scent, not even identical twins,” Courtney Feider, aromatherapist and herbalist, as well as the founder of SLOANE MARLEY, tells TZR in an email. “And it's complexified by the combination of our natural personal smell and whatever our bodies are dealing with. If someone can smell your smell very specifically, it's often a form of an attraction or a biological imperative. For instance, I can still smell my two kids’ ‘baby smell’ in the crown of their hair, even though they are 14 and 12 years old.” She adds that the distinct scent we give off isn't available to everyone — more so the people who are emotionally connected to us.
“We often hear about pheromones and think about how peacocks show a potential mate their feathers or how our heart does a happy dance when someone attractive walks by,” Ebony Williams, aromatherapist and founder of SoulaBeautyCo.com, tells TZR. “The word pheromone is Greek for pheran (to transfer) and horman (to excite). Research shows that they can release at any given time to produce a behavioral response.” And, although there are two types of pheromone classes, we are most familiar with “releaser pheromones” that serve to attract, while the other type causes a behavior change, Williams continues.
Ahead, experts share how your mood and mental state can affect your scent (and vice-versa).
How Stress Can Affect Your Natural Scent
If you’re wondering if your mood and mental state can impact your scent, essentially — yes. “Research has shown that emotional stress can trigger our apocrine glands to secrete, which in turn affects our natural scent,” says Galper. Dr. Jennifer Stelter, clinical psychologist, and co-founder and CEO of NeuroEssence at the Dementia Connection Institute, agrees. “Those who are more stressed than others will have a different smell when compared to those who are less stressed,” she tells TZR in an email. “Stress causes the body to sweat, and how that sweat interacts with the skin can cause a different smell from someone who’s not stressed.”
Feider adds that your apocrine glands, in your armpits, can easily be activated when you feel psychological stress. “This could be as simple as a bad meeting at work that makes your blood pressure rise, or as complex as a traumatic experience,” she says. “Typically, a strong, sometimes sulfurous or bitter odor comes off and covers one’s natural scent in that case. This reaction occurs with depression and anxiety, too, so someone close to you may ‘smell’ the onset of a depressive episode, maybe even before you have the clarity to identify what is going on for you.”
How Other Factors Influence Your Scent
Stelter says other states, too, can influence how a person’s natural body aura smells. “A person’s diet and overall health can impact their body odor,” she says. “For instance, the presence of certain diseases can cause a different odor.” According to the Cleveland Clinic, it can also be influenced by infections, medications, health conditions, and hormones, such as an overactive thyroid or menopause.
As far as what you eat, foods with a lot of sulfur can negatively influence your body scent, too. These can include a wide array of foods and spices, such as most types of fish, many types of meat and poultry, dairy, nuts and seeds, legumes, dried fruit, vegetables (particularly ones like onions, asparagus, broccoli, red cabbage), spices and condiments (including curry powder and horseradish), some beverages (including beer, cider, and tomato juice), and certain grains (oats, wheat, and pearl barley). Even though these can produce an unpleasant scent, it doesn’t mean they will for everybody — it’s a matter of trial and error.
To Change Your Natural Scent, You Need To Uncover Its Underlying Cause
OK, so now that you know what can affect your scent, you can’t just mask an unpleasant one with perfume or cologne. “My belief is that people benefit from seeking shifts in smell via the things they do, the things they eat, the way their body is in balance and movement, and the time they spend outdoors before they use products for the same shift,” Feider explains. “Often, the choice to use a body wash, perfume, or similar product to ‘shift’ less pleasant smells is ineffective because the person hasn’t changed the core issue causing the problem. This leads to people overspending on products, as well as escalating distress and depression, which lowers their confidence. Balancing your body is a practice, not an instant solution.”
She adds that any product that tells you it can provide you with an instant change is lying. Instead, she recommends trying products which are closer to nature and have plant-based ingredients and aromatherapy. “These tend to help connect you to nature, trigger positive memories, and help you stay in balance with your mood as you work on the other aspects of your life,” she says.
How To Boost Your Mood With Scent
Want to get in a better mood? Try inhaling pleasant scents. “When we smell something positive, it directly influences our limbic system in the brain,” says Stelter. “The limbic system houses important organs — the amygdala is directly associated with, and influences, feelings, while the hippocampus is responsible for our memories. Therefore, when we smell something positive, it influences our feelings, memories, and, ultimately, our behaviors, in a positive way.” She adds that, similarly, when we smell something familiar, that memory comes flooding back to us, whether negative or positive.
“Any stimuli we take in through our various outlets (i.e., visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, and tactile) can influence how we feel and impact our behaviors,” explains Stelter. “They all either directly, or indirectly, influence the limbic system — and olfactory is the only sense that directly impacts the limbic system.” Yet they can all be utilized to impact our mood and behaviors in positive ways. “So, to influence happiness, take in positive smells,” she says.
Galper agrees, noting that when you practice aromatherapy — by using essential oils, for instance — their pleasant scents trigger your parasympathetic nervous system. “They relax and restore you, which is a ‘happy’ and enjoyable experience,” she says. She says to keep in mind that our olfactory system is directly connected to the emotional part of our brain that is responsible for producing and regulating the hormones that control our behavior — and keep our body in chemical balance. “This means that what we smell can affect our mood and behavior,” she says. “Studies show that scents like lavender, for example, can trigger the relaxation response in our parasympathetic nervous system.”
Williams notes that it’s similar to Pavlovian conditioning (the linkage of a certain stimuli to an outcome repeatedly to change behavior). “So when we are introduced to a positive smell or experience, our brain can connect that scent to that memory, which is what our hippocampus does (it is a key component of memory and learning concepts),” she says. For example, when you smell something pleasant, like citrus oils, it may trigger a memory — maybe your mother or grandmother used to make fresh-squeezed lemonade every Saturday, she explains. “That memory is now connected to the smell of citrus for you and will instantly brighten your mood,” she says.
However, just as a certain smell can have a positive impact on our mood, certain scents can have a negative impact, as well. “I can vividly remember walking down the streets of New York in the warm summer months and can smell the trash that would sit on the side of the street,” says Williams. “To this day, I cannot be near a garbage truck without remembering that very specific smell that would make my head spin. Another example is when we avoid certain perfumes or colognes after a bad breakup.”
How Scent Can Improve Your Confidence
Feider notes that if we feel in balance with ourselves and are healthy, our natural scent is at its most balanced. “Scent combinations can absolutely boost mood, too, particularly certain essential oils,” she says. “These oils smell different on everyone and may smell particularly attractive on some people, drawing others closer to them.” Some of the oils’ benefits include being very powerful for shifting mood, elevating energy, and relaxing you.
“And essential oils come from plants, so being in nature often has the same effect,” Feider says. “Soil is actually an antidepressant because it contains the bacteria mycobacterium vaccae, which comes from compost and decaying leaves. It lights up your neurotransmitters to produce serotonin, which lifts the mood naturally.” So if you smell pleasant, this can boost your confidence. “Everyone likes to be told, ‘You smell good,’” she adds. “When someone can smell your natural smell, endorphins kick in — and, typically, so does the cycle of attraction.”
To this end, Williams says she encourages her clients to create a positive “smellscape” for safe spaces, whether it is a room they work in or their office. “It is possible to train your nose if you do not have a ‘good’ sense of smell, but it is something you can work on over time,” she explains. “I have worked with clients on how to do this and they are often surprised when they rediscover fragrances from a positive perspective. Every room has a scent associated with it, and I blend my candles and essential oil rollerballs so that everything is complementary.”
So if you don’t necessarily smell “happy” right now, all hope is not lost. Using the advice above, you can reroute your less-appealing scent into a more pleasant one — which will not only up your mood, but also the moods of those around you.