The Scents of Happiness

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Rebecca Waters: Perfume, perception and how this affects your patients

It’s not uncommon to walk past someone on the street and become bewitched by the scent of their aftershave or perfume. After all, these scents have been specifically manufactured to elicit certain responses in our psyche, pleasure, attraction or other positive emotions. But have you ever wondered how scent really influences our minds?

You may already know that certain fragrances can affect your mood, behaviour and even work performance, but the reason for this may be very different from anything you might expect.

The power of association

According to researchers at Brown University, scents excite certain responses once people have formed an associated memory with them [1]. That’s not to say a person can’t smell something new and decide whether it is pleasant or not, but rather that until a scent has a memory or association attached to it, it is unlikely to have a more profound effect.

These associations change people’s perceptions of whether a smell is pleasant or not. In one article written for Psychology Today, the writer insists that the smell of manure is enjoyable to them, and this is purely because of the positive associations it held in relation to their childhood [2].

So, what types of behaviours can scent influence? It is only by learning more about this connection that we can start to use scents effectively in dental practices.

Perhaps one of the strongest links between scent and human behaviour is fuelled by an aroma’s ability to recall a certain memory. This phenomenon is often referred to as the ‘Proustian memory effect’ – derived from a scene in one of Proust’s novels where his protagonist vividly recalls details of his past after dipping a biscuit into a cup of tea.

This recalled memory effect has been proven to have a noticeable effect on the choices people make. For example, a study that compared differently fragranced body lotions found people with positive memories connected to a specific perfume present in one of more of the lotions rated them as better products; even going as far to say that they were better quality [3].

Evidence suggests that certain olfactory stimuli are more likely to feature in pleasant memories than others. Although every individual will have a unique bank of memories, it is probable that many will have shared experiences surrounding certain scents, especially those we are preconditioned to associate with specific occurrences.

An example of this would be that floral scents, for many, are deemed pleasurable. This could stem from memories of playing in the garden as a child or receiving flowers for special occasions. As flowers are predominantly seen as a good thing and linked to beauty and happiness, they can quickly form a positive psychological association.

On the other hand, a specific floral scent such as lilies could form the complete opposite reaction, if their scent were, for instance, subconsciously linked to an upsetting event such as a funeral.

Our perceptions regarding scents might change depending on how often we are subjected to them. It’s not uncommon to become “nose blind” when trapped in a room with an unpleasant smell; but studies have also found that our tolerance of strong smells may be linked to how often we smell them, and our exposure to them from a young age – even in utero.

Research testing subjects’ reactions to strong smelling substances such as garlic, cigarette smoke and alcohol revealed that infants whose mothers had consumed/used these products during pregnancy found these scents significantly more appealing than those whose mothers had not.

A change in mood

Once memories have been established and linked to scents, it is likely that this will, in turn, begin to influence people’s moods. People may feel a surge of happiness if they smell a fragrance that takes them back to a happy memory, just as they may experience a burst of anger or sadness if a particular smell connects to events that inspired these emotions as well.

So, what’s the connection to dentistry? The truth is, scents in professional healthcare environments are incredibly important. Although some patients may find clean and clinical scents appealing, the typical smell of a hospital or dental practice has been found to be a key negative trigger for those suffering from dental anxiety [4].

It’s a good idea to scent your practice with fragrances more likely to help patients feel relaxed, at home, and happy. For example, portable devices such as The Premium Scenting Cube from Initial Medical makes this easy. It provides a selection of scents including lavender, fresh cotton and chocolate chip cookie to incite positive emotional responses from patients. Lavender, in particular, has been proven to calm nerves, making it the ideal choice [5].

Scents matter

There is no way to guarantee that any scent will please everyone. However, by choosing a scenting device with aromas that are more likely to evoke a positive emotional response from patients, you can help the majority of them feel relaxed and happier, even if they are anxious about their visit.


Rebecca Waters: Category Manager, Initial Medical. Rebecca has worked in the Healthcare sector for the past 15 years and was a Research Chemist with Bayer Cropscience before joining Rentokil Initial in 2003. She is an active member of the CIWM, SMDSA and BDIA. For more information, visit 


1] The Scientific American. Do Scents Affect People's Moods or Work Performance? Link: [Last accessed March 19].

2] Psychology Today. How Does Scent Drive Human Behavior? Link: [Last accessed March 19].

3] Sugiyama, H., Oshida, A., Thueneman, P., Littell, S., Katayama, A., Kashiwagi, M., Hikichi, S. Proustian Products are Preferred: The Relationship Between Odor-Evoked Memory and Product Evaluation. Chemosensory Perception. 2015; 8 (1): 1-10.

4] NHS Worcestershire Health and Care. Community Dental Services – What is Anxiety? Link: [Last accessed March 19].

5] Koulivand, P., Ghadiri, M., Gorji, A. Lavender and the Nervous System. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2013; 2013: 681304.

Photos by Phil Hodkinson, Annie Spratt and Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash