If you’re ever in the mood for a fun and easy pick-me-up, look no further than your nose.
This humble physical workhorse, conveniently located right on your face, is your fast-track ticket to heartwarming memories.
Test this right now: remember the smell of something you loved in childhood—your grandmother’s kitchen, the art room at school, your pillow. How does it make you feel?
You might not describe it exactly like author Marcel Proust did in “In Search of Lost Time,” but you’ve just had what is called a “Proustian Moment” in his honor:
“…I carried to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had let soften a bit of madeleine. But at the very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening inside me.”
Why do smells affect us so powerfully? The answer is that the part of our brain that processes smell, the olfactory bulb, sends information directly to the nervous system and the regions of the brain related to emotion and memory.
The same is essentially true of taste, according to Harvard researcher Venkatesh Murthy. When you chew, molecules in the food make their way back to your nasal cavity so that, he says, “all of what you consider flavor is smell.”
Another interesting fact about our sense of smell: it is the only fully developed sense a fetus has in the womb, and it’s the one that is the most developed in a child through the age of around 10, when sight takes over. That’s why sensory memories that we stored from childhood can be particularly powerful. (This can be just as true for smells that remind us of something negative.)
So, if you want a mini mood-boost, engage your nose, and remember smells that made you happy.
Here’s a quick list of my favorite smells and the happy memories they invoke, which might give you some ideas:
- Fresh-mown grass—reminds me of my dad being home on weekends and mowing our lawn
- Finger paint—free-form, slippery, messy art that was never wrong
- Pine trees—childhood trips to the mountains
- Bug spray—summers at my grandparents’ house in Minnesota. The mosquitos were legendary!
- Coffee in the car—driving for summer vacation to Minnesota, with my parents drinking from the thermos
- Baking bread or cookies—love in food form
- Books—either fresh paper or old paper and the promise of a good story
- School supplies like erasers and rubber cement—I loved learning and all types of stationery
- Clean laundry—just a cozy home smell
- My grandpa’s garage and workshop, which seemed filled with mysterious kinds of tools and the potential for fixing things
- The fresh fragrance of my mom’s house when I’d visit as an adult. It was eucalyptus-y or some other kind of fresh potpourri.
- My mom’s perfume and favorite after-bath splash. Anyone else remember Jean Naté?
- Entering the gymnasium for a high school basketball game. I don’t like the smell of sweat, but a gym smell brings back fond memories of cheering for the home team with a roomful of friends and fans.
Whether or not your favorite aromatic memories make you quiver, may they bring a smile to your face and warmth to your heart.