Making Sense of Happiness


It has long been known that utilizing the five senses can stimulate regions of the brain associated with emotions and memory. Sensory receptors located throughout the body and head connect to nerve fibers that convey feelings of sensation to the brain, indirectly or directly causing emotional responses. Read on to discover how you can enhance your mood by tapping into your five basic senses.


1. Smell

Research shows that a strong connection exists between odors and emotion. Cortical structures processing olfactory stimuli are localized within the limbic system, a region of the brain that plays a role in learning, memory, and emotion, and can recognize over 10,000 scents. Oftentimes, the emotional response linked with the scent is related to the association of the scent with an experience. A 2008 study published in Science found that after exposure to electric shocks in conjunction with an odor, subjects’ olfactory senses adapted their storage of odor information to be linked to the shocks. In other words, positive responses to scents result from positive experiences associated with the scent, while negative responses to scents result from negative experiences, such as the shock, associated with the scent. Additionally, a 2004 study published in Psychology Reports reported that relaxing odors have the ability to decrease heart rate, which can aid in the reduction of anxiety and stress levels.


Aromatherapy makes use of this therapeutic effect of scents on mood. Scents commonly associated with certain moods include:

  • Romantic: jasmine, rose, sandalwood, gardenia

  • Energetic: citrus scents: lemon, lime, grapefruit, verbena, orange

  • Calming/Relaxing: lavender, bergamot, sandalwood, chamomile

  • Refreshing/Uplifting: eucalyptus, mint, pine, citrus scent


2. Touch

The first of the five senses to be developed in the human embryo is the sense of touch, and is the only sensation that can be experienced throughout all the areas of the skin rather than in just one localized area. Touch receptors connect to nerve fibers below the skin, and are able to send messages of tactile sensations, such as pain, heat, cold, texture, and pressure to the brain, where they create emotional and hormonal reactions. The health benefits of nurturing touch include the reduction of stress and fatigue, the easing of pain, immune system improvement, and the lowering of blood pressure. Additionally, nurturing touch aids in the release of serotonin, also known as the happiness hormone, oxytocin, a hormone that encourages social bonding, and endorphins, neurotransmitters that promote the feeling of well-being while reducing pain. In fact, a 2010 study published in Developmental Psychobiology suggests that maternal-infant contact plays a critical role in reducing stress responsiveness and improving health outcomes in newborn babies.


Show your appreciation for a friend or loved one with a pat on the back or a message to enjoy the positive effects of touch.


3. Sound

Whether associated with positive or negative experiences, sound and music have been known to stimulate regions of the brain associated with emotion and memory. Much like with other senses, personal preference and association can dictate whether responses will be positive or negative. Additionally, according to a 2010 study published by Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, sounds or music with a slow and steady rhythm have the ability to lower heart rate, reduce stress, and increase production of oxytocin. Furthermore, a 2011 study in Nature Neuroscience found that music can arouse feelings of intense pleasure, measured by a release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that controls the brain’s reward and pleasure centers.


While sound preferences varies, the following sounds are commonly associated with positive emotions:

  • Relaxation: sounds of nature (birds chirping, falling rain, etc.), music with a slow rhythm

  • Energizing: Fast-tempo music


4. Sight

Visual perception is the interpretation of light stimuli received by the eye, assembled into a representation of the position, shape, and color of objects in space. It has long been known that different colors and shades of colors influence both our mood and behavior. In fact, a 2004 study published by the College Student Journal at the University of Georgia found that the relationship between color and mood are very closely linked. Students were presented with different groups of colors and subsequent responses were based on the familiarity with the color in reality-- for example, the color green induced positive responses such as relaxation because, according to a majority of subjects, it was associated with sights of nature. Furthermore, a 2004 study published in the Journal of Genetic of Psychology reported that bright colors elicited positive emotional associations while dark colors achieved the opposite. For this reason, many believe that painting a room a soft yellow or green can energize a home. Since not all of us have the luxury of designing our dorm rooms, instead of reaching for that black t-shirt, choose the bright yellow one next time!


According to Developing your Child’s Creativity by Victoria Wilson, different colors are associated with the following emotional responses:

  • Blues: calming, restful

  • Yellows: happiness, creativity

  • Oranges: excitement

  • Reds: passion, excitement

  • Greens: peacefulness, nature, imagination

  • Purples: deeper shades of associated with depression

  • Black: anger, fear

  • Browns/neutrals: sadness

  • Pink: pale tones are calming, brighter


5. Taste

Taste receptors, contained within taste buds, are connected to nerve fibers that allow the brain to perceive five different tastes: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami (savory). While foods that make us happy vary strongly by personal preference and association, a 2005 study published by Physiology and Behavior suggests that tastes and foods we associate with happy emotions vary with gender. The study found that males favor savory comfort foods like steak, while females prefer sweet comfort foods like ice cream and chocolate. Furthermore, certain types of foods aid in the stimulation of the neurotransmitter dopamine and the production of the mood-affecting chemical serotonin. Food items containing high concentrations of folate, a water soluble B vitamin used in the production of serotonin, and tryptophan, an amino acid that eventually converts to serotonin, are considered “happy foods.”


Examples of ‘happy foods’: Milk, chicken, bananas, leafy green vegetables


Spring 2011 | Vol. 11 | Issue 4

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