At the University of Cincinnati, volunteers did stress-inducing tasks on a computer while wearing oxygen masks. Piped through the masks was either plain air or scented air. For this study, they used two scents: peppermint and lily-of-the-valley. They got about the same results from both scents: People breathing the fragrance made, on average, twenty-five percent fewer errors than the people breathing plain air.
Similar studies have been done on other tasks — clerical work, decoding, proofreading — with similar results. People perform better when they're smelling something pleasant.
As researchers look into it, the sense of smell appears to have far-reaching effects. Robert Baron's research at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute found that people smelling a pleasant fragrance were more than twice as likely to volunteer to help a co-worker than people breathing plain air. "It's not the particular scent that's important," Baron says, "but that a person finds it pleasant." Light floral scents, he says, as well as the smell of citrus, appeal to almost everyone.
Baron did other experiments at a mall. When the aroma of baking cookies or roasting coffee was in the air, people were twice as likely to hand over a dollar when a stranger asked for one than in areas with no particular scents.
Baron tested the same thing with someone clumsily dropping a ballpoint pen. People were twice as likely to help the person (by picking up the pen for them) when there was a pleasant smell in the air than when there wasn't. Baron says basically the effect is caused by simply improving peoples' moods. He says when people are in a better mood, they are nicer.
Smells have a definite, measurable effect on your sense of calm. Alan Hirsch, a researcher in Chicago, said, "We've been looking at a form of long-term anxiety, called generalized anxiety disorder, hoping to find an odor that might reduce the level of stress. So far, green-apple smell seems to be the most effective."
He also said they've discovered that the scent of lavender increases alpha brain waves, the electrical rhythm of the brain associated with relaxation.
Get some essential oils or incense, or candle, or some fresh flowers, or anything that produces a smell you find pleasant. It is hardly noticeable, but it will make you feel calmer, and maybe even improve your competence.
Adam Khan is the author of Self-Help Stuff That Works and Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.