Most healthy people practice at least some form of what we call these days “self-care,” whether it be yoga, meditation, running, writing, art, music, therapy, coloring books, or what-have-you. And if you’re functioning tolerably well in the madness of our times, you’re probably dipping regularly into the well of at least one restorative discipline, in addition to whatever larger beliefs you may hold.
But perhaps you feel at loose ends—unable to find the time or money for yoga classes or painting, feeling too restless to sit motionless for half an hour or more a day…. The activities that sustain our psyches should not feel unattainable. One need not be a yogi, Zen monk, marathoner, or Impressionist to find regular fulfilment in life. Perhaps regular, ordinary activities have the power to make us just as happy.
Recent research suggests that tasks such as “knitting, crocheting and jam-making” can “work wonders for wellbeing,” writes Tom Ough at The Telegraph, as can other creative practices like “cooking, baking, performing music, painting, drawing, sketching, digital design and creative writing.” All may have profound effects on emotional health. This list might expand indefinitely to include any hands-on activity with measurable results, from woodworking to beekeeping.
A 2016 study of 658 students at New Zealand’s Otago University found that engaging in small creative pursuits on a daily basis produces enthusiasm and feelings of “flourishing”—“a mental health term describing happiness and meaning.” The results of, say, making a loaf of bread or a scarf, don’t simply benefit us in the moment, but carry over into the future. As the study’s lead author Tamlin Connor notes, “engaging in creative behaviour leads to increases in well-being the next day, and this increased well-being is likely to facilitate creative activity on the same day.”
The more we bake, the more we’ll want to bake, the happier we’ll feel.
Does focusing our attention on small, achievable daily tasks lead to the kind of metaphysical fulfilment most people seem to crave—what Viktor Frankl called “man’s search for meaning”? Not necessarily, no. “Recent research suggests,” notes Daisy Grewal at Scientific American, “that while happiness and a sense of meaning often overlap, they also diverge in important and surprising ways.” Frankl may not be wrong about the need for meaning, but even he admitted that seeking it out is not identical to the pursuit of happiness.
In a 2013 study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, Roy Baumeister, Kathleen Vohs, Jennifer Aaker, and Emily Garbinsky found that happiness, “flourishing,” or emotional well-being correlate strongly with “satisfying one’s needs and wants” as well as with “being a giver rather than a taker.” Philosophy, politics, religion, and art may seek truth or coherence, but while “concerns with personal identity and expressing the self contributed to meaning,” they have little lasting effect on happiness, as many a philosopher, priest, or poet may tell you. On the other hand, while having comfortable economic means does measurably improve happiness, it does not contribute significantly to a sense of larger purpose (that which, Frankl argued strenuously, can save our lives in times of crisis).
Baumeister and his colleagues obtained their findings by surveying around 400 American adults over a period of three weeks, during which time the participants monitored a variety of daily activities. In one reading of the Otago University study, Daisy Meager at Vice focuses specially on baking as a means to ward off a “shitty mood.” It may be a matter of taste—some may prefer making sauces to cakes. The effects are the same, “a common cure,” writes Danny Lewis at Smithsonian, “for stress or feeling down.”
Meager points to work done by Julie Ohana, a “culinary therapist” who uses the kitchen to help patients combat “depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.” Vice‘s Jackson Connor describes his personal experience of how cooking “alleviates symptoms of stress and anxiety almost immediately,” as well as over time. And no less an authority than food theorist Michael Pollan makes the persuasive case for “how cooking can change your life” in the short animated video below (see his full talk at the RSA here).
Further arguing, however, for baking as a special form of “flourishing,” Julie Thomson at HuffPo describes the act as “a productive form of self-expression and communication” and consults with experts like Ohana and Donna Pincus, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Boston University, who told Thomson, “Baking has the benefit of allowing people creative expression.” People who may not be natural artists, writers, or musicians. Yet baking is also a kind of problem-solving as well as a creative act, and “actually requires a lot of full attention.”
You have to measure, focus physically on rolling out dough. If you’re focusing on smell and taste, on being present with what you’re creating, that act of mindfulness in that present moment can also have a result in stress reduction.
The reference to mindfulness is apt. (Go ahead and read about a course on “Breaditation,” make fun of it, then try it at home.) I know not a few people who swear they cannot meditate to save their lives, but who will happily spend a couple hours on a Saturday evening baking brioche or plates of cookies. But there’s more to it than the meditative absorption that comes from mindful activity. Baking, says Pincus—and cooking in general—is a form of altruism. “The nice thing about baking,” she ways, “is that you have such a tangible reward at the end and that can feel very beneficial to others.”
So the research suggests that—whatever activities one gravitates toward—finding happiness on a daily basis involves more than using Pinterest boards and magazines to craft a cozy, stylish new life. Though any sustained creative activity may do the trick, we approach closer to lasting happiness as well as greater fulfillment—to meaning—when we direct activity to a “connection with other people” through generosity.