How Baking, Cooking & Other Daily Activities Help Promote Happiness and Alleviate Depression and Anxiety

Image by Beth MacKen­zie, via Flickr Com­mons

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.

via Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Michael Pol­lan Explains How Cook­ing Can Change Your Life; Rec­om­mends Cook­ing Books, Videos & Recipes

53 New York Times Videos Teach Essen­tial Cook­ing Tech­niques: From Poach­ing Eggs to Shuck­ing Oys­ters

How to Get Start­ed with Yoga: Free Yoga Lessons on YouTube

Stream 18 Hours of Free Guid­ed Med­i­ta­tions

Free Col­or­ing Books from World-Class Libraries & Muse­ums: The Met, New York Pub­lic Library, Smith­son­ian & More

Holo­caust Sur­vivor Vik­tor Fran­kl Explains Why If We Have True Mean­ing in Our Lives, We Can Make It Through the Dark­est of Times

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Julie Biddle says:

    If any­one is look­ing for cook­ing videos and has­n’t yet dis­cov­ered Chef John and his Food Wish­es videos on YouTube you have a real treat com­ing. His videos are clear, sim­ple, laced with jokes and puns and real­ly help you devel­op con­fi­dence in your cook­ing.

    Here’s a sam­ple: I’ve been mak­ing french toast for years — it’s one of hub­by’s favourites — but Chef John taught me a bet­ter way and it is mak­ing brunch far less stress­ful.

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