We call it comfort food for a reason. Sometimes throwing on an old tracksuit and curling up in a nest of blankets in front of the TV with an array of delicious sweet treats is simply a necessity. Just as going out for a fantastic meal with friends when you are feeling a bit blue can lift your spirits higher and higher with every delicious mouthful!
However, could it be that the very act of creating awesome things to eat actually has a positive effect on our mental wellbeing too?
Baking is seen as a symbol of being nurturing, caring and full of goodness, so it’s no wonder that people often turn to baking when they are feeling wound up or down in the dumps.
An afternoon in the kitchen can be time well spent for more reasons than one. In fact, baking up a storm is believed to help alleviate stress, depression, anxiety and anger.
Baking requires concentration, focus, and, perhaps most importantly, creativity. Because of this, giving yourself a few hours to undertake this one pleasurable task will help to take your mind off the stresses and strains of everyday life, and can be hugely therapeutic.
So What are the Rules of Baking Yourself Happy?
Don’t rush it. OK so this whole calming effect isn’t going to work if you are trying to do a baked Alaska in less than half an hour because you’ve got to rush out to pick up the kids, and go to the supermarket, and call the babysitter about next week, and write that email to your boss…
If you don’t give yourself time, before you know it you could find yourself gently weeping on the kitchen floor with flour in your hair and nothing else to show for it!
And that won’t do at all.
So, to genuinely enjoy baking, and get the most out of it, set aside some time to do it properly – give this as a little gift to yourself. Throw open some windows, put your favourite album on, and dance around the kitchen shaking your rolling pin to the beat – it’s supposed to be fun after all!
Don’t go off piste. Working through a recipe in a methodical way distracts you from anything else that is worrying you or stressing you out. It’s the perfect combination of focusing your mind, but also having all the instructions laid bare for you so you are being directed and not having to make decisions for yourself. If you make it too complicated or start making up your own rules, you could end up getting confused and even more stressed than when you started!
Be OK with failure. If you are the kind of person who beats yourself up unless you turn out a cake Mary Berry would be proud of each and every time, then maybe this kind of stress relief might not work for you. The fun is in the doing, not the result, so don’t get disheartened if your cakes are not perfect at the end.
Share the wealth. Sharing your baked goods with family, friends and colleagues can be another great way to boost our happiness. There is nothing nicer than giving someone an unexpected homemade gift, so not only do you get the joy of doing the baking but an extra helping of happiness when you see the great reactions your baking evokes from other people too. Also, let’s face it, if baking becomes your go-to stress reliever it’s probably not best to eat ALL the cakes yourself!
Of course, the creative side to baking is another positive that can help make you happier too. You might not think that following a recipe is being particularly creative but hey, we’ve got some news for you – when you’re baking you are literally creating something – therefore voila – you are being creative after all!
Getting arty with your decorating can be rewarding, satisfying and fun. Making something visually lovely can be very soothing and can lift your mood – and you don’t have to have a particularly artistic streak to be a beautiful baker either! It’s super easy to get your mitts on colourings, moulds, stencils, dusts and toppers and many other cake decorating supplies to turn your baked goods into wondrous works of art that can’t help but make you feel as though the world is a better place.
So Where is the Science?
There is, in fact, plenty of evidence to back up the claim that baking is an excellent mood booster, and there are many well-known advocates of it too.
Author Marian Keyes wrote her book, Saved by Cake about it, the 2012 Great British Bake-Off winner, John Whaite said baking helped him battle depression, and countless studies have shown that being creative has a positive effect on our wellbeing.
Baking is calming because it is methodical. Following a recipe step by step takes a certain amount of time, and you can’t rush or skip parts of it and hope to achieve the same result.
This makes for a certain sense of tranquillity that getting your bake-on can bring. Baking is predictable, it’s stable, and in times of tension and stress, this can be very reassuring.
All the weighing and measuring and stirring and mixing are also similar to those proven stress relieving techniques such as squeezing a ball or stroking a pet. It gives the baker a certain sense of control and more physically exerting tasks such as kneading dough or beating eggs, for example, are effective at easing tension. Pounding away at your dough also equates to exercise – which releases endorphins and makes you feel more positive too.
Of course, let’s not forget the eating! Tucking into sweet treats has been proven to alter our brain chemistry, effectively making us altogether happier.
The release of insulin into the blood which is subsequently converted into serotonin in the brain makes us feel all warm and fuzzy inside – though make sure you don’t go too overboard as an overload of sugar can cause a high and subsequent slump – which is much less fun.
So Which Foods Should We Bake to be Happy?
There are certain ingredients which are particularly great choices if you want to boost your mood.
Chocolate (particularly dark chocolate) is known to reduce stress hormones, cortisol and catecholamine thus having a seriously calming effect on your body. A fresh and zesty lemon scent has been proven to boost levels of serotonin in the brain, and anything that needs a good knead should also be high on your list as the energy expended in doing so can reduce cortisol and adrenaline levels and quell anger too.
Let’s face it; baking is no longer reserved for the retired, or the shiny stay at home mum’s who can ‘do it’ all, or for seven-year-old girls.
Baking is inclusive, anyone can get involved, and everyone is welcome to give it a go. In fact, baking is increasing in popularity all the time.
Why? Because in a world where things seem to speed up by the millisecond, where we spend much of our day staring at screens, and where we work longer hours, baking is age-old hobby which takes us, however briefly, away from the ‘real world’ and back to simpler times.
Ones where we can de-stress, relax, and take a moment for ourselves to create something rather wonderful while we’re at it!