There is something about the smells of a kitchen that put a smile on my face! Not necessarily the greasy, overused kitchens in a busy restaurant, but a nice, “home-cooked-meal-cooking” kitchen. It takes me back to so many good memories. Food and cooking are not only included but are the highlights for many holidays and celebrations. Those are the times we see grandparents, random second-cousins, and crazy aunts. It’s a time celebrated with the best of friends. Cooking provides happiness for so many people for so many reasons. How much happy can we find through cooking?
I think at the most basic level, we need food. Also, there’s the very direct, hormonal response via the release of dopamine when we receive food. It’s part of how we evolved to receive a positive effect for sustaining our health. What else is going on, though?
Have you ever smelled something and it gave you this jolt to a very specific memory? It literally feels like a bolt of lightning slamming us into the past. The reason is because of how closely related our olfactory nerve (the one responsible for smell) and our memory storage center in the brain are. Science has studied this phenomenon and found a direct connection of our olfactory nerve to specific parts of our brain related to memory and emotion. Super sciency, cool nerd stuff that I won’t go deep into but the final result is our brain has connected certain smells to times in our life we felt happy. As a society, we’ve done a really good job of combining a really hearty, home-cooked meal with some of the happiest times of our lives. These are the times we spend with family, the times we spend with friends, the times we spend with all of the people we care about. Food and celebration go together like peanut butter and jelly. We pass down traditions and recipes from generation to generation and even if we prepare these meals or create these recipes without them there, they have found their way into our kitchen through our memories we’ve created. The same endorphins are released. The same happiness is created.
The answer isn’t that simple, either. The positive effects of a home-cooked meal versus some pre-made, factory processed, substitute come in a variety of forms. Trust me, I know that every meal my grandmother makes is going to add a few pounds. I also know that those pounds are going to probably be more nutrient-rich than the alternatives. The meal is going to have lots of fats, proteins, and carbs. Our brains actually work at a higher capacity when we have healthy fats to metabolize. This higher functioning allows us to process information better, have clearer focus, fight off disease, and make better choices for our health. Proteins allow for those juicy endorphins to release correctly. Carbs are going to give me that quick energy, no matter how nappish I feel after I get done eating. The foods we eat at these family gatherings have much more nutritional value than we give credit.
Another component of this equation is based on psychology. As a species, we are a community-based animal. We thrive when we are social and we deteriorate when we are not. Loneliness has been found to potentially be more detrimental to our health than smoking and obesity(article here). Cooking to provide sustenance for yourself does release dopamine and has a positive effect, but it is not nearly as beneficial as being the provider for family or friends. It’s one of the reasons we’re happy when everyone enjoys a meal we’ve made. Cooking also has a way of directing our focus, keeping us from worrying about the day to day. It works very similarly to meditative practices, which essentially ground us to the present so we can’t stress about the future or past.
I understand that not everyone likes to cook, can cook, or is good at cooking, but I insist that you give it another shot. Family dinner with friends or family, regularly, is a great way to get some cooking time in. Put together a pot luck, have a barbecue, a “cookoff” with your significant other. We don’t need holidays or a special reason to spend time with friends and family and we all need to eat. We might as well cook and eat with each other while creating a little more happiness in the process.
A version of this post was previously published on gofindyourhappy.net and is republished here with permission from the author.
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