There is enough research that has taken place, and certainly more recently during the pandemic, which suggests that the act of cooking not only makes us healthier, but it has a significant impact on our mental health too. From a positive psychology perspective, when we participate in an activity like cooking, it can have a positive impact on us in several ways. It helps encourage a sense of trust, community, meaning, purpose, belonging, closeness, and intimacy, which have been linked to increased happiness, decreased depression, and better wellbeing overall. So, what wonderful reactions trigger in our brains when we step into the kitchen, to make us feel this way?
1. Cooking for others gives us a sense of personal satisfaction
When we create the opportunity to cook for others, not only does it make the recipients feel great and help develop relationships, (I mean, who doesn’t like someone to cook for them), but it also makes us feel good that we have made someone else happy. Cooking for others is an act of kindness, and when you do something nice for others, it has a ripple effect, it makes us feel good too. You see, acts of kindness release happy chemicals in our brain, especially when we are complimented, appreciated, or acknowledged positively in some way.
2. It gives us a sense of purpose and accomplishment
When we cook, such as baking, for many of us it becomes a task of mastery, especially when we’re cooking from scratch. The process creates a psychological boost for us, as it can take us away from doing our normal routine.
And once we have finished cooking, we often feel a sense of pride. That’s because the act of cooking can often take a long time, so once we have finished, we feel a sense of accomplishment and achievement. Many of us take photos or selfies with our masterpieces and share them with others. And when we are praised by others, this floods us with even more happy chemicals. We are reminded or have that affirmation of how amazing we are.
3. Cooking creates bonds
Even if you aren’t in the same room as the person you are cooking for, or if you know someone is sick and you drop off some soup or lasagne for them, it creates a sense of closeness. It shows you love or care for that person in some way because you’re taking time out, giving them something that they potentially need.
When you cook for someone, you’re effectively showing them that you care, they have your support, your love, you’re backing. In turn that helps create stronger bonds in relationships and helps add to the emotional bank account, you have built with them.
And creating relationships and sustaining them is important for creating a flourishing life, because part of the survival fundamentals of our being, is creating good relationships with others. Cooking for one another helps with that. For many, it provides a means of social acceptance, belonging and a sense of community whether it’s a partner, your family or work colleagues.
4. Cooking is an act of self-care
We all need food to survive. But we can choose to eat unhealthy fast foods, or we can nourish our bodies with fresh homemade food. When we carve time out in this way, we remind ourselves that we recognise how important our body is to us. That we honour and respect it. When we cook for ourselves, and particularly healthy nutritious food, we are reminding ourselves that we care about our bodies, our soul, our minds. It sends a signal to the brain that we acknowledge how important we are.
5. Cooking is a wonderful act of mindfulness.
And we all know that mindfulness is great for mental health. When we carry out the act of cooking, especially more complicated recipes, we tend to concentrate more. We are more focused, and less distracted by negative thoughts, and can really be in the present moment.
That’s because, you know that if you become distracted whilst cooking, you might lose your focus and things can go wrong, very quickly. Things overflow, burn or you miss a key ingredient. When we are absorbed in this way, we are in ‘flow,’ and one of the key aspects of positive psychology is around how doing activities that get us into an engaged, state of flow, is important for our mental wellbeing.
It can even take you on a trip down memory lane. Your sense of smell can connect to a memory, especially when you cook something your parents might have made in your childhood years, for example. And reconnecting with those memories, especially if a happy one, can be extremely positive.
In summary, there are clearly numerous benefits to cooking, and there are many ways it can positively impact us, our relationships and especially the way we feel about ourselves. When we carry out activities that create that sense of absorption and flow, connectedness, and purpose we increase our happiness, decrease depression, which leads to greater, more positive overall wellbeing.
So, get out those pots and pans, dig out a favourite recipe and show someone, or just yourself how much you care.