Cooking or baking has become a common cure for stress or feeling down, but there might actually be some science to why small creative tasks might make people feel better. According to a new study, a little creativity each day can go a long way towards happiness and satisfaction in the bustle of daily life.
According to a study people who frequently take a turn at small, creative projects report feeling more relaxed and happier in their everyday lives. The researchers followed 658 people for about two weeks, and found that doing small, everyday things like cooking and baking made the group feel more enthusiastic about their pursuits the next day.
When people feel anxious, they look for something to do, a distraction of sorts, and baking provides just that for many people. There are a whole host of reasons for this: Dr. Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a clinical psychologist with a disaster stress management background and a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, San Antonio, says some of it's just allowing yourself to be creative—adding flavor, changing color, forming shapes. Then you've got the sensory triggers. "The smell of spices and vanilla are comforting, and they often remind us of happy times. Olfactory scents are particularly linked to areas of the brain that involve emotions and memory," she suggests. There's also the magic of it all: "Mixing inert substances together and watching them rise can bring out the mystic, or the chemist, in all of us."
Humans naturally crave routine, though, and that's what's at the root of baking. "There is a rhythm or pattern to baking," says Dr. Mary McNaughton-Cassill. "It feels familiar and can even lead to a mindful state."
Mindfulness, for the uninitiated, is the quality of being aware and engaged, leading to reflection rather than reaction. Many psychologists believe it's one of the best ways to combat anxiety and depression. When you're baking, you can't help but be engaged; a lack of attention during an activity that requires such scientific precision could screw everything up. And when it seems like the world is ending, you don't want spoiled cookies. You just don't. So you embed yourself so deeply in the measuring, and the pouring, and the mixing, and the rolling, and the shaping, and whatever else your recipe asks you to do. And by the end, you've got a little less stress and a dozen more cupcakes.
Having something to show for it, like said dozen cupcakes, is another way baking can play welcome tricks on your brain. "One of the stressors of modern life is that, for many of us, our jobs don't have a tangible outcome. We work all day—in customer service, healthcare, education, accounting, insurance—and feel tired when we get home, but we don't have a discernible way to measure what we have accomplished," Dr. McNaughton-Cassill says. You might be fond of the endless hustle, sure, but consider this: "In contrast, throughout much of history people had to engage in physical, survival-based activities like growing food, building their own homes, and sewing, which while physically hard, provide a strong sense of accomplishment. I think this is why there has been such a resurgence of interest in crafts, home remodeling, and cooking. We want to feel that we can still do things that impact the environment." The environment, in this case, is being your home and the mood of the people in it.
So is baking therapy the next art therapy? Perhaps. "I haven't heard of it before, but I like the idea a lot," Dr. McNaughton-Cassill reasons. "I do have friends who say that watching cooking shows relaxes them, so maybe we need to find the Bob Ross of baking."
Until we find that unicorn of a human, though—or until some ground-breaking psychologists actually start prescribing cookie-making as medicine—continue to bake off the bad juju, especially right now. Make your brownies and your sheet cakes, if it calms your nerves. Make your lemon bars and your loaves of bread to put your mind at ease. I'll be doing the same.