Tag Archives: Coffee

Food & happiness I: comfort and ‘ritual’ foods make you happy

In Italy, where I spent two years of live and left a large part of my heart, food is larger than life. Friendships are broken and wars our fought over what’s the best way to make a parmigiana, a tiramisu, or what sauce to have with a type of pasta.

When I lived in Perugia, I spent quite some time with a great American guy called Alex (we even spent two months in a double room and even had fun together). He was a great cook and very much benefitted from the lessons of our housemate Ulderico. But the main reason I’m mentioning Alex and Ulderico that it is from them that I picked up the habit to say that I’m “fat and happy” (or grasso e felice) after a particularly satisfying meal.

There’s little debate about the fact that food can make you fat. But can it make you happy? I certainly believe so. In this, I think one can distinguish between ‘comfort food’ and ‘ritual foods’, by lack of a better term.

Comfort food

‘Comfort food’ is what you eat when you’re in a bad mood and need consolation. I mostly associate this with thinks like ice cream or chocolate, or also salty fat foods as fries or crisps. Believe it or not, but there is even scientific evidence that there really is a positive effect of these kind of food products on negative emotions.

A Belgian-UK team of researchers lead by Lukas Van Oudenhove from Leuven University studied the interaction between fatty acids in the stomach and neural signals in the brain. In the small-scale experiment, the researchers induced negative emotions via exposing the participants to sad music and pictures of sad faces. Then, some of the participants’ brain activity was scanned while receiving a fatty acid infusion in their stomach – akin to eating fatty ‘comfort food’ like macaroni with cheese. Compared with a control group, the participants that had ‘eaten’ the fat food displayed a weaker emotional response to the sad images.

‘Ritual foods’

Another Dutch study I came across studied the emotions that arose in 42 students eating various sweet and salty snacks. Positive emotions as ‘satisfaction’, ‘enjoyment’ and ‘desire’ were most prevalent, whilst a range of negative emotions hardly appeared. This, and other studies, suggest there is a relation between food and happiness.

I’m inclined to believe that this partly due to what I’d call ‘ritual foods’. I’d hypothesise that the strongest effect would occur when something we eat is associated with a strong experience and that we link to a story or a ritual. Let me give some examples of ‘ritual foods’ that I enjoy myself:

  • a freshly ground coffee, put with high pressure through a good machine. Taste, smell, colour, all factors together. I get ecstatic part by the caffeine and part by the idea of the coffee. You should see me with a great brew from Aksum in Brussels or sipping freshly ground coffee from my own machine. Jokingly, I’ve even created a personality for my machine, referring to it as a ‘her’…
  • home made pesto. When I have freshly made pesto – basil leaves, oil, garlic and pine tree nuts, that’s all – it’s so enjoyable I finish until the last drop of the pot.
  • less on the ecstatic level, but on a more day-to-day enjoyment: my breakfast. Yoghurt, cereal and fruit and taking the time to enjoy it with a newspaper, magazine or TED talk at the side.

There’s a lot more to say about food and happiness. Think about the way foods are marketed as happiness-inducing or the happiness that one can find in the act of cooking. We’ll get their next week. In the mean time, you’ll have to console yourself with some comfort food.

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How much happiness does an omelette with tomatoes bring?

Happiness is a messy thing

The previous blog post, about drinking a coffee on a Sunday morning, was called When I am happy. I thought of calling it What makes me happy, but then I would fall in one of the biggest pitfalls of happiness. Let me introduce why I believe there is a subtle but importance difference.

One of the great misconceptions human beings have about happiness is our implicit belief that things (objects, but also experiences) will always make you happy – satisfaction guaranteed. Sometimes they can. In the end, happiness is an ephemeral phenomenon. It comes and goes, sometimes stimulated by the things outside us, sometimes just by our own thoughts and perceptions. Yet, I think there are three reasons why it is dangerous to assume anything will make us happy: high expectations, the need for more, and the lack of a ‘satisfaction guaranteed’ clause.

High expectations

First of all, our expectations of objects are unrealistic. We think we will be happy when we have a certain object – say, a wonderful new Ferrari. We idealise the great trips we are going to make, crossing a nice hilly countryside, wind through our hair and a wonderful girl in the passenger seat. We don’t think of possible negative experiences with this car, be it a hefty traffic fine or an expensive repair. Often there is a mismatch between our idealised image of the future and reality. When reality (traffic fines, repairs) doesn’t match idealised expectations (great rides), it is easy to be disappointed.

More! More! More!

Secondly, there is one obvious mechanism. Greed. The need for more. To put it simply: when you don’t have a car, you think having a simple Kia to get you everywhere will satisfy. But then, you compare with the Volkswagen drivers. And even when you get your Ferrari, it is not enough. Then, you can’t do without a Porsche or a Maserati or a Bentley to be happy, and it starts all over. Happiness always disappears behind the horizon, like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that moves further away. (Personal example: my collection of ties is never complete either. I have over 35 now – and counting…).

‘Satisfaction guaranteed’

However, I think the third mechanism is most intriguing. I’d refer to it as the lack of a ‘satisfaction guaranteed’ clause for well-being, and it goes way beyond kitchen utensils and five-step abs training programmes. Sometimes the magic doesn’t happen.  Even if you have been happy before drinking great coffee, spending time with close friends or buying shoes, there is no guarantee that it will always work.  In scientific terms, the stimulus is not a sufficient precondition for happiness: the relevant object or experience doesn’t always have the desired effect of making you happy. This might be the most difficult thing to accept: why doesn’t it work anymore? Why is the magic lost?

When we are happy, not what makes us happy.

What is the  the takeaway of this? My belief is that it is better to see our lives in terms of moments when we are happy rather than to objects or experiences of which we think they make us happy. Happiness can come in all kind of moments, often as a surprise or unplanned. But we need to be present to register them, and to be grateful. Happy moments refer to episodes in the present, when you experience them. When we expect things to make us happy, we look at the future.

And in my own case? This particular Sunday morning I was happy drinking my coffee. But another Sunday morning, I might not be. Probably, it wasn’t only the sensation of the cup of coffee that made me happy. It was the complete picture – the excitement of trying out a new place, and the hope, later confirmed, that it would activate my creativity. It’s a lot more complex that coffee. Happiness is a messy thing.

Happy car!

Satisfaction guaranteed?

When I am happy (Sunday, 13.44)

Coffee on an easy Sunday morning

Sunday morning. (Early afternoon, to be honest). I leave my house, bring my laptop and my notebooks, and move to a new coffee house in my street. They call themselves a coffee parlour and serve New York-style bagels. They have a giant, red, Italian La Marzocco coffee machine. It is beautiful.

I take a seat outside. They have small tables and chairs, which seem to be taken from an old-fashioned classroom. They bring me my espresso. It’s dark, short and strong. I take a sip. It tastes black, bitter, sweet. It has other flavours I can’t place. I wonder what kind of beans they use, how the machine influenced it.

Five sips. And then all is gone except for the lasting impression of the moment.

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