Tag Archives: Food

The Nanny State: repression of happiness?

It’s a pedagogic dilemma all parents will face: should we be strict to our children and prohibit them to do things that are bad for them? Or should we give them the freedom to learn for themselves that sand is not tasty, that you can fall if you climb a tree and that a drink too many has dire consequences the next day?

At the state level, similar dilemmas arise. Social-democrats traditionally don’t scare away from a dose of paternalism to educate citizens. Libertarians, on the other hand, abhor states that coerce a certain type of behaviour. Which recipe works best to develop a happy society?

Two weeks ago, I addressed the question “does size matter” – when it’s about the size of the state and happiness levels, that is. The evidence indicated that some of the happiest states are smaller countries, and that after a certain level? There is – surprisingly – a positive correlation between higher tax and higher life satisfaction. Does that also mean that a more active government, a Nanny State, could contribute to higher levels of happiness?

Nanny State Index

Republicans in the US and liberals in EU States – such as Dutch PM Rutte – agree on one thing: big government is big enough, and the state shouldn’t interfere too much with individuals’ life. That’s also the thought behind the Nanny State Index. It has been developed by liberal or libertarian think-tanks, and maps the strictness of regulation affecting personal choice in the 28 countries of the EU.

The Index lists four areas: e-cigarettes, tobacco, alcohol, and food. There is quite a difference in the freedom of access to this products across the EU. For instance, in Sweden alcohol is only available in state stores and e-cigarettes are effectively prohibited in Belgium.

Altogether, two of the paternalistic Nordics, Finland and Sweden, top the list. They stay ahead of UK and Ireland. As a result of strict rules on tobacco and so-called ‘sin taxes’ on unhealthy foods and drinks, Hungary completes the top-5. Denmark, which one might expect to be in sync with paternalist Nordics, only ranks 12th. On the lower end of the scale, we find Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Germany. The freest country of all is… the Czech Republic.

Nanny State Index. Source: www.nannystateindex.org

Nanny State Index. Source: www.nannystateindex.org


Does repression, or freedom, bring happiness?

Is there any correlation visible between being a nanny and low and high happiness levels? The evidence is difficult to interpret: the three top-1o countries of the World Happiness Report rank at different places in the Nanny State Index. Swedish is on top of the list, the Netherlands at the bottom, and to confuse the picture further, Denmark is mid-way in the table.

The implication might be the following. Policies may work out differently in different settings. It’s probably the same with children: all are different. Some kids will exploit freedom and end up in troubles; other will feel their confidence strengthened and will be good and happy citizens.

Spinach is not the key to happiness. And neither is Coca Cola.

Sex sells. But happiness might sell even better.

Marketers know that very well. They claim that purchasing their products – as opposed to their competitor’s – make a consumer happy. I already commented a bit on this a couple of months ago, in two posts about the psychological effects of food, and about marketing food with happiness claims.

Since, I came across this sign:


Beyond this a funny and simple sign in front of a bar with a cheeky claim about happiness, I also saw a perfected version of the message “Buy us = happiness” from Coca-Cola.

The giant sugared drinks producer is becoming the strongest commercial happiness provider. After taking happiness as a theme via ‘Share Happiness’ and ‘Open Happiness’ campaigns, it now has launched regional campaigns under the name ‘Choose Happiness’. In Belgium, one of the posters alludes to Brussels’ symbol Manneken Pis. It looks like this:



The science of food and happiness states that marketers very occasionally do have a point when they claim that their products can increase people’s happiness or positive emotions. ‘Comfort foods” fatty acids affect neural signals in the brain, and can result in a weaker response to sad images. And the production of serotonin, the neurotransmitter most linked to positive emotions and happiness, can be aided by products like spinach, turkey and bananas. Before you stock up on spinach, consider that this implies a limited positive link, and by no means a direct and automatic effect. Spinach is not the key to happiness.

And, sorry to disappoint you, neither are gin-tonic and Coca-Cola. The sugar rush of a Coke can give a momentary positive stimulus to your mood. But the same is true for a Pepsi, and neither equals happiness. Slogans like ‘Choose Happiness’ misleadingly suggest an automatic effect. Of course we rationally know that all the expression of fun, social status, and the good life are artificial tricks to seduce us.

But by claiming happiness, marketers enter a very personal life domain. If, as Coca Cola seems to argue, people have full control of their own happiness (‘success is a choice’),it implies that the easiest way to be successful is by consuming their product. It also transmits the message that failure is a choice, and that is our own fault if we are unhappy. That’s not something that I as a consumer want to hear from a company.

In a way, I prefer the cheeky slogan of a bar, saying that a gin tonic brings us closer to happiness. It’s a lot more playful way of attracting attention.

If I wanted a drink of happiness, I’d go for a gin-tonic.

Food & happiness II: selling happiness

Food products can bring comfort and even happiness, I wrote last week. But let’s be more precise: some food products can bring some moments of happiness. And marketers are happy to try and make us believe that its exactly their products that bring us closer to what we are longing for: happiness.

I am do not know a lot about the history of marketing, but I came across an interesting blog post by Bruce Bradley. He claiming that the way that marketers have sold their products changed over the duration of the 20th century. Whilst initially, Coca Cola advertised their products with its features (‘delicious, refreshing’), they have  gradually moved up in their claims. In the 1930s, the perceived product benefits (superior qualities, ‘America’s favourite moment’) were used to sell coke. In the 1950s, Coca Cola rewarded consumers on an individual and personal level for choosing their products (‘the sign of good taste’). And more recently, it’s about emotional benefits: ‘open happiness’.


Source: Bruce Bradley (www.brucebradley.com)

Happiness: the highest value to sell?

Nowadays, brands do not communicate the product itself as such, but promote it by linking it to higher values. Happiness probably is the highest value that we can aspire to. If not happiness, what is it in life that we are searching for? Indeed, it’s impressive how consistently marketers across different brands and food products are ‘selling happiness’. Some examples beyond Coca Cola:

  • The most famous of all: McDonalds’ ‘Happy Meal’ .
  • Unilever’s ice cream brand (Ola in Belgium, going by other names in other markets) claims that ‘ice cream makes u happy’
  • Coffee producer Illy invites you to ‘live happILLY’
  • In the US, Lay’s did a campaign around ‘happiness exhibit’, asking people to send it happy photo’s.
  • Also well-known: Coca cola did a campaign with the slogans ‘share happiness’ and ‘open happiness’

Basically, I’d eat myself into obesity from all the fat and sugar in all these products before I become happy! And if I finish binge-eating a bag of Lays or a bucket of Ola ice cream, I feel guilty and sad rather than happy.Of course there is no sense in any of the claims. By associations themselves with happiness as a virtue, happiness marketers try to communicate something bigger than their products. The claims aren’t only insensible, they are also potentially dangerous for public health. Maybe the commercial should come with a sort of disclaimer, similar to alcohol or tobacco: happiness effects not proven.
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It’s the act of cooking that increases happiness

Ultimately I believe that it is not so much the act of consuming, but the act of producing that gives food the magic that is associated withs happiness effects. Baking is one – although by no means the only – example. Human beings are creators. We want to make something new and claim it as ours. A home-made cake almost always tastes better than one from the supermarket.

Dan Ariely, already mentioned earlier on the blog, calls this ‘the IKEA effect’: we value things more when they are ours. A great example is the cake mixes that were being sold from the 1950s. The first cakes mixes required nothing but the addition of water. They sold very badly. The producers than changed one thing: they took out eggs and milks from the mix. Sales went up from this point: housewives felt that they had contributed to the product and  could claim the cake as ‘theirs’.

Happiness is made with our own hands

In the 21st century, so many people working behind a computer produce nothing concrete. The output they generate is in data, text and numbers. There is nothing tangible. Doing something physical, like baking a cake from scratch, weeding the garden, or creating your own painting allows you to show something real and tangible as your product. Spending time on baking your bread, cup cakes or biscuits is a ‘pill-less prozac’, claims a UK campaign group citing research associating baking with lower mental health issues. Happiness doesn’t come out of a bag of crisps or a bottle with a famous logo on it. It comes from what we do with our hands.

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?

Costa Rica: the secret of ‘pura vida’

For some time, I believed Bhtuan was the happiest country on earth. A close relation to nature, a gentle Buddhist philosophy and to top it off: the cradle of Gross National Happiness. Bhutan probably is quite a happy place (and my dream is to travel there). But reading more about national happiness levels, I discovered more and more about another positive outlier: Costa Rica.

Costa Rica ranks twelfth in the World Happiness Report list of happiest countries, dominated by Western countries. It even tops the list of the Happy Planet Index, an index that doesn’t only measures happiness, but also adds environmental performance in the equation.

Why is Costa Rica, despite its relative poverty, such a happy country? When I asked Google, I got several different answers: the lack of an army, healthy food, a slow pace of life. As I wanted to validate these points in a scientifically completely invalid survey, I also asked some Costa Rican friends of friends and people who lived there for their comments.

“General speaking I  believe that Costa Ricans are quite positive in their live, even though they suffer from corruption, unemployment, injustice and crime. Why are we still so positive? Honestly I don’t know. Maybe we are born with this mindset.” – R.


Is this mindset to Costa Ricans, or is it of a factor that holds true for all Latin Americans? The case is made that a manana manana attitude prevalent in Latin America leads to higher happiness levels. Indeed, the figures of the World Happiness suggest that there is a ‘Latin American bonus’ in happiness levels. When taking values about more objectives indicators associated with happiness (wealth and comfort, social support, freedom, generosity), happiness levels in Latin American countries are about 0,5 (on a scale to 10) higher than one would expect on basis of the data. Butnature, weather and food also count:

“Close contact with the nature and the very very nice weather help to be happy. Latin culture and in particular the tendency not to be worry is another important point. They are simple people and they enjoy the life with simple things.” – C.
“We eat healthy food: a variety of fruits, vegetables, rice, beans, eggs, milk, bread, good coffee, not too much meat and artificial deserts, etc.. Yes, nature is generous…” – F.

The lack of an army could also be a factor in it (though Costa Rican policemen are heavily armed), in an indirect way:

“Since we don’t have army (we are pacifist), all the money of the State is distributed in education (schools, high schools and universities), health (hospitals, social security), and ecology (beaches, forests, tourism). In my opinion, these three elements are very important to have a ‘quality of life’.” – F.

But one of the key factors, apparently, is what Costa Ricans call ‘Pura Vida’ – a generally positive concept that can mean anything, from hello to thank you and that can be used in happy situations, and even in sad ones.
“We have a tendency not to worry…I would even go as far as to say, a tendency not to care. Maybe it’s related to the fact that since we have never known conflict or difficult times as a country, it means we have never really learned to fight for things that are important to us. For example, most people are unhappy with our government and political parties, but no one does anything about it, indeed 35% of the population did not even vote last election.” – M.
“The Pura vida phrase does influence the way to see our lives. Pura vida is something cultural- we say this phrases a lot during the day. It has different meanings , but all of then positive.” – R.
“Pura Vida to me means to take life carefree: you can fix all problems. If you can’t fix it, don’t worry: life still goes on.” – C.
pura-vidaThere certainly are a couple of factors that make it a lot easier to be happy than miserable in Costa Rica: wonderful nature – and a close relation to it, good food. Of course paradise on earth does not exist, not even in Costa Rica. But the basic quality of life is quite good, and the Latin bonus gives another boost. A pura vida philosophy – ready to every situation – does the rest. A pure life: what else do we need?