Cooking: The Next Happy Pill?

In a recent New York Times Magazine interview, U.S. Poet Laureate Charles Simic was asked what advice he'd give to people who are looking to be happy.

His response: "For starters, learn how to cook."

The question was asked in the context of the slew of self-help books on the pursuit of happiness -- a state of being guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence no less -- and once there, how to keep the good vibrations going.

So, if we heed Simic's advice and get back into the kitchen, could it be possible to one day throw the Zoloft down the drain? Could some time with the cutting board replace the need for time on the therapist's couch? Would the inexplicable, seemingly unsolvable mysteries of life still carry the same weight after making a pot of soup?

And on a more universal level, here's what I've been chewing on for the past week: Would the world be a happier place if we all spent more time at the stove?

We all know the role of food as fuel -- and the difference a healthy, well-balanced diet can make on our human engines. But what if we actually refined that fuel ourselves? The feeling can be, well, infectious.

To wit, a friend in Denver, Colo., shared the following story in a recent e-mail:

My father-in-law's wife died suddenly this past year in Mexico and he showed up with a Mexican cookbook and very little else in his suitcase (other than mismatched shoes) for two weeks with us. We cooked, drank wine, and cooked some more.

And here's what my kid brother Tim had to say about his recent kitchen foray during last month's cold spell in his hometown of Key West:

I made a big pot of chili yesterday to help produce a bit of warmth, it turned out real well. I think it is one of those foods that is appreciated by all when served hot and with love. Think about it, who doesn't love a big steaming bowl of this tomato based wonder that can contain any number of different ingredients?

Now it's your turn to pass the salt. Toss your thoughts into the mixing bowl (aka "comments" section) below.

By Kim ODonnel |  February 11, 2008; 9:56 AM ET Kitchen Musings
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Made some impromptu paella for one last night for dinner and it sure did improve my frame of mind. Immediately the apartment air was enfused with the fragrance of onions, garlic, saffron, chicken and rice. I garnished with shrimp, green olives and peas. I remained pretty happy throughout the evening.

Posted by: Dave | February 11, 2008 10:35 AM

Oh, I couldn't agree more!! When diagnosed with extreme anxiety and OCD, it was somewhat of a relief to know that there was a reason I always felt that way, but also somewhat as a failure. However, as I realized I was able to channel all of that into cooking and baking, I discovered a talent and hobby that I never knew I had! It has brought the greatest joy to me for my successes, as well as a channel to be a perfectionist, so it doesn't overlap into other areas of my life. My hubby then encouraged me to share about all my OCD experiences in the kitchen (on my blog, KitchenNut.com) , which helps me to laugh at myself, as well. Thanks for the great article!

Posted by: KN | February 11, 2008 10:35 AM

This makes sense. Think about it: When someone dies, what do people bring to the home? Home-cooked food (at least in my culture). It's not just about making sure there's food in the house during a difficult time. It's comforting.

Posted by: AEA | February 11, 2008 10:50 AM

And let's look at the converse. Every time I eat fast food I feel like crap. If we extrapolate this to the world at large--that's a lot of people feeling crappy, which in turn leads to flatulence, road rage and rudeness in general.

Posted by: Dave | February 11, 2008 10:58 AM

sure I would be happier if I had more time to plan meals, cook and share them with loved ones. It takes effort, but the payoff is worth it.

Posted by: SSMD | February 11, 2008 11:00 AM

The amount of attention I started giving to cooking and learning new recipes certainly helped me get over a bad breakup - and it also saved me money because I didn't have to order in or go out to eat as much. So, good home-cooked food and more money makes me a happy girl!

Posted by: KGK | February 11, 2008 11:47 AM

I know that I cook when I'm stressed... the night I was waiting to hear about getting my first job, I more-or-less forced my mother to come with me to get random ingredients for a cake that I just had to make right then. I didn't actually want any cake. I just wanted to bake something.

Since the semester started, I've been cooking madly to help calm my mind from my full-time job and grad program -- I've conquered bread, butternut squash, and alfredo sauce since last weekend. Everyone in my grad program cooks when stressed, so we've started bringing food into our office, just to get rid of the excess.

Cooking is one of the few times I can really be present with what I'm doing, and let go of worrying about everything else that might be going on in my life. That's not even considering how cared for I feel when I have beautiful homemade food to eat, or how much healthier I feel when I have lots of minimally processed food and vegetables.

Posted by: Karen | February 11, 2008 12:03 PM

Cooking to get dinner on the table is not relaxing and does not improve my happiness. It's a chore, like many others I have to do. Baking cookies for no other reason than I wanted to is bliss. Making a special dinner, for myself or for others, is an act of love and makes me happy.

Posted by: DC Cubefarm | February 11, 2008 12:12 PM

Nothing centers me more than being able to cook for people, even a large dinner like Thanksgiving fills me with a sense of warmth and accomplishment.

I just wish that I had more time to relax and to plan and to cook meals; with 2 1/2 small kids underfoot and manic at the dinner-hour, sometimes what's for dinner is the fastest and easiest connection between the prep/cooking and their tummies (read: box mac n' cheese).

This post made me recall an earlier post of Kim's, recalling how she'd baked and shared a bunch of cupcakes... was it immediately after 9/11? Anyways, I think about that post often, and have put on my "things to do" list to bake something for our neighbors for absolutely no reason at all.

Thanks for it all, Kim. You're the best.

Posted by: Centre of Nowhere | February 11, 2008 12:53 PM

I wonder if the common denominator here is time--time spent at the cutting board or in front of the stove equals time NOT spent in the office, at the mall, in traffic or wherever else we're distracted, anxious or overstimulated. Time is such a precious commodity anymore that cooking becomes a real gift, not just to the person sitting at the table but also to the person stirring the pot.

Posted by: Cincinnati | February 11, 2008 1:16 PM

I was sick last weekend and my friend called to check on me saying "are you at least feeling well enough to cook?" I made bread and french onion soup and suddenly I could deal with the world again.

I've found bread is good for anger management because I get to smack it! :) From a song by Them Eastport Oyster Boys -- "'cuz while she's out there whackin' that dough, she's lettin' her vexations go, and better on them biscuits than me!"

Posted by: CCod | February 11, 2008 2:04 PM

Hi from Costa Rica! Just want to say a few things... Once you try food as a way to connect, as a way to love, as a way to respect, not only yourself but the ingredients that you´re working with, I´m pretty sure that it´s going to change your whole opinion on food and cooking... Food envolves lots and lots of amazing things... And that hidden world is there for us to discover and reconnect with food and earth. So yeah, as Kim was saying... Just try to chance your fuel... And you will see... It´s amazing!!! Respect your body... Respect what you put inside your body... Your fuel... Discover the magic and the therapy that involves cooking... Take the time to cook... Not as another task on your daily rutine... But as one of the best moments to actually find yourself and reconnect.

Posted by: Chef Luis Protti | February 11, 2008 3:35 PM

This reminds me of the movie Como agua para chocolate (Like water for chocolate), where love was a palpable ingredient of food. Cooking is one of my few wind down activities I do everyday. Even when I come home late and it means cooking/eating at 11 or midnight it is still important for me to take the time to cook something and not just reheat something frozen. Even if it is as simple as pasta sauce, or a grilled cheese, cooking clears my mind so I can actually sleep at night.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 11, 2008 4:07 PM

I couldn't agree with the chef's post more! I wish that people didn't view having to prepare food to nourish their bodies as drudgery! Granted, I have always loved to cook, so it resonates with me immediately that buying and preparing food even as fuel (not to mention when you invite people into your home to share food) is an act of love for yourself, your family, and your friends. Of course I prefer to think of food as nourishment for the spirit as well as the body, because most people feel loved and comforted when eating foods that they like and foods that are delicious. (Whenever friends or co-workers of mine have a baby, I always give them two trays of mac 'n' cheese, one frozen for later and one refrigerated that they can have whenever.)

The only way to reframe your thinking about something you don't enjoy doing is to start doing it and find some aspect of it that you do in fact like or that's easy for you. Just as KN wrote, we all have undiscovered talents. When you discover yours, you may find yourself falling in love with something you supposedly never liked to do! Case in point, a friend invited me to join his running class. I don't really like running distance, but I found that not only was I good at running short distances, I was also one of the faster people in the class and got better at running distance too from working with the class instructor. Plus I met so many other great people who were also latent athtletes! So perhaps the secret to learning to love to cook is keep at it and find some aspect of "cooking" that you really enjoy, be it soups, salads, cakes, cookies, pasta, cocktails, setting a beautiful table, entertaining... The list of possibilities is endless!

Posted by: Sean | February 11, 2008 4:18 PM

I also find calm and happiness when I cook. Even with working and commuting every day, I still cherish my time making dinner each evening. Even making the simplest dinners calm my mind and soothe my soul.

Posted by: Fairfax | February 11, 2008 8:41 PM

I couldn't agree more - every fall, I spend days at work dreaming about making comfort food and stocking the freezer with them - soups, chilis, sauces. It makes me crazy - I call it "Betty Crocker Blackouts".

Years ago, when I was unemployed for 6 months, that's all I did in my spare time - cooked. I didn't care about eating whatever I made, I just wanted to cook. It kept me sane.

When I was single, I made full dinners for myself, including salad every night, while my single friends were dining on popcorn or cottage cheese and jelly mixed together (ew).

I cook dinner 5-6 days a week. The quality varies - I've been known to take something frozen and dress it up if I'm either rushed or lacking in ideas. (But, many times, if I take something out of the freezer, it's something I made.) It relaxes me, it's my creative outlet (somewhat) and it makes me feel like I'm taking good care of my family.

Posted by: LF | February 12, 2008 9:53 AM

Great subject here. Growing up Latin, we were silently taught that cooking was the most important part of the day--that thing that keep the family in tact.

As an adult now, cooking is not only a passion but a way of making other's happy! When I see the smile on my guests face and their ooh's and aahh's, it does something to your self esteem or your confidence as a person (woman in most our cases here). And like Sean said, cooking should not be "drudgery". My goal as a young woman is to encourage other young women (yes, I'm a traditionalist) to cook and not look at it as a chore! There really is JOY in cooking and preparing foods that are not only intended for our nourishment but can really help others.

Only thing...as a single woman, cooking for self is a task. I hate it! For instance, I coked arroz con pollo with boniato (Cuban white sweet potato) last night, and I had more than enough to feed atleast 6 people! It's not so practical doing all the intense prepping for just me.. So I ended up inviting a friend over. And, he loved it!

Goal accomplished!

Cook people, cook!!!! :)

flanboyanteats.com

Posted by: FlaNBoyant Eats | February 12, 2008 10:56 AM

I agree with what everyone has said so far, and have this to add: I struggle from time to time with disordered eating and depression but cooking is one of the ways to stabilize my head and feel peace.

Consider: When I got interested in cooking I naturally started eating better as a result, which made me healthier. Cooking soon led to a reawakened interest in the active and relaxing hobby of gardening, and let's not forget that cooking also gives you a chance from time to time to shop for fun new equipment and ingredients, which is therapeutic in its own way.

And you can share the product of your labors with someone you love.

Posted by: Fan in Israel | February 13, 2008 4:52 AM

I always say to my husband that cooking is my daily pill. I especially like baking. When I start I forget all about my daily problems and feel so much better. When I see the smile on their face that's joy.

Posted by: Hélène | March 4, 2008 1:02 PM

Kim, What did Tim put in his chili? I didnt realize it got cold in Key West!!!

Posted by: RobinDuke | March 17, 2008 2:50 PM

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