While whipping up large holiday meals can seem overwhelming, it turns out that baking may actually help relieve stress. So, maybe it's time to get out those oven mitts and prepare for a cookie baking marathon?
If you’ve ever binge-watched The Great British Baking Show, then you already know that baking can be a creative and artistic pastime. But with all those measuring cups, timers, and ingredients involved, it can be difficult for people to understand why.
According to a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, a little bit of creativity goes a long way. After examining detailed journal entries of 658 young adults, researchers found that those who spent time working towards “creative goals,” such as baking, had a “higher activated positive affect on that day.” In other words, those who worked on a creative project were more likely to experience joy, confidence, and general inner satisfaction. And let’s face it—building a gingerbread house is a serious exercise in artistic creativity.
In an article addressing that same study, Smithsonian magazine noted that research on the correlation between food and positive emotions is becoming more prevalent. “In recent years,” they explained, “psychologists have started spending more time exploring cooking and baking as a therapeutic tool to help people dealing with things like depression and anxiety.” For some people, this is thanks in part to the way in which baking provides “small tasks to focus on in a manner similar to meditation.” In this way, baking is a therapy that requires a person to be both physically and mentally attentive and that provides them with a productive outlet for negative emotions.
Professional baker John L. Haber of Show Cookies from Habey’s Kitchen agrees that baking can be a way to de-stress. Haber creates, among other things, incredible bespoke cookies for Broadway shows, such as the ones pictured here. He says that although his baking can involve the stress of deadlines and large quantities, he does find creating a new cookie to be a stress reliever. He adds that “for the average person, baking is a wonderful activity to relieve tension. Doing something creative, working with your hands, and focusing on the activity keeps your mind off other things that might be distracting or bothering you. It stimulates all the senses.”
Indeed what Haber says about the senses holds up. There is evidence that physically touching the ingredients, like kneading bread by hand, can provide a therapeutic experience.
Additionally, baking facilitates a degree of altruism that doesn’t come with other stress-reducing endeavors. After all, if you’re baking every day, you’re bound to give some of your goodies away. For many bakers, creating a birthday cake, a batch of cookies, or even just a tray of brownies is an act of not just self-expression, but love. And it turns out that this altruism can actually have a few health benefits.
According to Psychology Today, giving to others can release endorphins, leaving the giver feeling a burst of positive energy, as well as increased feelings of satisfaction and gratitude. To top it off, helping others “can also improve your physical well-being.” However, according to the article, it’s important to know when it’s time to help others and when it’s time to help yourself. For people who have difficulty staying organized, or who are already feeling overwhelmed by commitments, adding an additional dose of altruism can cause more stress. Generally speaking, however, it’s safe to say that baking a few cookies for the office Christmas party won’t lead to a burnout—unless you set off the fire alarms.
But no matter how you slice it, baking for yourself or others may provide just the stress relief you need to make it through tough times. The next time you find yourself mixing cookie dough, don’t be afraid to unplug the mixer and grab a wooden spoon—or better yet, your bare hands—and feel the stress melt away like gooey chocolate chips.