by Julie R. Thomson
People who bake use any excuse to heat up their ovens. They bake a cake to crown someone’s birthday, labor over cookies to celebrate a holiday, and whip up brownies because everyone loves chocolate. But it turns out that baking is about more than creating something sweet to eat. Baking, especially when it’s done for others, can be accompanied with a host of psychological benefits.
Baking is a productive form of self-expression and communication.
“Baking has the benefit of allowing people creative expression,” associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Boston University, Donna Pincus, told HuffPost. “There’s a lot of literature for connection between creative expression and overall wellbeing. Whether it’s painting or it’s making music [or baking], there is a stress relief that people get from having some kind of an outlet and a way to express themselves.”
Stress is related to a host of mental and physical problems, and finding ways to cope with that stress is important for leading a healthy life.
When baking for other people, baking can also be a helpful way to communicate one’s feelings. Susan Whitbourne, professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts, points to the cultural norm of bringing food to someone when a loved one has passed. Sometimes there are no words, and only food can communicate what you’re trying to say. She told HuffPost, “It can be helpful for people who have difficulty expressing their feelings in words to show thanks, appreciation or sympathy with baked goods.”
Julie Ohana, a licensed clinical social worker and culinary art therapist, told HuffPost, “In many cultures, in many countries, food really is an expression of love, and it’s actually beautiful because it’s something we really all relate to. I think it could border on an unhealthy issue when it replaces communication in the traditional sense, but if it’s done along with communication, it is absolutely a positive and really wonderful thing.”
Baking for yourself and for others is a form of mindfulness.
We’ve all heard of the benefits of meditation and mindfulness ― increasing happiness and reducing stress, to name a couple ― and baking can reap some of those same rewards. “Baking actually requires a lot of full attention. You have to measure, focus physically on rolling out dough. If you’re focusing on smell and taste, on being present with what you’re creating, that act of mindfulness in that present moment can also have a result in stress reduction,” explains Pincus.
This backed-up belief is one of the reasons that culinary art therapy is more commonplace, right alongside art therapy ― it fits a type of therapy known as behavioral activation. Ohana says that more and more people are calling her because they’re looking to recreate her model in their own therapy practices.
“Baking is thinking step-by-step and following the specifics of the here and now, but it’s also thinking about recipes as a whole, the dish as a whole, what are going to do with it, who it’s going to, what time are you sharing it, so baking is a really good way of developing that balance of the moment and the bigger picture,” says Ohana.
And not only is mindfulness a good skill to master, but it can also help ease the presence of sad thoughts. John Whaite, the baker who won “The Great British Bake Off” in 2012, has publicly said that baking has been a help for him dealing with his manic depression.
Pincus said that when that being mindful ― such as when you bake ― it can mean “you’re not spending time ruminating over your thoughts, we know that rumination leads to depression and sad thoughts, if you’re doing something productive. And the nice thing about baking is that you have such a tangible reward at the end and that can feel very beneficial to others.”
Baking for others is a form of altruism.
At the heart of baking for others is the very act of giving. While the process of baking can contribute to an overall sense of wellbeing, giving heightens that feeling.
“Baking for others can increase a feeling of wellbeing, contribute to stress relief and make you feel like you’ve done something good for the world, which perhaps increases your meaning in life and connection with other people,” Pincus told HuffPost.
Whipping up baked goods with the intention of giving them is a form of altruism ― it’s a sacrifice you make for someone else ― and the benefits of this selfless act have been heavily studied and written about.
But “there is also a symbolic value in baking for others because food has both physical and emotional significance,” says Whitbourne. “The most benefits would accrue when you bake not to seek attention or to out-do others, but when you just want to share the food with people who you believe will appreciate it. As long as you’re good at what you bake.”
If baking is an activity that stresses you out, then you might not reap the same psychological rewards ― because de-stressing is meant to be one of its benefits. “If someone has a phobia with cooking and baking, it’s not for them. It’s better for people who start off with a baseline comfort level in the kitchen,” says Ohana. Pincus agrees: “As long as it’s not stressful and not obligatory, it can be beneficial for all.”
“I think offering food to somebody else is just as much a comfort to the person receiving as the person who’s serving and offering,” says Ohana.
We’ll bake to that.