Thread – Happiness, a mental state of bliss, is almost as complicated as studying food. Unsurprisingly, the relationship between the two remains one of the most widely disputed and speculated associations. So, why does food make you happy if it does? Are we what we eat?

Why do comfort foods make us happy?

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As the name suggests, Comfort foods give us comfort, a form of happiness. Think back to your ‘mummy ke haath ka khaana’, the ridiculously distasteful hostel food or the warm plates of Maggi that instantly make you smile. Likewise, the sheer thought of a bowl of the cheapest ramen or maybe the most expensive cake holds the power to make you happy. Isn’t that strange?

We are all comforted by different food items and their varying aspects. For some, comfort is nostalgia. To others, it may be linked to specific moments of happiness or people who make them happy. Your mom’s cooking may remind you of home, your hostel food may remind you of the days spent with your friends, and Maggi is the quintessential symbol of nostalgia.

A study from 2007 concluded that participants were more likely to snack on popcorn than on grapes while watching a sad film as opposed to a funny one. Does this mean that ‘unhealthy’ food is bound to give us comfort? 

Some experts opine that comfort foods tend to be on the unhealthier side as food items like salt, sugar, and fat are natural reward drivers that trigger the release of ‘happy hormones’ like dopamine. Our brains are pleasure-seeking machines wired to focus on both pleasure and survival. We consume these dopamine-inducing treats because we know they will comfort us. We bank on these food items to help make us feel better.

These experts go on to say that there exist chemical similarities between overeating and gambling. This merely means that we must be wary of our general eating habits and vigilant of growing dependency on comfort foods for solace.

Comfort food makes us happy at a psychological level by tapping into our associations. Therefore, the connection between our favourite foods and our happiness is unique and special. So, it is safe to say that the pizza might just qualify as your soulmate.

Nevertheless, healthier alternatives:

The scientific concept of our happiness is directly linked to the hormones that help stabilise and regulate our mood. More specifically, the food items that induce the production of these mood-affecting compounds make us physiologically happy. Nutritious food can promote the production of ‘happy’ hormones like serotonin and dopamine. What does this mean? For example, serotonin is a neurotransmitter associated with feeling happy because it regulates sleep and pain. Food that induces serotonin production is naturally more likely to help us achieve a state of happiness.

Healthier alternatives to your favourite comfort foods can do the trick just as well. Food items from cheese to spinach contain compounds that assist in the process of dopamine and serotonin synthesis. While bananas contain tryptophan, berries contain compounds similar to valproic acid. So, a well-balanced diet is capable of uplifting your spirits as well as maintaining your physical well-being.

Can you design a diet that makes you happy?

Truth be told, no spinach-centric diet can raise the global happiness index. The relationship between your food and your mood is highly complex and unique to you. The study of this association is continually evolving, and research must not be confused with scientific conclusions. While it is vital to recognise that what you eat can influence your emotions, it is more important to realise that this influence is somewhat unpredictable. The most helpful thing you can do is combine the best nutritious foods and comfort foods. Dark chocolate works as a symbol of the ideal ‘happiness diet.’ Not only is it capable of a boost in serotonin levels, but it also contains the sugary goodness characteristic of comfort foods. 

Maintain an optimum level of consumption of all these ‘happy’ foods to snack on that slice of cake but make sure to eat the food items that give you happiness even when you don’t realise it. Like all good things, happy foods make us truly happy only when they’re rare to come by (well, maybe not that rare). Go and have a cookie. It’s our treat.

Written by: Nerika Mishra

Categories: Blogs