At the beginning of lockdown in 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic was worsening around the globe, many of us had that one moment – however fleeting – when we all tried to find the silver lining of having so much time on our hands.
Like many others, David Stubley turned to baking. No longer commuting to his job as a cybersecurity consultant, and seeing the early pandemic shortages at his local supermarket, the Stirling, Scotland, resident started experimenting with sourdough. Though he had a bit of a leg up on those left wondering about the shelf-life of yeast – his wife had gifted him a baking course just before Christmas – Stubley found that kneading a big hunk of dough gave him a sense of calm and control, even as the world around him seemed to fall apart.
“It clicked, and I found I was able to actually do it, and do it beyond enjoying it: I was actually quite good at it,” he says. “Making bread look nice and pretty and beautiful actually appealed.”
Stubley is one of many who turned en masse to cooking. Suddenly, our kitchens were filled with so many puddings that we couldn’t eat them all on our own, and we convinced ourselves that a 50-pound bag of flour was our best lockdown purchase yet.
And, perhaps, that’s right; like Stubley discovered, research shows there may be beneficial effects beyond perfectly golden loaves, like stress reduction, emotion management and even social connections that we can reap by simply heading to the kitchen. The obsession with cooking has become a kind of self-care – one we’ve desperately needed during the long, often boring months of isolation. There’s also evidence to suggest that the benefits of cooking are not just about the creativity associated with the task; the simple mechanics of cooking can make the process appealing, and activate crucial brain centres.
Researchers in Tel Aviv have shown that repetitive behaviours and rituals can ease stress and anxiety, like when a basketball player dribbles a ball a specific number of times before shooting it. While, as Farmer notes, there haven’t been any studies to specifically examine the physical motions of cooking, like chopping or kneading, it follows that those movements could provide the same benefits.
Those activities when we move our hands … definitely have a link to positive emotions and stress,” she says. “We believe when people engage in cooking, there’s an activation of the sensory system, and that activation brings in our working memory,” explains Farmer.
Working memory is what enables us do a task without losing track of it: say, if you’re putting ingredients out on your counter, you’ll remember you already grabbed the flour from the pantry and won’t go looking for it again. But, as Farmer explains, it can also activate emotional regulation. (Still, the research isn’t strong enough for Farmer to say for sure that really laying into your bread dough when you’re kneading it will actually help calm you down – although it certainly may feel that way, regardless.)
Along with spurring creativity and good vibes, cooking on your own can – perhaps surprisingly – provide a feeling of social connection, something we’ve needed more of as we’ve been holed up. Farmer’s research, which is based on 10 years of pre-pandemic data, shows cooking breeds “an increased feeling of social interaction and a positive social role” – all of which has the potential to make you feel good.