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Psychologists explain the benefits of baking for other people

An American comedian gave the best description of The Great British Bake Off I have heard to date. I am madly paraphrasing here, but the crux of the joke was something like this: "there's this baking show in Britain where you're in a tent and you compete to see who can make the best cake."

"It's not really a competition though because no one is really competing. Everyone just goes about the place smiling and the hosts are just floating around all fairy-like. What's worse is that when someone is struggling with their bake, rather than be ruthless and capitalize on other's misfortunes, they go and help them. Why?!?"

I think I've got an answer: people who bake tend to use any excuse to heat up their ovens. If it's not because they're feeling peckish, people will bake a cake to crown someone's birthday, slave over oven cookies to celebrate a holiday or whip up brownies just because someone loves chocolate. Baking, especially when it's done for others, can be accompanied by a host of psychological benefits, and the character study for a baker makes for an interesting read.

"Baking has the benefit of allowing people creative expression," says Donna Pincus, Associate Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Boston University. "There’s a lot of literature for connection between creative expression and overall wellbeing."

She continues: "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 stress is important for leading a healthy life.

When you bake for other people, it 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. The countless "bring me food when I'm hungry" memes also shine a light on the trope that you make/prepare food (cakes included) for people you like or want to do well by.

Susan says: “It can be helpful for people who have difficulty expressing their feelings in words to show thanks, appreciation or sympathy with baked goods." My meme theory is backed up by Julie Ohana, a licensed clinical social worker and culinary art therapist.

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.”

We've all heard of the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. Done to increase happiness and reduce stress, these are few of many positives found in the practice and surprise, surprise, baking reaps similar rewards, as Pincus explains:

Baking actually requires a lot of full attention. You have to measure, focus physically on rolling out the 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.

Ohana backs up that theory, saying:

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.

Thinking existentially is always healthy in my opinion, and helps to get rid of negative thoughts. Added to that, whipping up baked goods with the intention of giving them is also a form of altruism. It’s a selfless sacrifice that you make for someone else, and the benefits of selfless acts have been heavily studied and written about.

Susan Whitbourne adds to that concept, saying: “there is also a symbolic value in baking for others because food has both physical and emotional significance."

"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.

It's the reason why GBBO works so well; yes, it's a competition, but at the end of the day, we draw some sort of vicarious joy and empathy watching others bake, and then go and help others bake their Foccacia or whatever. Very few art forms are good at benefitting yourself as well as others, and I think baking should be regarded highly as a result.

If baking is an activity that stresses you out, however, then you might not reap the same psychological rewards. De-stressing is meant to be one of its benefits! Ohana says: “as long as it’s not stressful and not obligatory, it can be beneficial for all.”

Benefits or no, my main takeaway from all this is that I'm allowed to make all the banana bread I want. Happy days.