Some people love to cook. It is their go-to task, the thing they do to relax, the thing that brings them real joy at the end of the day.
Trying to discover the source of that inherent, “joy of cooking” is one of the goals I had in mind as I began to explore the psychology of cooking and eating on this blog. On one hand, I wondered, why does cooking so often feel like a chore to me? Why is it so hard sometimes to feel up to the task of cooking dinner? On the other, I wondered, why I am so drawn to baking? Why do I feel so proud of myself after successfully cooking through a new recipe?
Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman is a professor, researcher, and major contributer to the movement known as Positive Psychology. I recently dove into reading several of his national best-selling books on the topic, and as a result, I have begun to see the questions I have been asking on this blog in a whole new light.
One concept he puts forth in the book Authentic Happiness that seems to be particularly relevant to my quest to find “the meaning of cooking” is known as gratification.
Gratification applies to those positive emotions that are produced out of the experience of doing an activity that is completely engaging. This activity requires you draw on your strengths and put in some real effort, but the effortful concentration then induced creates a sense of flow, where purpose and meaning are found and the rest of the material world falls away.
He notes that an experience that is gratifying is very distinct from one that is pleasurable. While I think various pleasures are embedded in the experience of food (more to come on this idea soon!), it seems that the concept of gratification much more closely applies to the experience of cooking.
Yet, everyone has different talents and strengths that then correspond to different experiences of gratification. It seems for some people cooking is one of those experiences, and while maybe it is true that anyone can learn how to cook, and indeed might have to out of necessity, can cooking really be gratifying for everyone?
In some ways, I do think this is possible, because cooking draws on so many different strengths — creativity, critical thinking, a love of learning, origincality, perseverance, appreciation of beauty, generosity, and hope, even. All of these are strengths that have been identified by in Dr. Seligman’s extensive research, and in addition to all twenty-four being outlined in his book, there is a measure, known as the VIA Survey of Signature Strengths, which can be taken for free after registering on Dr. Seligman’s research website, that has been developed to assess the various strengths you hold.
Among some of my greater strengths are love of learning and creativity. I think this may be why I enjoy baking so much, since there are endless ingredient combinations to learn and each allows for a lot of creativity on the part of the baker. And perhaps the only reason why I have continued to keep cooking, even in the face of failure, is my strength of perseverence. It likely is not due to optimism or hope in the future, since this is not one of my strengths… At least not yet. There are a lot of ways to tap into different strengths and develop them , but more importantly, I can use the strengths I already have developed in order to further encourage gratification in the kitchen, and maybe help me stop dragging my feet to get in there when it’s time to cook dinner.
The field of positive psychology is full of practical advice for increasing a sense of well-being throughout your life(reading Dr. Seligman’s other work Learned Optimism has been quite helpful in developing a more positive outlook about the future). I plan to continue exploring the research and theory behind this movement, and see just how it applies to my other very important interest: eating yummy food — like this here bowl of Coconut Oats.
Generally, I cook my oatmeal with water, and maybe sometimes add a splash of milk to the bowl at the end. With a little coconut milk left over in the fridge, though, I found inspiration for a new method on the fly yesterday morning. I added dash of cinnamon and nutmeg along the way, watched it bubble on the stove, and remembered the frozen berries in the freezer that would just add the perfect touch on top of the creamy oats.
I was in in the zone while cooking this oatmeal, pulling on the strengths I have built up over my lifetime — creativity, critical thinking, and appreciation of beauty — and really enjoying the experience of cooking. For ten minutes of gratification, and several more of pleasure as I tucked in to my breakfast, I guess cooking is worth it.
with Berries, Honey, and Pecans
1/2 cup old fashioned oats
1/4 cup coconut milk
Cold water, as needed
dash of ground cinnamon
dash of ground nutmeg
1/4 cup mixed berries (frozen or fresh)
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon pecans, chopped
Combine oats and coconut milk in a small saucepan. Then add in enough water to cover oats by about 1/4″ (add less for thicker oats; add more for thinner consistency).
Set saucepan over medium heat, and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium-low, add in a dash of cinnamon and nutmeg, then allow oats to cook until desired consistency is achieved, about 5 minutes.
Top with berries (if frozen, the heat of the oatmeal will gradually warm them through), honey, and pecans!