Nearly ten years ago, researchers from the University of Southern Brittany published a study in the Journal of Social Psychology that found the aroma of fresh baked bread made people nicer to strangers. In the study participants stood outside either a bakery or a clothing store and when passerby approached, they dropped something such as a pack of tissues or keys. Outside of the bakery 77% of the passerby helped pick up the dropped item while only 52% of passerby helped in front of the clothing store.
Let’s ignore the fact these results may be more a reflection of the kinds of people who gravitate towards clothing stores versus bakeries and assume that the smell of fresh baked bread was truly responsible for the increased rate of kindness.
Would the world be a better place if more people baked bread? I think we can all agree some extra kindness would go a long way to improve the current state of things. Could the smell of baking bread be the answer?
Watson we may be on to something.
But first, how does the smell of baking bread make people nicer?
Well it all comes down to the transitive law of logic. You know, that funny equation we learned in high school that states if A=B and B=C then A=C. Ring a bell? Let’s swap out the letters for what we’re actually talking about and it’ll make even more sense.
The smell of baking bread (A) makes people happy (B). Happy people (B) are more likely to be kind to others (C). Therefore smelling bread baking (A) makes people more likely to be kind to others (C).
It’s hard to argue with solid logic like that, especially when there’s plenty of science to back it up.
The aroma of fresh baked bread makes people happy because it triggers early, positive memories.
With more than 500 distinct volatile compounds, at least 20 of which contribute to its smell, fresh baked bread generates a surprisingly long list of aromatic notes. Dark beer, grapefruit, butter, fig, chocolate. The list goes on. While the mouthwatering aroma of fresh baked bread is pleasant unto itself, it’s actually the aroma’s ability to trigger early, positive memories that causes the uptick in happiness.
When we smell something, tiny molecules of whatever it is we’re smelling enter our noses. They then trigger chemical receptors that send electrical signals to a structure inside our brain called the olfactory bulb. The olfactory bulb is what helps us make sense of whatever it is we’re smelling. What’s super neat is that the olfactory bulb is only one synapse away from the two parts of the brain responsible for memory and emotions (the hippocampus and amygdala, respectively). That’s why smells can trigger such intense memories and emotions.
Fragrant flashbacks, or “odor-cued memories” as some scientists refer to them, tend to be older memories from a person’s first 10 years of life. Out of 1,000 people surveyed by scientists at The University College Dublin about what memory the smell of fresh bread evoked, large percentages responded with terms like mother, childhood, home, and grandparents. Those same researchers found that the smell of fresh bread made 89% of people happy. Given that family and relationships are some of the largest drivers of happiness, it’s no wonder that smelling a food strongly associated with the two can make a person smile.
I mean just think of all those peanut butter and jelly sandwiches you enjoyed with friends at school as a kid. Or those dinner rolls you enjoyed on a romantic date. Guaranteed if you blindfold a Greek and waft tsoureki under their nose they’ll regale you with tales of joyous Easter celebrations from years passed.
Smelling bread baking triggers memories that make people happy.
And that newly inhaled happiness makes people more likely to be kind to others.
Scientists are still studying the relationship between happiness and kindness but we know that the two are closely correlated. Just like with gratitude and happiness, there appears to be a positive feedback loop between kindness and happiness. People who are kind are more likely to be happy and people who are happy are more likely to be kind.
Basically it’s a much nicer chicken or the egg situation. (I wonder if the chicken would represent happiness and the egg would represent kindness? Irrelevant but curious nonetheless.)
When I’m in the kitchen baking bread, shaping the dough and breathing in its wonderful yeasty aroma, I hit this state of Zen where I feel like everything in life is wonderful. Does that ever happen to you? I really hope so because it’s spectacular. On the days I bake bread I just feel better. I’m less stressed, I appreciate the little things, and I have more patience for life. Part of that is thanks to the fresh bread aroma and the positive early memories it evokes.
But the other part is thanks to the act of baking itself.
It isn’t a coincidence that during one of the most anxiety-inducing seasons in recent history (the coronavirus pandemic) grocery stores sold out of yeast, flour, and many other baking related products. When the going got tough, the tough got baking.
Because baking relieves stress and helps people “flourish.”
Apparently the Zen state many of us feel baking is actually a thing. The repetitive nature of measuring, mixing, shaping, etc. is akin to a type of meditation and is actually used to treat some forms of mental illness. (That is not to say you must have a mental illness to enjoy the benefits of cooking, everyone can benefit from its meditative qualities.)
Cooking, baking in particular, requires a person to be present in the moment. Preparing ingredients demands focus lest you incorrectly measure something or chop off a finger in the process. (I’m happy to report I still have all 10 fingers, knock on wood, though I’ve had my fair share of run ins with cheese graters.) It’s far more difficult to worry about life beyond the kitchen in the midst of cooking a meal or baking a loaf of focaccia. Baking bread obviously doesn’t fix all of life’s problems but sometimes just a break from worrying about them is enough to restore a person’s sanity.
What’s more, researchers are starting to connect creativity with emotional wellbeing, finding that people who engage in everyday creative activities report greater feelings of flourishing. Flourishing in the context of positive psychology extends beyond simply feeling “happy” and encompasses things like meaning, engagement, and accomplishment. Do you know what counts as an everyday creative activity? That’s right, baking bread.
Ready to shape and bake your next (or first!) loaf of bread yet? Yeah, me too.
Especially since baking bread can positively affect our physical health.
There are plenty of articles and posts out there documenting how bad bread is for you. And they’re right. Sometimes. The caveat is that they’re usually talking about overly processed white bread. At home you can choose to use better and fewer ingredients than the pre-sliced store alternatives.
Whole wheat bread provides some of the highest nutritional bang for your buck. Just one slice of whole wheat bread provides 4 grams of protein, 4 grams of fiber, a whole host of nutrients, and can protect against cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity. Did you know that whole wheat bread can also aid in weight loss?
Maybe bread isn’t such the dietary villain it’s often made out to be. Especially when you bake your own from wholesome ingredients at home. But I will concede the production of those wholesome ingredients, most specifically the wheat itself, can pose some environmental problems.
The fertilizers used to produce wheat, the second highest produced grain worldwide after corn, is a significant contributor to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
As of 2010, agriculture production accounted for about 11% of the anthropogenic (man-made) greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Of that 11%, fertilizer use and cow belching (no, seriously) made up the greatest percentages. Translation? The more wheat we produce using today’s agriculture methods, the more greenhouse gases we’ll produce and that’s bad news bears for climate change.
Moving away from the large agribusiness and scorched-earth model back to small scale, environmentally friendly farming seems like it may be a reasonable solution. The fertilizer used is the problem, not the wheat, right? Why not have people start planting their own organic wheat in their backyard vegetable gardens?
Fun fact, the U.S. government can actually deem your personal wheat production unlawful and order all of your crop destroyed. Thanks to the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938, Congress maintains the power to regulate wheat prices which they do by regulating the supply. While any wheat you produce in your own backyard would realistically have zero impact on interstate commerce, supply and demand (and therefore prices) could fluctuate when you and everyone you know start producing backyard wheat. At least that was the rationale for the unanimous vote in the 1942 case Wickard v. Filburn that resulted in small Ohio farmer Filburn destroying the extra 12 acres of wheat he grew for his own personal use.
Until wheat production practices change in the United States, one could certainly make the case that baking more bread (and therefore growing more wheat) would not make the world a better place due to negative environmental effects. HOWEVER given the obscene rates of food waste worldwide I think we’ve got some wiggle room to bake more bread without pumping more fertilizer into the ground.
I say bake and break that bread, baby.
Upon serious consideration I’ve come to the conclusion that the world would in fact be a better place if more people baked bread. With the smell of bready goodness filling kitchens worldwide people would be happier, nicer, and more likely to share that extra loaf they’re baking with others. Who knows, if enough people hop on the bread baking and wheat growing wagon legislation could change to favor smaller, less environmentally harmful farming practices.
Anything’s possible when there’s bread in your belly and joy in your soul.
What do you think, did you reach the same conclusion? Other readers and I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!