• This fruity chocolate hit will help in the happiness stakes. (Photograph Sophie Hansen) (SBS Food)Source: SBS Food
From communal dining to being brave in the kitchen, try these happiness-inducing tips to start seeing your glass half full.
Samantha van Egmond

20 Mar 2018 - 9:12 AM  UPDATED 30 Jun 2021 - 12:47 PM

We’ve all heard the saying, ‘you are what you eat’, but what about how, where and why we eat? Boost your mood with these eight food ideas that range from diet and dining out to sharing and social conscience – you’ll be smiling in no time!  (And if you want more ideas for creating a happier you, and a happier world, embrace the aims of International Day of Happiness). 

1. Get happy on hormones  

We often hear about boosting serotonin through sunshine and exercise, so why not up your dose through your diet? This brain chemical, involved in regulating mood and sleep patterns, is made by the essential amino acid tryptophan. Research indicates those with a diet lacking tryptophan can, as a result, experience increased levels of aggression and irritability as well as lowered mood. Emily Hazell, the owner of Melbourne’s Serotonin Eatery, says her business came about after she noticed how many people, herself included, were stuck in a “stimulant cycle” of coffee, sugary snacks and alcohol. Working with a food scientist and a dietician, she developed a menu bursting with tryptophan-packed foods such as bananas (try our banana and coconut pancakes), sweet potato, quinoa and brown rice. “These are all complex carbohydrates that have a low GI, which stabilises your mood,” she explains.

2. Be adventurous

Studies confirm what we already thought (or hoped!) to be true – new experiences are a more effective way to increase long-term happiness than material purchases. What better way to put this research to the test than with food? Just like taking Spanish lessons or learning to play guitar, expanding your food horizons can help to keep you curious and engaged. Get experimental in the kitchen and try cooking a recipe or cuisine you might not usually attempt (we have recipes from more than 100 national cuisines, from Armenian and Burmese to Nigerian and Senegalese – take a look here) . When you head out to eat, try a new restaurant or order something from the menu you wouldn’t normally go for. You may just discover a new favourite dish.

3. Munch mindfully

Mindfulness has been proven to have positive effects on wellbeing. However, when it comes to eating, many of us are missing out on its benefits. Australian clinical mindfulness consultant Charlotte Thaarup-Owen of The Mindfulness Clinic describes mindful eating as “eating with attention and intention,” suggesting that if we consider how many mouthfuls we eat mindlessly, we often realise that it is most of them. “We work to earn money so we can eat, then we buy the food, we cook (or eat out and pay), we eat and miss [the experience]!” Charlotte emphasises that food is much more than a function, it is a gift. “[Mindful eating] brings gratitude and appreciation, which of course we know brings happiness,” she says. To become a mindful eater, try to chew your food slowly while paying attention to the tastes and textures in your mouth.

4. Veg out on variety

It seems we need a friendly reminder to eat our greens. “One of the biggest differences between what Australians eat and what is recommended in the Australian Dietary Guidelines is around vegetables,” says Clare Collins, a Professor in Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Newcastle. She advises that eating a wide selection of fresh, plant-based meals is an important and effective way to boost our mood with food. “If you’re able to make a big vegetable salad that includes lots of colours (like our superfood salad below), then your micronutrients – vitamins and minerals – are more likely to be optimal.” Fill up on an array of seasonal vegetables and there’ll be less room for rubbish food or thoughts.

5. Share a meal with friends

We all appreciate that food brings people together, but you may not know that sharing a meal with loved ones could extend your life expectancy. Research has shown that people with strong relationships are happier, healthier and live longer. “When we talk about food and happiness, it has effects on so many levels,” says Professor Collins. “The act of cooking and sharing food, especially with family and friends, and the pleasure that brings, is a really important way to encourage food behaviours that promote happiness and connectedness in society.” Invite your mum, your mate or your neighbour around and whip up your favourite recipe, or jump onto a communal table next time you’re eating out and strike up a conversation with fellow diners.

6. Turn to the dark side

Can’t fight the 3pm sweet craving? Reach for a square of dark chocolate for a pick-me-up – experts have found it can reduce anxiety and increase contentedness. Who are we to argue? The benefits come from cocoa polyphenols, which interact with GABA receptors in the brain, so stick to the dark variety (try our blood oranges dipped in dark chocolate) and limit your intake – too much-refined sugar has been proven to affect mental health and cause mood swings.

This fruity chocolate hit will help in the happiness stakes. (Photograph Sophie Hansen)

7. Eat to give back

There could be more to that warm, fuzzy feeling we get from helping others than first thought – research indicates altruism is fundamental to our health and happiness, finding a strong link between compassionate behaviour and wellbeing. Make your mind (and the world) a happier place by shopping local and choosing ethical products where possible for a twofold feel-good factor. When you eat out, choose restaurants that give back to the community, such as Sydney’s Gratia who donate 100 per cent of profits to charity, and not-for-profit Lentil as Anything, whose mission is to “provide a wholesome and nutritious meal where money is not a concern” by asking that customers pay only what they feel the meal was worth, fostering values of trust, generosity and respect. Enjoying delicious food for a good cause? Win-win!

8. Take time for tea

The very act of nursing a warm cup of tea between your hands after a stressful day can make your shoulders drop, however, its happiness-related benefits extend beyond soothing the senses. Research indicates L-theanine, the amino acid found in green tea, can reduce stress and help to improve sleep – certainly resulting in a happier disposition. Add green tea to your diet as a calming daily ritual, and reap the additional health benefits of polyphenols – powerful antioxidants found in every sip.

A calming cuppa
5 reasons to pour yourself a cup of tea
Forget kale smoothies and wheatgerm shots, the world's greatest Super Drink may have been sitting in grandma's kitchen all along. Rich in antioxidants and mood-boosting amino acids, there's plenty to love about the humble cuppa, tea.