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Which Actually Makes You Happier: Home-Cooked Healthy Meals, or Indulgent Meals Out?

A new study challenges common beliefs about food and mood.

In my Science of Willpower class this week, we talked about moral licensing—giving yourself permission to do something "bad" (e.g. have dessert, spend extra money) because you've been so "good" (e.g. going to the gym, working late). Although you may feel like you are treating yourself, this kind of rationalization sabotages goals.

One of the evidence-based strategies for escaping this trap is to pay attention to how good those treats actually make you feel. You may tell yourself that extra brownie or online shopping spree will make you happy, but does it really? Or do you get more of a mood boost from sticking to your goals?

A recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition demonstrates how our expectations can conflict with the reality of what makes us happy.

The study looked at how food choices influence mood. 160 women reported what they ate for 10 days. They were contacted every two hours to report what they had recently eaten, and how they were feeling now. The researchers looked at two aspects of each meal: whether it was eaten at home or out (restaurants, fast food, cafes, etc.), and whether the meal was healthier than the woman's "baseline" or typical meal, or more indulgent/less healthy.

Now, most of us think that eating out is a treat, and that indulgent meals are a special reward. But this study found that women were significantly happier and less stressed after eating at home, and after eating healthier meals. As the authors conclude, "The home is a privileged environment that nurtures healthy eating and in which healthier food choices trigger more positive emotions."

When I presented this study in class, one woman asked, "Yeah, but did they look at how the women were feeling after they had to do the dishes?" It was a funny moment, but one that reveals how convinced most of are that the chore of cooking at home is miserable, while the treat of eating out is a gift to ourselves.

So if there's an indulgence you reward yourself with, it may be worth doing a little detective work. Pay attention to how you feel after. Compare it to how you feel when you make a more "virtuous" or less indulgent choice.

You may find that you don't want to reward yourself for being good—that sticking to your goals is its own reward.

Kelly McGonigal is a psychologist at Stanford University. Her latest book, which is full of strategies for going after what you really want, is The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.

Study cited: Lu J, Huet C, Dubé L (2011). Emotional reinforcement as a protective factor for healthy eating in home settings. Am J Clin Nutr, 94(1), 254-61.

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