Science of Happiness: Chocolate

Anna Jastrzembska explains that happiness actually grows on trees in South America

9th November 2015

There are few words in English language that people feel as strongly about as chocolate. Mayans and Aztects used cacao pods as currency but the feelings we have for chocolate are less quantitative.  Milk, dark or white, Cadbury, Galaxy or Milka, there is something out there for everyone. According to research, every decade an average adult eats their body weight worth of chocolate. Another research found that British women would rather give up sex than chocolate. What’s behind this phenomenon?

Let’s start with common knowledge: eating chocolate evokes a rush of endorphins (some scientists claim it’s actually dopamine, but it’s still one of the “happy hormones”). However, chocolate is extremely complicated from the chemical point of view. It contains hundreds of chemicals. Scientists still debate which of them or which combinations make chocolate an ultimate pleasure. A controversial research compared chocolate to marijuana. It’s because it contains a feel-good chemical anadamide ,which is similar to anadamine found in marijuana. While the chemical itself is different, the effect on our brain is similar. Anadamide is naturally found in human brain, but while normally it’s broken down quickly after it’s produced, chocolate makes it last longer.

According to psychologists, the sensation of chocolate melting in your mouth has the same effect on your brain and heart rate as a passionate kiss, but it lasts four times longer. The sensory experience is enjoyable on the most innate, biological level but it might have some chemical background, too. It’s most likely the combination of small amounts of caffeine and phenylethylamine (a chemical related to amphetamines that our brains produce when we are in love). Both are strong stimulants that increase the activity of neurotransmitters and make us stay more focused. It is also suggested that phenylethylamine releases dopamine to the areas associated with orgasm. It means that foodgasm is in theory possible.

The relation of chocolate and happiness might also have more socio-psychological background. Thorough our lives we learn that chocolate is good and it signifies love. It is a treat associated with family, friends, Christmas, Valentine’s Day and media strengthen the positive image. Even if you don’t remember the first time you ate chocolate, a part of brain called hippocampus does and every time you eat chocolate the positive memory is strengthened, creating a behavioural pattern. When you see a reminder of chocolate, a little dopamine is released creating a craving. If you succumb to it, more dopamine is released. You are happy.

“According to psychologists, the sensation of chocolate melting in your mouth has the same effect on your brain and heart rate as a passionate kiss, but it lasts four times longer”

I know what you’re thinking right now. Bacon causes cancer so chocolate can’t be possibly that good for you. On the contrary! All chocoholics know that regular consumption of dark chocolate has positive health effects. Dark chocolate is reach in flavanols, which have an antioxidant effect and support healthy blood pressure. Dark chocolate is also really good for pregnant women, as it lowers the risk of serious complication known as pre-eclampsia. The same research showed that women who ate chocolate daily during pregnancy reported having “calmer and happier” babies six months after birth. 

While there is still much more to discover about the properties of chocolate, it’s enough to put a piece in your mouth to know that you can in fact buy happiness.

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