Does excess make you happy?

a smiley face

“How to build a lifeis a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, which addresses questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to build a happy life.


La Grande Bouffe is a 1973 French-Italian black comedy about a group of four friends who lock themselves in a villa and eat themselves to death. Though mostly unknown to American audiences, the film is a cult classic in Europe. I found out about it in November 1991, shortly after marrying my Spanish wife. Living in Barcelona at the time, I treated my new in-laws to a full Thanksgiving feast: multiple turkeys, stuffing, mashed potatoes, everything. I even somehow got pumpkin pies.

“This American holiday,” my wife whispered, as her stunned family gazed at the mountain of food in front of them. “It reminds me of a movie.”

“It’s only once a year”, I replied after hearing the plot of the movie. “And it makes us happy, not depressed, like watching a European movie.” He expressed skepticism that most Americans limit their feasts to once a year, which I found uncharitable, though perhaps fair, given my commentary on European cinema.

Later, however, I began to wonder about the happiness part of the binge People love Thanksgiving – it’s the average American’s favorite holiday. But bouff it really has to be that way great to give us a push? Does overindulgence make us happier than regular indulgence? What if we ate a normal-sized meal, instead of the 3,000 to 4,500 calories consumed by the average American during a Thanksgiving feast? In fact, should we stop consuming excess food at every celebration?

Like many traditional holidays, early Thanksgiving celebrations involved binge eating at a time when many people were suffering from a calorie deficit, so a big meal was a real treat. My father-in-law, who as a child endured the Spanish Civil War and the hardships that followed, spoke wistfully of festive meals when, one day a year, he didn’t go to bed hungry.

For most people, hunger relief is no longer the source of Thanksgiving enjoyment. However, eating is still pleasurable, especially when it is social. Research shows that eating with another person can make food taste better, and eating with friends or family who eat a lot makes us overeat. It might even be fun to binge: Research links social drinking to the point of inebriation (called “calculated hedonism” by researchers) with positive enjoyment, so it’s easy to imagine the same kind of fun coming from of other types of people. joint disinhibition, even a folded turkey. So in the short term, it seems that yes, overindulgence can make you happy, especially if you do it with loved ones. (Though the stomach ache that follows may dampen your spirits.)

But, and in the long term? On the plus side are our memories, which elevate the evanescent pleasure of food to the long-term reward of enjoyment. On the downside, for many, is the weight gain from the Thanksgiving feast (as well as the holiday meals that follow in the following month). A 2000 study found that, on average, Americans gain nearly a pound between Thanksgiving and New Years. This gain, the researchers concluded, is generally not reversed during the spring and summer, meaning that the annual calorie surplus could lead to weight gain during adulthood.

This is not a health column, so I will not adjudicate questions in that category. But what about the happiness effects of that weight gain? If you listen to the diet industry or pay attention to many fitness influencers on social media, chances are you’ve internalized the message that any weight gain is bad for your happiness and if you avoid gaining weight ( or work them) afterwards), you’ll be much happier, presumably because you’ll be more attractive.

But the data simply does not support this idea. For example, a mid-2000s Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development survey of 23,000 Dutch citizens concluded that although most happy people are not obese, “people who are moderately overweight are just as happy and satisfied with their lives compared to people who are not overweight. .” In other words, a few extra pounds probably won’t reduce your well-being.

But worrying too much about those extra pounds can diminish your happiness. There is evidence that excessive attention to weight can lead to increased stress, and that excessive concern with a healthy diet can turn into an obsession with harmful nutrition called orthorexia. Meanwhile, while moderate exercise is great for improving mental health, too much (which some researchers classify as more than five times per week) may be linked to increased stress, depression, and emotional problems. This is a correlation, not causation, so I think a case can be made that it’s not the sixth or seventh workout of the week that’s causing the problems, but the inability to take a day off.

None of this is to say that weight gain above normal levels is always good or that weight loss through diet and exercise is always bad. There are moments in life when we need to cut back and correct ourselves. My point is that people are happier when they live in balance. Excess consumption can be a source of suffering. But intense withdrawal, like saying no to a Thanksgiving party, can also be a form of binge.

Taken together, the evidence suggests that if eating gives you pleasure and you are with loved ones, a Thanksgiving bouff it can actually bring you joy, and if you keep it within proper limits, it won’t bring suffering later. Here are some things to avoid.

1. Don’t extend your party beyond Thursday.

The kind of weight gain that could lower your quality of life would come from year-round disinhibition, not one fun day. Go ahead and grab seconds and thirds on Thursday, but don’t start Friday morning with waffles and ice cream. Go back to eating normally, and maybe add a long walk for good measure.

2. Don’t forget the Thank you part.

Gratitude can have many positive effects, including increasing life satisfaction and reducing depression and anxiety. It can also moderate overeating, according to a 2015 article in the journal. Integrative Medicine. The idea is to be aware of each bite, even if you take 10,000 of them, and to deliberately enjoy it. And if you can really be aware not only of the food, but also of the environment and the company, you will lay the foundation for a rich memory, which can bring the lasting enjoyment that is a genuine source of happiness.

3. Don’t beat yourself up.

One last thing to keep in mind, even if you overeat on Thanksgiving: feeling guilty won’t help you recover and will make your holiday a lot less enjoyable. Researchers writing in 2014 in the journal Appetite He looked at people’s attitudes about delicious food (chocolate cake) and then tracked their eating and weight patterns over a period of 18 months. They found that guilt over eating the cake, rather than associating it with a celebration, was correlated not with more positive attitudes about healthy eating, but with lower levels of perceived control over eating and less success at weight maintenance. Guilt over eating won’t make you feel better, but it will Will make you appreciate Thanksgiving less. So whatever you do, make sure you celebrate and enjoy.

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