Clearly, it very well is for me… or at least so I think. To see if the mood-boosting effects of coffee are legitimate across the board, I asked Maddie Pasquariello, MS, RDN, to unpack the *buzz* on the matter from a scientific, nutrition-backed standpoint.
Can coffee actually cause happiness?
The promise of more energy and productivity after consuming your morning cup may surely facilitate a positive mindset. So, too, can the pleasant aromas and the ritual of making, ordering, and drinking it. But does coffee have the actual potential—scientifically speaking—to yield feelings of happiness?
“Some research has suggested a possible correlation between coffee consumption and a lower risk of depression,” Pasquariello shares, “but it hasn’t been as well-studied whether coffee can contribute to a more general sense of daily well-being, or specifically to feelings of happiness or optimism.” In fact, recent research shows a “largely null or weak” association between coffee intake and psychological well-being. However, results swaying either way can be skewed for several reasons.
Pasquariello reminds us that measures of happiness are largely subjective—not to mention difficult to attribute to one source. “So many different internal and external factors contribute to one’s overarching sense of psychological well-being and happiness, making it difficult to parse out caffeine intake alone as a precipitating factor,” she explains.
Take, for instance, the aforementioned Blue Zones regions, where inhabitants live longer, healthier, more joyful lives than most. Their coffee and caffeine consumption may have a correlation with these positive outcomes, but that’s not the same thing as causation. “What’s more, Blue Zones like Okinawa, Sardinia, and others—and countries with high levels of reported happiness, like Finland—have much more going on than just their caffeine and coffee intake,” says Pasquariello. “From a nutrition standpoint, people in these zones generally eat less red meat, sugar, and dairy; eat more lean protein, fiber, raw and fermented foods, and healthy fats; and pay attention to seasonality.” That’s in addition to having strong social and familial ties, taking “exercise snacks” throughout the day, and leading less stressful lives, among countless other things. “All of the above contribute to health, wellness, and feelings of happiness. Yet again, these are all correlations,” she notes.
These points considered, I probably believe I’m happier with coffee in my system in part thanks to dopamine. “Intake of caffeine, like other stimulants, results in dopamine release in the prefrontal cortex,” Pasquariello explains. The famous “feel-good” neurotransmitter elicits arousal and a sense of reward, but ensuing glee isn’t guaranteed. “Just because something gives us that quick hit of dopamine doesn’t necessarily mean it will contribute to general happiness,” the dietitian clarifies.
Moreover, the fact that coffee can contribute to a healthy diet and lifestyle may be enough to put some pep in your step and a smile on your face. “Health-promoting behaviors—of which drinking coffee is largely thought to be one—do, on the whole, contribute to our psychological state by interacting with neurological pathways and mood,” Pasquariello continues. Basically, if you know you’re doing right by your body, you may experience a sense of contentment and higher self-esteem, thus promoting positive outcomes for your mood and mental health.
“Health-promoting behaviors—of which drinking coffee is largely thought to be one—do, on the whole, contribute to our psychological state by interacting with neurological pathways and mood,” Pasquariello says.
The bottom line
Packed with protective antioxidants and energizing caffeine, coffee can be a healthy component of your daily diet—so long as you don’t overdo it or envision it as a magical cure. “While caffeine is linked to a number of health benefits, it isn’t a panacea when it comes to health or happiness,” Pasquariello concludes.
At the same time, she advises against relying on coffee—or any food or drink, for that matter—as a crutch to evoke happiness. “It can actually be helpful to think of mood as something adjacent to what we eat and drink, rather than a result or cause of it,” she explains. “Mood is often impacted by these factors, and it can be fruitful to notice when that comes up. But we shouldn’t be dependent on them to change our mood, as doing so can even at times be detrimental from a behavioral standpoint.”
All things considered, if coffee is a fixed item on your morning menu, it’s likely benefiting your health in one way or another. However, relying on it for the sole purpose of boosting happiness—or even starting to drink it with this goal in mind, especially if you don’t tolerate it well—isn’t advised.