Happy by Choice

Cookbook author KORNELIA SANTORO decides to do some cooking for happiness

I have decided to be happy. It took me 51 years to reach this point. Maybe I am a slow starter or maybe I am just more confused than others. Somehow I needed all these years to reach a point where I understood. Happiness is not a mystical state of being that sometimes makes an appearance like a fleeting ghost. Happiness is a moment of bliss and these moments can be nurtured into appearing frequently. A decision to do so definitely helps.

I never belonged to these people who seem to be cheerful and happy no matter what. I watch these fortunate characters, sometimes with envy, sometimes with the suspicion they might put on an act.

Unfortunately, I know depression, gloom and suicidal desperation very well. During adolescence, I had a serious stint with the mental disease Anorexia Nervosa. I did not consider myself ill at this time. I was so busy counting calories and resisting every tasty bite that nothing else entered my mind. My obsession with food started at this time, but I was only concerned with the amount of calories (oh, bad), carbohydrates (oh, bad, bad) and fats (oh, bad, bad, bad).

Luckily, I seem to have quite a resilient personality. After a few years, things somehow normalized. I suffered from binge eating, but at least my weight normalized and nobody looked at me strangely any more.

When I fell in love for the first time, I understood what happiness means. I spent three weeks in paradise, naked on a Greek beach. Unfortunately, the paradise did not last when I joined my love in his home country. But I got to know Greek cuisine and I managed to keep a great figure without diet, eating everything I felt like. This made me curious about the ways our bodies digest food.

These days have long passed and many things have happened. When I was 18 years old, I decided (this time on a French beach at the Côte d’Azur) never to be afraid and to live my life. I kept to this decision and my life turned out to be quite adventurous and interesting. I rode a motorbike through India. I settled in Goa where we get as much sun and beach, as we want. I found an Italian husband. I am into Mediterranean men I can’t help it. From experience I can say, Italians do it best, not only the shoes. Italians have style and character, a lovely people.

I got a marvellous Italian son. We renovated a beautiful house. My son started to go to school. Sensing my restlessness, my Italian husband suggested that I write a cookbook. I had struggled with writing a novel that nobody wanted on and off for ten years. Writing a cookbook was like a walk in the park. I just put on paper what I did every day in the kitchen. And everybody liked it. I even got the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards for Kornelia’s Kitchen – Mediterranean Cooking for India.

I had every reason to be happy, yet life seemed like a daily fight. Every morning, I had to drag myself out of bed. Nothing seemed to give me joy. My husband annoyed me. I felt like life was passing by and everybody had struck it better than me. Everybody seemed to have more money, more fun, more travels, more everything.

Pre-menopause held me in its throes. When I started to bleed profusely between cycles, I went to a gynaecologist. He looked at me and sent me home with a prescription for prozac, or fludac, how it is called in India.

I felt the effect of this anti-depressant almost instantly. A veil of grey lead lifted from my shoulders. All of sudden, life was worth living again. I was singing while driving the car. But I did not want to get used to swallow a pill every morning to be happy. At this point, I decided to investigate cooking for happiness. Somehow I was sure that you could get the effects of an anti-depressant with food as well. There are many natural mood-enhancing substances in herbs and plants.

I started to research the subject. Then my son and I got diagnosed with food allergies. Instead of writing about happiness, I wrote a cookbook for allergic people. Once Kornelia’s Kitchen 2 – Cooking for Allergies was ready for publishing, I went back to my happiness project. So far, my research has been quite enlightening. I have learned a lot about neurotransmitters, the substances that make our brains work well by communicating between nerve cells. All of them need building blocks from proteins. The right kinds of fats also play an important role.

I can say now from personal experience that food influences our mood enormously. Unfortunately, most effects are quite subtle and they take some time to manifest. A sugar high or a serious intake of alcohol hits you in the face – metaphorically speaking. There is no way not to notice them.

Delivering good nourishment to your brain takes time to become effective, and the changes in mood may be quite subtle. One thing I can vouch for: The less processed food you eat, the better. When you prepare food for your family and yourself and you manage to cut out all packaged stuff, sugar and alcohol, you will feel a change in about two weeks.

While researching the elusive feeling of happiness, I also learned a lot about the pathways in our brain. They form according to our experiences. The good new is that you can change them. You can override the computer in your head by exercising your free will and forming new pathways. Basically, there are four different happy chemicals in our bodies, which can be triggered by different types of experiences.

Sometime during reading about establishing new connections in my head, an epiphany hit me: I had never consciously decided to be happy. I had let myself slip into the grey morass of depression. Now I decided to not let this happen again. My no-fear-decision worked perfectly and so far I think my happiness-decision works fine also. Every morning, I wake up and remember I have decided to be happy.

Now is the time to develop the recipes for my new cookbook. Once again, I spend a lot of time in my refuge, the kitchen. Like an alchemist, I have started to concoct happy food. Fresh ingredients are a must, green leaves, seafood, vegetables in all the colours of the rainbow. I not only focus on serotonin boosters and blood sugar level stabilizers. A big part of my Cooking for Happiness book will be comfort food that makes us go yum. Chocolate, deep fried delights and boozy stuff are titles for chapters. It makes me feel good just to fantasise about the wonderful things I will create. I will be happy, hell no, I am happy and I want to share it with all of you.

Kornelia Santoro

Kornelia Santoro

GERMAN WRITER KORNELIA SANTORO follows the cutting edge of food knowledge since teenage years. After completing her education as a certified journalist, she worked for a decade as news editor for radio and political journalist for a newspaper in Bavaria. She also coached young journalists in Poland during a program of the European Union, shortly after the opening of the Iron Curtain. Then she met her Italian husband while riding an Enfield Bullet through India. The couple settled in Goa. After the birth of her son, Kornelia Santoro started writing cookbooks. As a creative spirit she loves to experiment in the kitchen and to explore the human relationship with food in a profound way. Her three cookbooks, Kornelia’s Kitchen – Mediterranean Cooking for India, Kornelia’s Kitchen 2 – Cooking for Allergies and Cooking for Happiness have all won the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards for India. She also writes for magazines and websites in India and Europe. Kornelia Santoro believes that “everything is possible and happiness is a moment of bliss.”