Since 2013, the United Nations has celebrated the International Day of Happiness on 20 March as a way to recognise the importance of contentment in the lives of people around the world. The Costa del Sol has its own 'Happiness Lab', that was set up by an Irish resident, Eli McCarthy. She believes that, now more than ever, with a global crisis increasing the need for a boost in spirits, chocolate could provide a much-need dose of happiness. She explains why.
First of all, tell us how you personally define happiness?
There are two concepts I like to think of when explaining happiness. One is the circle, a figure in which there is no start, no finish, no divisions and everything is equidistant from the centre. The other concept is that of happiness as a practice, as in a path or a journey rather than a destination or a prize to be obtained. I think that happiness has more to do with state of mind and an attitude of connectivity and inclusion.
They say chocolate stimulates happiness. Is this assumption purely subjective?
To begin with, cacao contains more antioxidants than most other foods, as well as neuroactive substances, which are scientifically proven to facilitate elevated states of mind. Its single most important property is the ability to provide energy, and this is a key component of happiness, right? Additionally, theobromine (the main active ingredient in cacao) is an alkaloid stimulant, which helps to energise the nervous system while at the same time exerting a calming effect on the brain. It also relaxes the bronchial muscles, making breathing easier, and lowers blood pressure by relaxing the walls of the blood vessels. It also helps in gastrointestinal stress. Modern academic research has proved that cacao increases blood flow to the brain and enhances connections between neurons. In addition, cacao promotes hormonal balance via its magnesium and iron content, and has the ability to lower cortisol. Other cacao minerals, such as copper, impact on healthy bones, immune function and contribute to iron absorption as well as protecting against cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis.
You have mentioned hormonal balance. Is there any truth in the idea of "happiness hormones"?
The cacao fermentation process, (a vital stage in the process of converting cacao into chocolate), produces phenylethylamine. This central nervous system stimulant boosts levels of serotonin and also dopamine neurotransmitters, which are two of the body's most important "happiness hormones". Tryptophan, an amino acid present in cacao, is also linked to serotonin production and the feelings of happiness, satisfaction and optimism.
When someone wants to be happy or, let's say, not down, which 'pills' from your lab do you offer?
To access the largest quantities of happiness-inducing chocolate, choose a dark chocolate with a minimum 70% cacao content. At least 30g to 60g per day... Or, even better, add organic cacao nibs to smoothies, cereals, fruit salad or as a drizzle on pasta, risotto, etc. Cacao nibs are the purest and least processed version in which cacao can be consumed. By reading the label carefully you can ensure happiness by choosing chocolate and cacao with gastronomic and an ethical quality assurance. We view happiness as a circle that connects the working conditions of the farmers on the cacao plantation to the sofa or dining room table where chocolate is consumed. That's why raw material sourcing at our chocolate factory is conducted under the maxim "Find Happy Share Happy".
Does the link between chocolate and happiness go deeper?
Although we are of course a chocolate factory, when I set up Mayan Monkey Mijas with my partner, Jason Godwin, in 2012, it very quickly became apparent that what we were purveying was not just chocolate. Although it is true that the big flavour and mouth-melting silky texture of chocolate awaken intense feelings of pleasure, what most of us really look for (be it consciously or otherwise) when we reach for chocolate, in addition to the taste-related enjoyment, is to access the mood-enhancing and energy-increasing properties it unleashes. This was our eureka moment: suddenly, we realised that while we were a chocolate factory on the outside, at heart, we were what I like to term a "happiness lab" - a space in which the creation and communication of happiness were our real priorities.
Have you personally found happiness?
Happiness is more of a journey than a destination, and it's definitely the journey I'm on in all levels of my life, personally and professionally. My work, alongside my partner and team, at the factory is an amazing channel for communicating happiness to our visitors, our supply chain and also within the business world. This year has been such a challenging one for the planet. There is still so much uncertainty and fear of the unknown, as well as sadness at loss of life and wellbeing on so many different levels. Working in the tourism sector here on the Costa del Sol has been scary in that, like so many other businesses down here, we have watched powerless as our business model shattered with the closure of international borders and the restrictions on movement and activity. Like everyone else, we've had our fair share of stress and worry. Without denying any of that, we've managed to stay sane by keeping the focus on the things we can do to be happy and to bring happiness to others.