The Best Part of Waking Up Is Deeper Than Your Cup

There is meaning hiding behind one of your favorite rituals.

How much coffee do you drink a day? If you are like most Americans, you might be tempted to answer, “not enough!” Nationally, we attribute part of our wakefulness, productivity, positivity, and successes to coffee. Similarly, if we feel sluggish, negative, or ineffective, we often ascribe that to skipping a cup or to the most recent cup wearing off.

Caffeine is a natural stimulant and creates the positive effects that we experience when we drink coffee. Yet, a growing body of research suggests that it’s more than caffeine that helps us feel good. Researchers have found that mood and response time do increase after drinking coffee. Here’s the surprise – the coffee didn’t need to be caffeinated. As long as the subjects presumed that there was caffeine in the coffee, they reported the same effects. Similarly, a recently published study discovered a partial solution to a coffee drinker’s nemesis – withdrawal symptoms. When a coffee drinker stops drinking or reduces her consumption, she can encounter headaches, mood changes, nausea, irritability, fatigue, and anxiety. Yet, if she drinks decaffeinated coffee, without knowing it is decaf, her uncomfortable symptoms will still decrease.

Part of the way decaffeinated coffee works might be attributed to the placebo effect. Researchers often report that medically insignificant interventions, comparable to using sugar pills, sometimes still yield patient improvement. Current research suggests that the placebo effect is most pronounced when dealing with pain or unpleasant sensations. The subjective nature of these experiences might make them more prone to supposed improvement by a placebo. Similarly, it might be that people perceive increases in their acuity, mood, and wakefulness, when drinking placebo coffee – also known as decaf.

Yet, these studies probably point to something else fascinating about our love for coffee. It is likely that coffee itself has the unique ability to give us a lift. Coffee has a large representative value. It stands for something. If you think back to your first or unique coffee experiences, you might find some things that every cup represents to you. For example, many people find that drinking coffee represents maturity and adulthood (most kids can’t drink coffee), or a connection to their parents who were coffee drinkers. For others, it stands for pampering themselves (especially if they tend to pricey specialty coffee drinks, even occasionally), indulging themselves (savoring the aroma or the taste), allowing themselves a break from work, or being part of the coffee drinking culture. Can you relate to any of those associations? You might not think about supplementary ideas like these every time you reach for a cup o’ joe, but you brain might be acutely in touch with them.

In addition, many people have had personal experiences that their minds correlate with coffee.  Was there a specific experience you had while you were savoring a latte? Perhaps every latte since then has a bit of that one mixed in.

Years ago, when I was on break from Yeshiva, I traveled with my friend Josh to Italy. It was a beautiful trip and a wonderful time to spend together with a friend. Wherever we went, when it was time for coffee, I purchased an espresso, the default Italian coffee (in disposable cups because of kosher concerns, and uncharacteristic of the refined Italian cafés). Now, approximately two decades later, when I drink an espresso, my mind thinks back to Josh, to Italy, to Lake Como. If I stop and listen, I can hear those thoughts talking to me.

Are you in touch which what coffee represents to you? There might be several positive benefits to your focusing on those thoughts. Firstly, if those events or memories are part of what lead you to drink coffee, it seems that your brain enjoys having those memories or thoughts. Then, why keep them in the recesses of your mind? Think about them and let yourself enjoy those ruminations, either while you are drinking coffee or between cups. Secondly, discovering what coffee means to you might help you overcome the doldrums of a missed cup. Part of the sluggishness that develops if you skip a scheduled drink might be due to the lack of caffeine in your blood. It also could be because you are missing the subtle memories, feelings, emotions, and thoughts that your brain artfully and faintly processes as you enjoy the aroma and the taste of your coffee experience. Thirdly, the more you are in touch with what coffee means to you, the more you might find it easier to wean yourself off the habit, should you desire to do so.

Coffee’s popularity and potency is unique. It is possible that part of its robust ability to pick us up comes from its caffeine content. Yet, it seems that a large part of coffee’s capacity to influence us comes from its’ representative value – what it means to each of us. Try to get in touch with those thoughts and feelings playing in the background and you might better understand how coffee in your cup leads to your best thoughts waking up!

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