It’s often said that there are two kinds of people in life — those who drink coffee, and those who don’t. If you fall into the first category, I have some excellent news for you: The number of things coffee actually makes you better at is wide and varied, giving you yet another reason to pour yourself one more cup. In fact, let me go do that for myself — one moment; I’ll be right back.
Ah, much better.
Anyway! Most folks are already well acquainted with the many health benefits of coffee; studies have shown that it can stave off dementia, lower your risk of Type 2 diabetes, protect against Alzheimer’s, lower your risk of heart disease, and much, much more. It’s true that it’s not a miracle drug (because let’s not forget that caffeine is, in fact, a drug), but when consumed in moderation, it does seem to do us at least a tiny bit of good.
The “in moderation” bit, however, is key. Drinking too much coffee can also have an adverse effect; there are plenty of negative side effects associated with consuming caffeine in high quantities, including migraines, insomnia, and tremors. About 400 mg per day is recommended as the upper limit for adults, according to recent research.
Interestingly, though, there's a body of research that also shows drinking coffee in moderation can also help you do a number of things better. And I’m not just talking about passive benefits, like the whole lowering your risk of heart disease thing — I mean actual activities for which a judiciously-consumed cup of coffee might improve your performance.
Bonus: Coffee is delicious. What’s not to love?
A recent study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology divided a group of competitive cyclists into three categories: Those who drank less than a cup of coffee a day, those who drank around two cups per day (so, a moderate amount), and those who drank three or more cups per day (that is, a high amount). Then, the cyclists performed speed trials after taking a 400 mg caffeine pill (equivalent to about four cups of coffee), a placebo, and no pill at all as a control condition. Pretty much every single cyclist had their fastest trial after taking the caffeine pill.
The study had its flaws, of course; the participants were all male, so this correlation between caffeine intake and cycling speed has only been observed in one gender. Still, though — worth a shot, perhaps!
You’ve probably heard about “coffee naps” by now, but just in case you're still in the dark, here’s how they work: If you find yourself suffering from a midday slump, drink a cup of coffee, then lie down for a 20-minute power nap. Napping only for 20 minutes and no more is key; snooze for longer than that and your brain will start to enter deeper stages of sleep that can be more difficult to wake up from. Plus, since caffeine takes about 20 minutes to start working, that cup of joe you downed will begin kicking in right when you need to wake up.
Research supports the idea of a coffee nap being beneficial, too. In one study from the UK, for example, people who took coffee naps performed fewer driving mistakes than those who only drank coffee, only napped,or drank a decaf placebo; meanwhile, another study from Japan found that people who took coffee naps performed better on memory-related tasks than folks who either just napped or napped, washed their faces, and shone bright lights in their eyes.
3Making Good Decisions
Or perhaps more accurately, making more ethical decisions, specifically while you’re at work. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that employees suffering from a lack of sleep are more likely to engage in unethical behavior at work; this is especially true if their boss or manager is encouraging this kind of behavior. However, employees who were given caffeinated gum — which had the equivalent amount of caffeine as that contained in a 12-ounce cup of coffee — not only had more energy, but also tended to make more ethical decisions in their behavior. Coffee won’t automatically grant you the gift of an infallible moral compass, but it might help somewhat if you’re often sleepy at work.
Specifically, coffee can help jump-start your short-term memory. A study from 2005 out of Austria’s Medical University Innsbruck asked participants to complete a memory exercise under several different, randomized conditions — some were given 100 mg of caffeine (about two cups of coffee’s worth), while others were given a placebo. Those who were given the caffeine showed better short-term memory recall skills, as well as faster reaction times; what’s more, fMRI scans showed increased activity in several areas of the brain associated with memory function and attention. Drinking a cup of coffee probably won’t help you remember something that happened when you were a kid — but it might help you recall that phone number you just tried to memorize.
5Being A Good Partner
Not unlike the work ethics study, this one comes down to sleep. According to a study published in the Journal of Family Psychology in 2016, a survey of newlywed couples found that relationship satisfaction was higher the more sleep the spouses got — a phenomenon the research chalked up to people generally having more mental strength to overcome negative thoughts about the relationship (what's termed “self-regulatory benefits").
From there, Psychology Today made a connection between a different, unrelated study, which showed that caffeine consumption helped to alleviate the negative effects sleep deprivation have on self-regulatory strength. Ergo: If you’re sleep-deprived, your relationship is suffering, and you’re unable to get more shut-eye, drinking coffee might help mitigate some of the effects of your sleeplessness on your relationship. (It’ll still be worth getting yourself to asleep specialist to try to get to the bottom of your lack of sleep if you're really suffering, but coffee might be a stop-gap measure worth trying to keep your home life happy in the meantime.)
Fun fact: Simply smelling coffee might be just as beneficial as actually drinking the stuff. In a 2008 study published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, sniffing the aroma of coffee helped ease stress in rats caused by sleep deprivation. And hey, if you like to drink coffee as much as you like to enjoy the scent of it, a separate, unrelated study from 2015 out of the Harvard School of Public Health found that caffeine can “provide the same effects as a mild antidepressant.”
7Having Awesome Ideas
OK, yes, this one is less about the actual coffee and more about a particular environment in which a lot of us drink coffee — but I still think it’s worth considering. If you’ve ever found that you have your best ideas while you’re working or studying at a coffee shop, there’s a reason for that: Ambient noise can help us generate more creative ideas than quiet rooms can. Research published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2012 examined how ambient noise can affect our creative cognition, finding that moderate noise levels (about 70 decibels) enhanced participants’ performance on tasks related to creativity, compared to how they did on the same tasks in a quiet environment (about 50 decibels). High noise levels, however, had the opposite effect.
The Atlantic put two and two together, using this study to suggest that the next time you want to get some serious work done, head to a coffee shop, rather than the library; the idea is that the gentle hustle and bustle of the café will provide the right amount of background noise to fire up your creativity.
8Living. Just, Y’Know, In General.
In recent years, the research in support of coffee helping us live longer, healthier lives has been mounting. A landmark 2015 study found that drinking one to five cups of coffee per day correlated with a reduced risk of all-cause mortality, for example; then, in 2017, a study showing a connection between coffee consumption and lower inflammation — which is associated with “more than 90 percent of all non-communicable diseases of aging,” to lead study author David Furman — indicated that caffeine consumption might be tied to longevity.
All of which is to say: Drink up! Your body — and life — will thank you for it.