Community meals are the ticket for a happier, healthier life
In the last few years there has been numerous reports released about the health benefits of eating communally. Many of these focus on the benefits of eating with your family, but what is an intentional community if not your chosen family. For many intentional communities the kitchen and food are the heart of the family. Many communities even have rules that members must eat a set number of communal meals weekly, but just why is so much value given to sharing table space?
In some instances, many community locations have set rules that members eat a set number of community meals per week; others share food cost but it’s a ‘sort yourselves’ out type atmosphere.
Let’s set the scene. You live in a community house, for example I’ll use the community house I’m a part of in San Francisco called the Embassy Network. In the Embassy Network, there is no set rule for community dinners, it is not compulsory for people to eat together, but all of the food cost is shared between residents and guests (the Embassy Network also has a hotel element to their model). Meal sharing is encouraged and is engrained in the culture of the community, so, in general people tend to cook on mass in the house because in the words of the residents “there will always be a happy hungry mouth.”
According to a 2011 report “sitting down at the table with friends and family for a nightly meal, has been shown to increase happiness and help alleviate depression” But the question is how. Well here comes the scientific bit, according to Dr. Nina “Meeting and eating around the table can have the same effect that comfort food brings to us, namely boosting a neurotransmitter called serotonin.” We all know Seratonin right, that happy chemical that is released when we exercise or stand in sunlight. It’s that feel good factor that makes us feel happier, brighter and healthier. In fact, the most commonly prescribed antidepressant medications have a mechanism of action that elevates serotonin levels.
So, how else does eating together make you feel happier? Mainly this boils down to relationship building. There was a strong sense in the 1950s that families who ate together stayed together, and well, perhaps there is something in that .“People who eat regularly with others say they feel happier, are more trusting of the people around them and feel more engaged with their community,” says Oxford University Professor of Psychology Robin Dunbar. In contrast to the adhoc family meals encountered at the Embassy Network in San Francisco, there are other intentional communities that make it a solid part of their everyday life.
One such example is Findhorn in Scotland. The Findhorn Foundation community is an experiment in conscious living, a learning centre and an ecovillage that evolved in 1985, and features over 100 ecologically-benign buildings with energy sourced from four wind turbines. It is also a major centre for holistic learning serving thousands of visitors each year from around the world
One resident blogger says: “our community meals are, and have always been, central to the culture and a critical component of the social glue.” Findhorn residents eat together twice a day, lunch and dinner. With around 700 residents that is alot of cooking, but it seems apparent that it’s worth the effort: “Nonetheless, it is clear to me that these meals are crucial to community life – they have a practical advantage and provide an important opportunity to engage socially.”
They have set meal times and a ‘kitchen crew’; residents on rota working 3 hour shifts, prepare the meals which are mostly vegetarian and made from organic local produce. There is a catering hall and residents choose their food from the buffet style lay-out and take seats around tables for 6 or 12 people. Before eating the coordinator encourages the tables to hold hands whilst they say a few words, including: a short welcome and description of the meal and a grace of sorts to the natural world and human world who helped create the meal. According to an article in Journal of Personality, this simple act of gathering around a table is crucial in maintaining happiness and a sense of belonging
In her recent book Eating Together, Alice Julier argues that eating together can help people improve tolerance levels through experience. Essentially, a mix of people taking time out of their day to sit around a table shifts perspectives “It reduces people’s perceptions of inequality, and diners tend to view those of different races, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds as more equal than they would in other social scenarios”.
Finally, as Professor of Psychology Robin Dunbar says “Aside from making us feel happier (a mild opiate high), it seems that opiates ‘tune’ the immune system and make us more resistant to diseases.” So there you have it, not only does eating together make you a happier person but it also makes you a healthier person.
So, whether you are living in an intentional community or not, next time you sit down for a meal, why not invite other to join you and reap the health benefits.
Don't hide your happiness! Positive emotion dissociation, social connectedness, and psychological functioning. Mauss,IB., Shallcross, AJ., Troy, AS., et al. University of Denver, Denver. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2011 Apr;100(4):738-48
Dr. Nina., Press of Atlantic City
Psychological resilience and positive emotional granularity: examining the benefits of positive emotions on coping and health. Tugade, MM., Fredrickson, BL., Barrett, LF. Department of Psychology, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY. Journal of Personality, 2004 Dec;72(6):1161-90