Happiness will be served at the dinner table
A long table with steamy pots, a relaxed barbecue in the park or maybe even that well-deserved kebap after a night out with friends; eating can make us very happy. However, it is not just the food which makes it so pleasant. The fact that you do it together is just as important. In a recent article, anthropologist Robin Dunbar concludes that people who regularly eat with others feel better about themselves and feel more embedded in their communities. When asked by a journalist of The Guardian how sharing food can have such significant psychological and social effects, Dunbar admits that “we simply do not know”. Somehow, eating together triggers the brain to release hormones such as endorphin which create a pleasant feeling. While eating together, Dunbar argues, our brains get a bit ‘high’. He is not the first to point out the social and psychological side effects of sharing food for humans. Long before neuroscience, surveys and experiments, writers noticed the importance of the common meal. As the ancient Greek philosopher Plutarch wrote, “we invite each other not to eat and drink, but to eat and drink together”.
Food sharing is common among many social animals. Among the most social of all – humans – it is near universal. People eat with their families, with people from their age group or exclusively with fellow women or men. The phenomenon of the communal meal can be explained by the complexity of the food production processes of our species. Until the Agricultural Revolution (c. 10.000 BC), food had to be gathered, caught, tracked down, trapped and hunted. With the introduction of farming, it had to be sown, irrigated, reaped, fed, slaughtered, and finally, cooked. In order to take in their necessary nutrients, humans had to cooperate and share. However, this does not explain the elaborate rituals and rules created by societies which surround communal food intake. Rules such as designated eating places, the use of specific cutlery, toasts, seating arrangements and even meal times have nothing to do with pure biological necessity. There is more to the meal than just the food.
The Western way of eating together may seem somewhat plain in comparison to the elaborate family dinners in India or the Iftar meals during the Ramadan fast. However, the communal dinner is also deeply ingrained in Western culture. In her book The Rituals of Dinner, classicist and food historian Margaret Visser points out that the word companion is derived from the Latin ‘one who breaks bread with another’. Hence, she states, ‘every company, from actors’ guild to Multinational Steel, shares in the significance evoked in breaking bread’. Christianity can also be regarded as a very large company in this sense. Religious services of the early Christian churches were centred around an elaborate dinner called the Agape, or love feast. This ritual is now replaced with the far humbler Eucharist and Holy Communion, a ceremony which provides its participants no more than a sip of wine and – in Catholic churches – a small piece of dry dough.
The eighteenth-century Dutch vicar Pieter van der Schelling was obsessed with banquets and drinking bouts. In a series of books on the history of table manners, he argued that meals were an expression of our inherent gezelligheid, sociability. Both eating and meeting each other are ‘useful, necessary, and inevitable’ activities, he claimed. Whereas the Dutch word gezelligheid is nowadays used for everything cosy and pleasant – some claim that it is not translatable – the term had far more weight for Van der Schelling. Gezelligheid was regarded as the essentially human urge for interaction with other humans and, as such, it was regarded as the power which drove society. The vicar argued that, just like the body, human relations had to be fed regularly. Furthermore, as the place of eating and meeting, the dinner table was at the core of Dutch society, according to Van der Schelling.
The last couple of decades, the Western world has seen a significant rise in solo-eating. In 2013, an Amsterdam based creative agency opened a pop-up restaurant which only served individual eaters at small, one-person tables. The experiment drew attention to a larger societal phenomenon: people in the Western world are eating more and more alone. With the rise of one-person packages on the supermarket shelves and the introduction of the microwave, there is no practical reason anymore to come together for food. While cooking programmes on TV score high in the audience ratings and influencers ‘share’ their healthy superfood on Instagram, a quarter of the American dinners is eaten in solitude.
The rise of the solitary dinner is a problem. Contemporary social scientists and writers from centuries ago came to the same conclusion: individual happiness and a functional society are created and maintained during communal dinners. Regularly eating alone has not only negative consequences for individual well-being, but also for the society as a whole. Lower levels of social integration correlate with less trust in others and less willingness to cooperate with others. At the same time, Dunbar’s research indicates that common meals could actually help people to overcome their social isolation. There seems to be truth in Van der Schelling’s point: both the body and human relationships need to be fed regularly. So the next time you call your friends to plan dinner together, you can say that happiness will be served.
Adriaan Duiveman is a PhD student at the Radboud University in Nijmegen (department of Dutch Language and Culture). He investigates the cultural impact of (natural) disasters in the eighteenth-century Dutch Republic. Before joining this research project, Adriaan did research on something which could also end quite catastrophically: early modern drinking games and songs.