A few years ago, I spent some time in Scandinavia researching the question of why the citizens of that part of the world are more content than any other. Sweden, Denmark and Norway are consistently voted among the happiest countries in the world and I wanted to know why. One thing that became very clear as I travelled around, talking to people from all walks of life, was the strong sense of community and collective responsibility that informs Scandinavian society. The priority given to socialising and family life is also greater than in many other places. These things pay off: they boost people’s sense of wellbeing.
That may hardly be a startling conclusion, but it’s still a very good one to keep in mind. Research far more scientific than mine has backed up what most of us know instinctively: that good relationships and a sense of belonging correlate strongly with overall happiness. Conversely, it’s well documented that loneliness and isolation can have negative consequences for our health. Lack of human connection even has economic effects. A study by the Centre for Economic and Business Research published earlier this year revealed that disconnection in communities costs the UK economy a whopping £32 billion per year. The report found there would be a huge saving to public services if we shared resources and simply helped each other out more often – in other words, if neighbourliness became the norm.
How do stronger, healthier communities get built? There are many answers, of course, but it will come as no surprise if I say that I am particularly enthusiastic about the idea of people breaking bread together more often. In fact, if I had to suggest just one simple step any of us might take in order to foster a greater sense of wellbeing, it would be this: don’t eat alone today.
All living creatures eat, but humanity is unique in making the act of eating about far more than essential nutrition. Food is at the heart of families and of friendship. It is a vital shared experience that bonds human beings together. We feast together during the most important times in our lives - births, marriages and deaths – but special meals can be informal too, ordinary in the best sense: a simple Sunday roast, a cake baked for a friend, a comforting curry on a Friday night.
Cooking for someone is an act of generosity, and receiving that food with thanks demonstrates respect and gratitude. That’s a pretty good start. Beyond that, food inspires conversation, it gives us permission to switch off, if just for a little while, from the anxieties and concerns of everyday life. A good meal shared allows us to re-set our perspective on the world, to remind ourselves what is really important.
I’m even told that the act of eating with other people increases the production of hormones that result in trust and good feelings. Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar of Oxford University believes that eating together in community groups is one way our ancestors kept their tribal groups strong and close-knit.
Professor Dunbar published research earlier this year which revealed that the more often people eat with others, the more likely they are to feel happy and satisfied with their lives. Yet the study also showed that many meals in the UK are taken alone. A third of weekday evening meals are eaten solo, and the average adult eats 10 meals out of 21 alone every week.
One can speculate as to why this is — our hectic, pressured lifestyles, disparate activities, the new normality of eating in front of a computer or TV screen. Whatever it might be, the point is that we’re fighting a trend towards isolation.
This is why I’m delighted by initiatives like The Big Lunch. It’s a brilliantly simple call-to-arms from The Eden Project: come together with your neighbours every year to share a meal, nurture friendship and foster a feeling of community. Anyone can get involved – it doesn’t matter where you live, what you like to eat, or how you hold your lunch. The project has been running for nearly a decade now, and goes from strength to strength. Last year over 7.3 million people took part in over 90,000 Big Lunch gatherings across the UK!
The numbers are still being calculated for this year, which was particularly special because The Big Lunch formed one of the central elements in The Great Get Together Weekend. This nationwide event marking the anniversary of the murder of Jo Cox MP and was inspired by her vision of a society already stronger than it realises.
The Big Lunch also encompassed The Great Big Walk, with 10 walkers setting off on May 29 from Batley, West Yorkshire, where Jo was MP, to walk to their homes in locations across the British Isles. I was delighted to open the doors of River Cottage to welcome two of them, Jude Thorn and Jane Knight, en route to their destinations in the West Country. After a slap-up tea with my team and some of our neighbours, Jude and Jane set off again to complete their walks, with their homecomings celebrated at their own local Big Lunches.
In her maiden speech to Parliament, Jo Cox said “We have more in common than that which divides us”. That inspiring statement has been borne out by the hugely compassionate, generous responses of communities to the terrible events of recent weeks – the brutal terror attacks and the horror of Grenfell Tower.
Sitting down to share a meal with the neighbours may seem a tiny gesture in the shadow of these tragedies, but I believe it is a very significant one. Offering a smile and a warm word to the person that lives beside you – that’s pretty powerful, really.
If I had to suggest just one simple step any of us might take in order to foster a greater sense of wellbeing, it would be this: don’t eat alone today.