Study finds the more often people eat with others, the more likely they are to feel happy and satisfied with their lives

March 16, 2017
Social eating helps connect communities. Credit: Shutterstock

New research from the University of Oxford has revealed that the more often people eat with others, the more likely they are to feel happy and satisfied with their lives.

Using data from a national survey by The Big Lunch, the researchers looked at the link between social eating and an individual's happiness, the number of friends they have, their connection to their community, and overall satisfaction with life.

The results suggest that communal eating increases social bonding and feelings of wellbeing, and enhances one's sense of contentedness and embedding within the community.

The Big Lunch - an idea from the Eden Project made possible by the Big Lottery Fund - worked with the University of Oxford's Professor of Psychology, Robin Dunbar, on the study, which aimed to shine a light on the UK's mealtimes and how often we eat with others.

Researchers found that people who eat socially are more likely to feel better about themselves and have a wider social network capable of providing social and emotional support.

Despite the clear correlation between social eating and social bonding, with 76% of those questioned saying that they thought sharing a meal was a good way to bring people closer together, the survey shows that many meals in the UK are eaten alone.

A third of weekday evening meals are eaten in isolation, and the average adult eats 10 meals out of 21 alone every week. Busy lives and hectic work schedules are the main causes of this solitary dining trend.

More than two thirds (69 per cent) of those questioned had never shared a meal with any of their neighbours, 37 per cent had never eaten with a community group, while a fifth of people said it had been more than six months since they had shared a meal with their parents.

The study also revealed that, although 57 per cent regularly eat an evening meal with other people during the week, nearly a fifth said this was a rare occurrence. This is despite most respondents claiming that eating with others made them feel closer to each other.

One in eight of those questioned said it had been more than six months since they'd shared a lunch with friends or family – either at their home or in a café, pub or restaurant. A fifth of those questioned hadn't eaten an evening meal out with a good friend or family member for more than six months.

Even when living with others, the opportunity to sit down together and enjoy a meal can be rare – 21 per cent said their routine means they eat their evening meal at a different time to others in their household.

Those over the age 55 are most likely to eat alone - one in four in this age group said an evening meal with others wasn't a usual occurrence.

Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford's Experimental Psychology department, said: 'This study suggests that social eating has an important role in the facilitation of , and that communal eating may have even evolved as a mechanism for humans to do just that.

'We know from previous studies that social networks are important in combating mental and physical illness. A significant proportion of respondents felt that having a meal together was an important way of making or reinforcing these social networks. In these increasingly fraught times, when community cohesion is ever more important, making time for and joining in communal meals is perhaps the single most important thing we can do – both for our own health and wellbeing and for that of the wider community.'

Peter Stewart, Exec Director of Eden Project who are behind The Big Lunch, said: 'Social eating clearly plays a key role in the development of community life and the happiness of individuals within that community – 75% of respondents recognised that making an effort to see someone more often was best done by sharing a meal. As this research shows, sharing food can help strengthen community bonds – and it's also really good fun!

'The Big Lunch has been bringing people together to share food and good times for nearly a decade. This year The Big Lunch is on 18 June as part of The Great Get-Together weekend. We're hoping that 10 million people will join The Big Lunch and eat with their neighbours this year – the biggest community get together ever!'

The Big Lunch has been encouraging annual get-togethers for neighbours since 2009. Last year saw 7.3 million people take to streets, parks and gardens to share a meal with neighbours at over 90,000 events. The aim of The Big Lunch is to help to make new local connections, that in turn helps to reduce loneliness and builds social capital.

Explore further: The benefits of social drinking

More information: R. I. M. Dunbar. Breaking Bread: the Functions of Social Eating, Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology (2017). DOI: 10.1007/s40750-017-0061-4

Related Stories

The benefits of social drinking

January 9, 2017
New research shows that moderate alcohol consumption may be linked to improved wellbeing, thanks to the improved social interaction associated with having a drink with friends at a local pub.

College students' perception of dietary terms could help nutrition education

March 8, 2017
College students represent an important group for nutrition educators, since the transition into adulthood brings increased independence and decision making, which can affect diet and health-related behaviors. Promoting nutritional ...

Lunch with company reduces cognitive control, may increase social harmony

July 31, 2013
Lunch at a restaurant with friends reduces cognitive control more than lunch eaten alone at a desk does, according to research published July 31 in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Werner Sommer from the Humboldt University ...

Prevent type 2 diabetes blood-sugar spikes by eating more protein for breakfast

April 29, 2015
Individuals with Type 2 Diabetes have difficulty regulating their glucose—or blood sugar—levels, particularly after meals. Now, University of Missouri researchers have found that Type 2 diabetics can eat more protein ...

People who think they have eaten more feel less hungry hours after a meal

December 5, 2012
The memory of having eaten a large meal can make people feel less hungry hours after the meal, according to research published December 5 in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Jeffrey Brunstorm and colleagues from the University ...

Psychology professor says social validation, meeting expectations among reasons we overeat on Thanksgiving

November 25, 2014
Thanksgiving is a time for family, friends and feasting—lots of feasting. So is it any surprise that our eyes always seem to become so much bigger than our stomachs at this time of year?

Recommended for you

To reduce postoperative pain, consider sleep—and caffeine

August 18, 2017
Sleep is essential for good mental and physical health, and chronic insufficient sleep increases the risk for several chronic health problems.

Despite benefits, half of parents against later school start times

August 18, 2017
Leading pediatrics and sleep associations agree: Teens shouldn't start school so early.

Doctors exploring how to prescribe income security

August 18, 2017
Physicians at St. Michael's Hospital are studying how full-time income support workers hired by health-care clinics can help vulnerable patients or those living in poverty improve their finances and their health.

Schoolchildren who use e-cigarettes are more likely to try tobacco

August 17, 2017
Vaping - or the use of e-cigarettes - is widely accepted as a safer option for people who are already smoking.

Federal snack program does not yield expected impacts, researchers find

August 17, 2017
A well-intentioned government regulation designed to offer healthier options in school vending machines has failed to instill better snacking habits in a sample of schools in Appalachian Virginia, according to a study by ...

Study shows cigarette makers shifted stance on nicotine patches, gum

August 17, 2017
The use of nicotine patches, gum, lozenges, inhalers or nasal sprays—together called "nicotine replacement therapy," or NRT—came into play in 1984 as prescription medicine, which when combined with counseling, helped ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.