Social Connections, Especially Over Food, Are Good for the Body and Soul

While you don't necessarily need alcohol to boost your endorphins over a meal, it certainly doesn't hurt.

Do you dread holiday dinners with extended family members, neighborhood block parties or even a potluck at your workplace? You may want to work on that. A new study published in the Annual Review of Psychology journal explores why social relationships are important not just for our emotional health, but for our physical health, too.

“Our social connections to others have powerful influences on health and longevity,” writes Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, and lead author of the study.

She explains that not only do close friends and family make you healthier, but a lack of relationships can actually be a risk factor for premature mortality — as much a risk factor as obesity. Additionally, the study suggests that social connections should be considered as essential factors in the public health domain.

Holt-Lunstad's earlier research also focused on the long-term benefits of strong relationships. That study showed that not just any relationship will do — the quality and quantity of our social connections also matters when it comes to its effect on our mental health.

It also revealed that "these findings indicate that the influence of social relationships on the risk of death are comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality such as smoking and alcohol consumption and exceed the influence of other risk factors such as physical inactivity and obesity."

In other words, gabbing with Grandma can be even better for your health than going for a walk (although ideally, you could do both at the same time).

Bonding over food (and drink)

a 1980s photo of a Christmas dinner with family
Hanging out with Grandma could make both of you live longer, happier lives. Elzbieta Sekowska/Shutterstock

Still not convinced to spend your next holiday surrounded by aunts, uncles and cousins? In an interview with The New York Times, Robin Dunbar, emeritus professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford, echoes these findings. He finds mealtimes to be particularly effective at strengthening social bonds. “They help us build community, and create or strengthen relationships with family and friends,” he said.

Previous studies have revealed what a powerful effect eating alone has on our mood. Second only to mental illness, consistently eating alone can make you deeply unhappy.

But it doesn't necessarily matter what or where you're eating; just the act of breaking bread with others facilitates these crucial social bonds. Embrace the idea of "scruffy hospitality," where you stop worrying about the cleanliness of your house or what fancy French feast you need to prepare, and instead focus on the good conversation and conviviality company brings.

Dunbar's own research attempts to explain why eating together makes us happy. He gathered a list of endorphin triggers — those neurotransmitters that make our brain happy — and presented it to a group of respondents, asking them to rank what had the greatest impact on bonding.

Out of the list — alcohol, laughter, singing, dancing and storytelling, plus chocolate (representing food) — people chose laughter, stories and alcohol. Dunbar explains that alcohol “seems to be one of the best triggers humans have ever found of the endorphin system.”

Tackling the dinner table

black and white vintage photo of family eating outside
These moments of connection don't have to happen over the dinner table; they can happen before, cooking in the kitchen, or after, while cleaning up and doing the dishes. Elzbieta Sekowska/Shutterstock

Of course, you don't have to bust out the booze to get the grandparents grinning. Food and alcohol, adds Dunbar, “probably lift you onto a platform, but the behavioral synchrony from conversation or singing or whatever you care to do lifts it into a completely higher plane.”

Once you finally have everyone gathered at the dinner table, should you stick to small talk or explore more in-depth topics? It depends on your intention. Priya Parker, author of “The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters,” tells The New York Times that “...if the purpose this year is generosity, invite everybody. Bring somebody who doesn’t have a place to celebrate into your Thanksgiving this year. And then meaningfully connect them in the room.”

Consider adding a ritual to enhance your dining experience. Whether it's a simple lighting of the candles or putting on a playlist, these simple gestures can make a meal feel more meaningful. At the same time, family needs change every year, so be open to altering the routine or welcoming new friends into the fold.

Adds Parker, “Each of these acts and activities are an excuse to think about how we begin to stitch or restitch the family or group of friends or whomever together."