Human beings are social creatures. From birth we are evolutionarily designed to seek closeness with others. Language is one of the most complex skills to evolve from such a young age, allowing us to communicate our needs with others. Even in adulthood we rely on social contact to feel safe and fill us with a sense of belongingness. But as technology continues to define our social world, society becomes increasingly lonely.
“HAPPINESS IS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED” ― Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild
This quote, from one of my favourite films, nicely sums up how important it is to be surrounded by others. It’s based on the true story of Christopher McCandless, who travels into the Alaskan wilderness, determined to live a life of solitude to prove he does not need others to be happy. Within a few weeks, he is propelled into deep loneliness and comes to the realisation that no one can be truly happy alone.
Loneliness is a dangerous state, leading people to seek out ‘social surrogates’. Social surrogates fill the void by allowing individuals to feel passively social, such as by entering the world of their favourite book characters or tv shows. People can seek belongingness in a number of methods, through feeling ‘connections’ with celebrities or representing their bonds with photos. Recent research has suggested the food can also act as a social surrogate, capturing memories of social occasions that provide temporary comfort.
So many happy and social occasions are filled with big meal times or specific food traditions. I can be transported back to playing pass the parcel at birthday parties just by the mention of jelly and ice cream or angel delight. Squidgy chocolate cookies remind me of sitting around in the common room with my friends complaining about teachers. Even food shopping at Tesco makes me feel instantly connect to my sister. The emotional and social information we recall with food memories elevate certain meals to the status of ‘comfort food’. The experience of eating, or even thinking, about comfort foods automatically induces social comfort.
Of course part of the reason foods are often comforting because they are warm and filling. When this is combined with the unique emotional power from connections to social relationships, meals have the ability to reduce feelings of loneliness. One study by Troisi and Gabriel in New York found that eating chicken soup increased social thoughts and behaviour, while reducing negative psychological effects. So it makes a lot of sense why we turn to comfort foods in times of stress. Like babies who need their mother’s to soothe, we use food to increase feelings of social closeness.
Comfort foods are of course idiosyncratic; typically men tend to be comforted by more stodgy meals such as pie or steak, where as women are more comforted by chocolate or ice-cream. I asked some foodie instagramers to share their favourite comfort food recipes and a theme of warm, hearty meals emerged:
Click on the photos to link to their photos and recipes
Sadly, due to the health consequences of these types of food, there are strong associations between comfort food and guilt. This struck me as pretty sad; the very food that connects us to our relationships and make us feel happy, actually makes us feel worse in the long run. Hence, I devised a meal that is warm and comforting but also nutritious. And now, thanks to my dog, I make it I will be reminded of my family frantically running to catch the bowl and it’s flying contents when I next make it… (pictures are pre-dog).
Sweet chilli and coriander bean stew:
1 can butter beans
1 can black beans
Handful chopped coriander
Handful chopped mint
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons sweet chilli sauce
2 chopped red peppers
1 chopped onion
Handful pomegranate seeds
1/2 chopped cucumber
1. Drain the beans and boil in water for 10mins until soft.
2. Fry the chopped pepper and onion in oil until soft.
3. Meanwhile, mix the soy sauce, sesame oil and sweet chilli sauce with chopped herbs, cucumber and pomegranate seeds.
4. Add the beans and vegetables to the sauce, mix and season well.