The Dinner Party: Rebuilding our Declining Social Connections

Less Entertaining Significantly Contributes to Declining Social Connections

The reduced level of social connections significantly and adversely affects:

1. personal health,

2. societal and government function,

3. and the mental stability and equilibrium that the happiness of social connections brings.

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The Research

Social Connections and Health

The upshot of 50 years of happiness research is that the quantity and quality of a person's social connections—friendships, relationships with family members, closeness to neighbors, etc.—is so closely related to well-being and personal happiness that happiness and social connection can practically be equated. Further research concludes that this happiness from strong social connections is a vital contributor to good health and longevity.

"It is as important to encourage individuals to build broad and good social relationships and increase social skills, interacting with others" as it is to encourage them to eat a healthy diet and be physically active, said Yang Claire Yang, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Researcher Dan Buettner  discovered that 100+ Year Old people had several things in common. They ate “close to the ground” (unprocessed, whole local foods), stayed physically active (many walking several miles a day into their 100’s), and had a robust social network. They had close family and friends who they got to see on a regular (some daily) basis. Being with others and interacting is imperative for a long, happy life. In fact, the researchers found that “those with close social ties and unhealthful lifestyles (such as smoking, obesity and lack of exercise) actually lived longer than those with poor social ties but more healthful living habits,” John Robbins wrote in his book, "healthy at 100".

Social Interaction Is Critical for Mental and Physical Health", The New York Times) "For those seeking a health-promoting lifestyle, it’s not enough to focus on eating your veggies and getting regular exercise.Don’t forget to connect.” She continues: "Absent social interactions, blood flow to vital organs is likely to be reduced and immune function may be undermined. Even how genes are expressed can be adversely affected, impairing the body’s ability to turn off inflammation. Chronic inflammation has been linked to heart disease, arthritis, Type 2 diabetes and even suicide attempts." 

Beyond physical decline, the lack of solid social interactions can gravely affect mental health. In a study that looked at how social activity affected cognitive decline, over 1,100 seniors without dementia at baseline were measured on their social activity levels and then tested periodically on their cognitive functioning over a 12-year period. The rate of cognitive decline was 70 percent less in people with frequent social contact than those with low social activity.

Social Connections and Culture and Society

Harvard professor Robert Putnam's seminal book, Bowling Alone, describes  how Americans are becoming less and less connected to one another. To paraphrase Putnam, “the culture in which people talk to each other over the back fence is the culture in which people vote.” Apparently, when you feel part of a group, you’re more likely to contribute to it — such as by voting. Putnam documented a broad decline in civic engagement and social participation in the United States over the past 35 years. Citizens vote less, go to church less, discuss government with the neighbors less, are members of fewer voluntary organizations, have fewer dinner parties, and generally get together less for civic and social purposes. At the societal level, social disengagement is associated with more corrupt, and less efficient government and more crime.

In his book The Loss of Happiness in Market DemocraciesRobert E. Lane, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Yale, brings together much of the research done on social capital over the last several years and shows how social ties not only affect our personal health, but also our societal health. He observes that as prosperity in a society increases, social solidarity decreases. Happiness not only declines, people become more distrustful of each other as well as their political institutions. Lane argues that we must alter our priorities; we must increase our levels of companionship even at the risk of reducing our income. 

"In how many communities do zoning and planning bodies require sidewalks and front porches and community gathering places? And in communities where homes have no sidewalks or other natural gathering places, who organizes block parties, progressive dinners, and community poker games? Those who care about community connection have relatively simple remedies at hand — taking the time to organize and prioritize to build it"  writes Margaret Krome in Remedies for Social Isolation are Simple, but Require Effort,  Capital Times, June 6, 2016.

The History of Feasts and Entertaining and Social Connections

Anthropological research theorizes that, in the early stages of food management, storing foods for one's own needs only went so far because there was only so much that could be consumed before it spoiled.  This extra was deployed toward social means by individuals looking to establish reciprocal relationships.  Group meals were a social contract. They formed a social network that could be deployed in times of need. 

While our modern-day group dining efforts are largely celebratory in nature on the surface—birthdays, weddings, holidays, etc.—psychologically and socially they serve the same need: they gather our allies (both family and friends) and renew our social obligations to each other. 

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1 comment

  • I love nothing more than hosting a party. Even though it can feel like a lot of prep work, it is so worth it once everyone gathers and starts to engage in conversation. One thing my friends and I have started doing is “cell phone stacking” where we stack our cellphones on the counter by the door and no one is allowed to touch them until they leave (or in case of emergency lol).


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