We've all heard that you are what you eat. Now we learn that you may be what others eat.
A University of Chicago study found that people are more inclined to trust one another and more likely to come to agreement when eating the same kind of food. Although researchers can't explain why, a series of experiments demonstrates a dramatic increase in cooperation and collegiality when people are talking not just over lunch, but over the same lunch.
Experts have been telling us for years that children flourish in proportion to the frequency of family dinners. The more time parents and children spend together at the table, the more likely children are to succeed in school, to develop positive self-image, and to enjoy better physical and emotional health.
The natural assumption has been that family interaction increases children's feelings of love and security, which leads to a deeper appreciation of family values. That's almost certainly true.
But there may be an additional factor. At most family dinners, whatever is on the menu is what everyone eats. And that, apparently, makes a big difference.
Certainly that is the case with the Sabbath meals in traditional Jewish homes. Aside from the atmosphere of sanctity, the finery, and the lessons of opening the home to guests, there is the sharing of courses that creates a subliminal sense of commonality.
In many Asian and Arab countries as well, it is common for people to eat from a central dish placed in the middle of the table, possibly contributing to the strong family and communal bonds that characterize those cultures.
But the lesson may even extend beyond the dinner table. If we extrapolate from this curious observation, we might gain some insight into why our world is so rapidly devolving into social and political anarchy.
TO CHOOSE OR NOT TO CHOOSE
In a classic vaudeville routine, a mugger brandishes a gun and demands, "Your money or your life," to which comedian Jack Benny replies, "I'm thinking, I'm thinking."
We take it for granted that choices make us happier. After all, it's obvious that the more often we can have exactly what we want, the more content and satisfied we become. Isn't it?
That's what social science guru Malcolm Gladwell would have us believe.
In a 2004 Ted talk (with over 6 million views), Mr. Gladwell asserts that it is the availability of 14 varieties of mustard, 36 varieties of spaghetti sauce, and 71 varieties of olive oil that make us, in his words, "deliriously happy."
But Sheena Iyengar makes a compelling case that just the opposite is true. In her own Ted talk from 2010, Dr. Iyengar presents research that proves how too many choices, especially over irrelevant differences, can leave us overwhelmed and paralyzed with indecision. In an age when Fear Of Missing Out may soon become a clinical diagnosis, it doesn't matter how much we like the choice we've already made if we can't stop vexing over the many more choices we had to leave on the table.
Even worse, having too many options can impair our decision-making ability, so that we commit errors in judgment by allowing trivial distinctions and insignificant differences to overshadow more critical factors.
KEEP IT SIMPLE, STUPID
What does this have to do with the lunch menu? Perhaps everything.
As human beings, we can't help but define our own circumstances by observing those around us. Witness the toddler who pays no attention to a toy until another child picks it up, at which point the first child loses interest in every other toy in the toy box.
Sadly, adults are little different.
When others have something we don't, the less satisfied we are with what we have. Even when we get what we want, we often find ourselves wondering if our lives wouldn't be that much better if we had chosen something else, whether it's our car, our job, or our spouse. It's only one small step from there before we begin coveting what others have and resenting them for having what we don't, even as they resent us for the very same reason. Before long, all we can see is what we're missing, until bitterness is all we have to share with others.
King Solomon says, Do not gaze at the wine, how it reddens, how it lends color to the glass as it flows smoothly down. The world is filled with seductive delights, and we fan the embers of desire in our hearts by contemplating all the things that might give us pleasure.
By creating too many options, we create more opportunities for discontent, as well as more ways to incite the us vs. them attitude responsible for so much senseless conflict. But when we see that others are enjoying what we have, we find ourselves free to enjoy what is in front of us, all the more so because shared experience makes everything better.
So maybe the best way to enjoy a meal is by telling the waiter, "I'll have whatever my companion is having."
Which may be the best recipe for happiness even when we're not eating.