Epicure's resident anthropologist discusses the health benefits of picnicking.
Picnics. Synonymous with British summers, picnics are about so much more than food. An escape from the monotony of urban office life, there are few things more relaxing than sitting in a park, on a sunny day, with a picnic basket and a glass of Pimms. Not only that, but research suggests that picnicking can influence what and how we eat, as well as providing a much-needed boost to our health and wellbeing.
Originally a 14th-century pre-hunt tradition picnics, or “pique niques”, were enjoyed only by the wealthier classes. Picnics in their current form, as informal meals enjoyed by everyone, only date back to the mid-19th century, but they have always been out of doors, and this is where one of the picnic’s key benefits comes in.
There are several positives to spending time outdoors. Firstly, soaking up the few rays of sunlight that Britain receives every year increases your levels of vitamin D. Although we Brits are notoriously deficient in it, Vitamin D is essential for boosting the immune system and maintaining good heart activity, as well as helping to prevent bone diseases, and lowering risks of depression and anxiety. Secondly, during times of stress the body releases a hormone known as cortisol. A study carried out in 2015 showed that being in nature and seeing green spaces can actually lower levels of cortisol and lower blood pressure. Basically, there is scientific proof that picnicking chills you out! Most importantly, it has been shown that sitting at a desk to eat lunch can actually decrease levels of happiness- all the more reason to get out there and soak up the summer sun.
Although picnicking lasts only an afternoon it stimulates a feeling similar to being on holiday, and holidays have been clinically proven to boost your happiness. Experts in the field are unanimous in the idea that holidays are good for you and improve your mood, even if only in the short term. The most restorative holidays are ones where you can relax, exercise, and socialise in a warm climate. Picnicking, while only a short-term activity, seems to imitate many of the features of such a holiday (though describing the British weather as a “warm climate” may be pushing it a bit). Experts have also said that short holidays are just as effective at influencing your mood as long ones, so why would communal outdoor eating not have similar results?
More than just being an excuse to escape the confines of the indoors, al fresco dining has the added benefit of being the perfect excuse to get together with friends and family. More than 20% of British families only sit down for a meal together once or twice a week, and a similar proportion of the population have their family meals in front of the TV. The original picnic was a social gathering where everyone brought their own wine. Essentially, this first manifestation of a picnic was a meal where all attendants got together and contributed something. Just like sunlight, eating with others in this way can increase levels of happiness. Furthermore, although eating with others can increase food intake by 18%, it actually alters your food choices towards foods that are more nutritious- who said peer pressure was always bad?
London, despite having a population of over 8.5 million, can be quite a lonely place, and so it is sometimes necessary to make the effort to socialise. Picnics began as social gatherings, events where friends and family members could get together. Research has shown that such occasions can have substantial benefits for mental health. Those who are more talkative and assertive in social situations are more likely to feel positive emotions, and have a lower risk of developing mental diseases. If that wasn't enough, maintaining strong social connections can improve memory functions and the ability to think clearly. Organising get-togethers, such as picnics, can provide the perfect opportunity to reconnect with people you might otherwise rarely see.
So, does picnicking contribute to feelings of happiness and wellbeing? You betcha! Communal eating increases the quality of food that we eat and the combination of being sociable and enjoying the great outdoors works to prevent a whole array of mental and physical complications. The simple fact of being out in a park, or on the beach, encourages people to exercise more, participating in picnic-typical activities, such as Frisbee or Rounders. The experience alters how we relate to our food in a wholly beneficial way... Just try to avoid doing it in the rain...