Sunday, October 26, 2014

Dining Hall Happiness

Some of my best memories of happy times come from my university dining hall. The documentary 'Happy' looks at why the Danish consistently rank as one of the happiest countries in the world and argues that one of the reasons is Cohousing. The community is planned, owned and managed by the residents with private homes but shared facilities such as cooking, dining, child care and gardening.

The thing that immediately appealed to me was the idea of the shared cooking. Going to a restaurant with friends is awesome, but it is not quite the same. Few could afford to do that every night, and just getting a group of friends together nowadays can be a nightmare given how time and proximity poor we are. In the example they gave, there were 20 families living together. They each cooked twice a month freeing up the food preparation time the rest of the month but meaning they still ate home cooked meals rather than TV dinners.

Below are some pictures I took while in my university dining hall. As you can see, we loved the food and it made us very happy. Many of the wonderful people in these photos are scattered all over the world so it would be impossible to recreate the daily interaction we were used to. Social media has helped a little. Twitter allows you to wonder with your tray until you find an interesting conversation to drop in on. Facebook seems to be having more active debates with people starting to share a little more than photos and jokes. But actual face time is harder.

I have tried to think why if communal dining halls are such a cause of happiness, there aren't more commercially provided ones? I haven't looked into the economics of them but from my experience at university, I know the pressures on the food providers, as soon as you bulk up, to reduce costs. Quality was always an issue, hence the ecstatic photos below. It is also not a business I would immediately think of as attractive. You want something that has a competitive advantage. You want barriers to entry so others can't recreate what you are doing easily. Ideally you don't want to be invested in a commodity. I can't think how dining halls will be provided commercially unless they can be added to something else which offers the opportunity for a profit. There are some things you can't wait for the market to provide.

Perhaps just organising more shared meals but in a less formal way than a dinner party is an approach. I have heard of the concept of an 'extra plate' where you offer to cook for your neighbour once a week and vice versa. The Danes have shown a way - I wonder if it will catch on.


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