Cafes for Life: Are Cafes Good for our Mental Wellbeing?
Last night my daughter Ottilie ended up in the ER. It wasn’t serious. That’s not this story. As we walked off the beach, my son threw a stone at her and though she was supposed to duck behind the boogie board, she didn’t. It punctured her eyebrow and off we went to get it glued and pulled back together.
This morning, at Kindergarten drop-off, Ottilie wobbled. She was worried about the plaster getting wet, worried about the rain forecast, worried about it being Monday morning and that she would be away from me again.
And I wobbled too. I felt her anxiety—felt it with my own, seeping through my body. I carried all of it into the beginning of my week too: The moment I saw the blood streaming down the left side of her face and my son screaming ‘it’s her eye, it’s her eye’. The fear of what might have happened, of washing away all that red to figure out how serious it was, the anger that my son had caused this and that my daughter was in pain.
I felt it keenly this morning when I awoke, that long evening in the ER waiting room, with kind doctors and nurses paying attention to this little girl still in her beach wetsuit, trying to stay calm and positive as I wanted to vomit into the trash can. And I felt too the effects of that very large glass of rose I used to dull my nerves on an empty stomach when I got home, and the kids finally slept. I felt it again and again, the vulnerability that is our world with children, and the times our lives smash into pauses of the non-self-care kind, but of the nothing-else-matters-because-my-kid-is-hurt-and-I-do-not-care-in-this-or-any-other-moment-how-many-followers-I-have-on-Instagram kind.
But we’re here now. On a Monday morning. With all the feelings. In need of pulling it all back together, to similarly glue the opposing sides of myself. To get back to work, to life. I know I’m supposed to do this: drop off the kids, walk home to my study, sit down and work. But instead I do this: drop off the kids and drive to a café. Sit down and work. Because this, getting myself to a café, feels good to me.
Here, in this bustling space, with the sound of the espresso machine, and frankly quite horrible music playing, here is my solace. This café is the balm, these people I don’t know sitting next to me, are the answer that I’ve found to sitting also with the sometimes ickyness of life. It’s cafés that I turn to for something, some cossetting. I don’t go for a run, I don’t go to the gym, I head here. To cradle a large latte and to feel ok again.
Home represents something else: maybe a spiraling down, an empty space to fill with feelings, the weight of family needs that populate it. But here, there’s no empty something to fill, it’s already filled to the brim with chatter and other people lives, adjacent to my own. None of this belongs to me, but I get to witness and to brush against other people’s stories, to be distracted from my own.
Maybe I’m avoidant. But I know I’m not running away. I still bring the crap with me, it just sits better here, perched on a stool looking out at the world. It’s not a ‘let’s not do this’, more of a ‘let’s do this’ but with a blanket of cafeness. Can that be a word? What’s does that even mean here—warmth, people, place?
My life is a long-read in cafes—my coming-of-age story happened not at the Hacienda in Manchester in a period of music that was to become quite defining (Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets, Stone Roses, you know), but at the now defunct Cornerhouse café (since morphed into Home) a pretentious enough place that reflected my tendency to rave in my own mind and happily alone. Attending University in Edinburgh it was the Elephant House where JK Rowling wrote some book. In London, actually Caffé Nero (sorry - there’s a nice one in Chiswick). In San Francisco, there were too many to count—this was the polyamorous part of my café love (in a pinch we’d go for Ritual, The Mill, Coffee Bar and the Equator locations). This was when I could get lost in a neighborhood, and find its people lounging in some carefully designed caffeinated environment.
Then came one of the blows to being a new parent: realizing that toddlers don’t do well in fancy, artisan places—which is why Blue Bottle’s takeaway counter at San Francisco’s Ferry Building does so well for us, and Sightglass doesn’t. And also, the realization, if I could not do anything else in my day with a baby in the sling, too knackered to function in the sleep deprivation months, I could get myself to a café where I knew the barista and a handful of people. They would be kind enough to acknowledge me as a person, not just a mama, and I could have that sensation that I was still a grown up, because going for coffee was something only real adults got to do, right? A little older, my kids now know the equation, playground + coffee shop (the brits do this best: see Bath’s Alice Park Cafe). When we travel, our sight-seeing comes with best guides to coffee shops as much as things to do with kids (thanks The Almond Thief, Moo and Two, Society Café, The Hobo Co, the Hairy Barista, The Hatch and Cargo Coffee – our favourite places that dotted our summer holidays).
Maybe I’m weird. Maybe this is an unusual anomaly to put out there in self-care (which autocorrects to self-café btw, which makes no sense at all). But there’s some science behind this. And it’s all around ‘minimal social interactions’, which are vital to our mental wellbeing. The NPR podcast Life Kit put me on to this, a study by Dr. Gillian Sandstrom at the University of Essex that she conducted on whether people were happier even through weak ties, i.e. connections with people that we barely know and with whom we have limited contact. In short, she studied the impact on people of their interaction with a barista. She defined two groups, one that had just a functional interaction with the barista, and the other who chatted a little more with them. Then she asked them some questions on the way out of the cafe. Her study concluded that people were more satisfied, connected and happier, if they had engaged the barista, even for just a little while.
Cafes do this work. The work of connection, of putting people in front of us, with our nods and their smiles, our how are you's and what about the weathers. They helps us. I know that, less scientifically, because for my dad who cares full-time for my mum, a cup of coffee in a café means he’s less lonely. A few words exchanged and he’s a person again not just a carer.
Cafes are our third spaces, that mythical place between work and home. Sometimes they are even our work locations as I type away on my laptop. As high streets fall apart and our communities fragment, cafes are becoming one of the few places we can actually go to be with others. They are vital to our wellbeing.
Real-world initiatives are building on this, like the Chatter & Natter tables now in over 1000 cafes across the UK (including at Costa and piloted this year in Sainsbury’s) that sets aside a table for strangers to chat and aims to combat loneliness. This scheme brilliantly responds to two very contradictory things: that 75% of us would like more real-life conversations and that we don’t know how to do this. Ever found yourself sat in a cafe and looking around at all the other people sat alone too who you might be able to chat with if you didn’t feel so uncomfortable about approaching them? Chatter & Natter tables make it easy: if you want to talk to someone, you choose to sit at one of these tables. You don’t need to forge forever friendships, but you can make your day better by talking to a person for the time it takes to drink your coffee, maybe even for longer. It’s an ingenious, and super simple, way of making the world less lonely. Even the guinea-pig themed café in FleaBag had Chatty Wednesdays.
Cafes for us are the main way we get to be in the world while deciding how and if we interact with other people. Some cafes are really getting this by actively building connection into what they do or finding ways to provide sustaining spaces of comfort and intimacy. Some are just making sure they exist beyond the beverages on offer. London’s Drink Shop Do has built connection (and craft and bottomless brunches) into their space with an active program of events and a welcoming style. Brooklyn’s IXV promotes a no-waste, people-first ethos. New Jersey’s The Peccary gets the central role baristas play, and puts their wellbeing, their knowledge of the product and their interactions with customers, at the heart of what they do.
Sometimes it’s in an even more direct response to our mental health needs: In Chicago, Sip of Hope is one of the first cafés where 100% of their profits go towards suicide prevention and mental health education. Wallers Coffee Shop in Atlanta was founded to take on the stigma of depression, through offering music, mental health first aid, even a wall of resources. Dear M&S has been getting in on the act for a while: select cafes have for the past few years been used after-hours for Ruby Wax’s Frazzled Cafes. And there’s even a network of Happy Cafes worldwide, realized in association with Action for Happiness, that count our psychological wellbeing next to the lattes on their menus.
Self-care takes many forms. Being in a cafe is one of them for us. Maybe even for you too?
Tell us about cafes you know that are your respite from the world, or make space for something you need, or that make mental wellbeing part of their impact. Over the next few weeks we'll look more at some of these places and bring them into our guide for in real-life locations that help us better live our lives.