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The Surprising Benefit of Coffee That’s Hidden in Plain Sight

It was at a recent R U OK? Day event I was attending in my capacity as an R U OK? Ambassador where the event organiser shared with me how the owner of a local café commonly frequented by staff from the organisation had come up with a suggestion to support the event.

The idea being that for R U OK? Day, a two-for-one offer for coffee would be available to all employees, to facilitate more conversation and opportunity to ask, “how’s it all going?”.

R U OK? is an Australian non-profit suicide prevention organisation founded back in 2009 by the late Gavin Larkin. September 12th is the nationally celebrated day that serves to remind us all we can all play an active role to reduce suicide.

My reflection on this generous offer was “of course!” because sharing a cup of coffee with a colleague or a friend is the perfect way to connect human to human, face-to-face in a meaningful way.

Coffee has been part of our social set up for hundreds of years from its earliest beginnings when first harvested in Ethiopia in the 10th century to the coffee-houses that started to emerge in the mid-1600s in Europe. London’s first coffee house opened in 1652 and within 50 years the number had grown closer to 2000.

Who said you had to have social media for great ideas to spread?

Those early coffee houses became hubs for men (hmm, yes, I know what you’re thinking!) to come together to share ideas, gather information and debate the challenges of the day.

The new generation of philosophers, Christopher Wren, Sir Isaac Newton, Halley and others made good use of what came to be known as the Penny Universities, where for the payment of one penny (quite a lot of money in those days) you could get a cup of coffee (don’t ask me how it tasted) and listen to the surrounding intellectual debates.

While your local Starbucks® or Dome® might not provide the same level of intellectual rigor, coffee has retained a unique place in our society as a means to connect socially, boost our self- confidence and focus our attention.

  • We arrange to meet our friends for a coffee catch up.
  • We stop for a well-earned coffee after our Saturday morning bicycle ride with our cycling colleagues distinguished by our lycra garb and strange shoes.
  • We shout our work colleagues a coffee, to take a mental break during the workday.
  • We seek out a good coffee before going in for a looooong work meeting or attending a workshop.
  • We hold business meetings in cafes to establish new working relationships and share a coffee as we talk about our new program, project or proposal.
  • We hold workplace-based meetings and (hopefully) ask participants and guests if they’d like coffee first. This is seriously a good move as research has shown that drinking coffee before starting a group activity increases individual participation and focus. It was also found that drinking coffee led to individuals ranking themselves and their co-workers as more alert putting them in a better frame of mind, talking more and staying on topic.

And some of us choose to work out of cafes with an endless supply of delightful coffee and delectable edibles that can be a challenge for maintaining a healthy weight. Café working is called socially embedded individual work. Yikes. While more than a mouthful to say, this acknowledges there is something about working alone in an environment where we’re surrounded by others we don’t know, that provides social inclusion. A bit like why some of us prefer to be in a shared room in hospital and others prefer seclusion.

Open-plan workplaces are like this too, except the surrounding cacophony of pen clickers, overloud laughter of colleagues on conference calls, photocopiers and mobile phones allowed to ring unanswered somehow don’t have the same soothing effect as the gentle hum and graunch of the steam machine and the bean grinder in a café setting. Though some coffee shops can be hard on the ears where tiled floors and lack of acoustic dampening makes you feel as if chalk is being dragged down a blackboard. 70 decibels of ambient noise is about right if you’re interested in measuring it.

But, if you’re feeling stuck and stale, changing up your working environment to a place that you find stimulating and supportive could be just the ticket. Enter stage left your favourite coffee shop perfect for that little zing of difference. Just look at what this did for J.K. Rowling, creativity pouring out of her as she sat writing in a café.

It’s the novelty piece that stimulates the release of dopamine that makes us feel good. Topped up by some extra adrenaline from our coffee, and we’re good to roll.

While in Kuala Lumpur recently for a conference I ducked out for a coffee and found myself in laptop land. Virtually every table was occupied by one or more people focused intently on their laptop screens. Conversation was at a minimum, but you could hear the hum of lots of brain activity. It’s been shown that seeing others engaged in their work in this setting, makes us put in more effort! So, if you’ve got some important work to be done and you’re thinking a café would be the perfect spot, look for one already being used by others also working hard, for the bonus of mental effort contagion.

Coffee shops can be good places to meet people too. This isn’t about eavesdropping, but taking the opportunity to say hello, start a conversation and begin what might just be the start of a fabulous new friendship or work contact.

And don’t forget drinking coffee has been shown to enhance the memory. If you’ve got things to learn for that next morning exam, why not prep yourself with a coffee first?

The social benefit of coffee is real. If drinking coffee and or working in a cafe makes you feel good, more socially engaged and happier then that has to be a good thing, if that works for you.

This is about recognising what helps you to work at your best and choosing where possible to create your perfect working environment, to get more done to the level you know you’re capable of and to have the social support needed to help you achieve this.

Do you have a favourite café you love to work from?

Do you find coffee helps you to be more productive and happier?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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