The benefits of human touch

By Mariann Main

February 11, 2014

Somehow it is nearing Valentine’s Day, again. I have been told that the older you are, the shorter time becomes. That seems to be true now, especially since I have reached a “fifty-something” milestone. Christmas arrives annually at lightning speed, just when I have finally packed away the holiday decorations. Birthdays seem to do the same, arriving within a time span closer resembling six months versus a full year. Maybe that is how it seems that I am aging twice as fast rather than when I was a teenager and time “stood still.” How I wish it would do that again, at least for a few days so I can get caught-up on a multitude of unfinished projects, such as organizing those just-used Christmas decorations.

Valentine’s Day is one of those holidays I think most of us could do without. It can be awkward, depressing, disappointing, embarrassing, or on rare occasions, joy-filled, but that is if you are younger than 30 and have found your “soul mate.” Valentine’s Day reminds me of Christmas. The television commercials begin the day after Christmas, and to save sanity by mid-January, I have to quickly turn the channel, avoiding another repeat of a sappy ad for a jewelry store, florist, or greeting card company. Valentine’s has become almost as commercialized as Christmas. The advertisements emphasize “buy, buy, buy,” versus giving a significant loved one affection, appreciation, or attention, which would be a much better choice instead of incurring more credit card debt from purchasing something out of “Valentine’s obligation.”

The premise of this week’s CBS Sunday Morning segment on “The Fine Art of Cuddling,” sounded ridiculous. Clients pay a “professional cuddler” to come to your home or office and “cuddle” with you. Watching these people go to homes and “hold” a client they don’t know, and have little dialogue, seemed creepy to me. At the price of approximately $1 per minute, I would rather have a massage. But the story also gave me the insight as to how deprived we are as a nation for the human touch of others, without sexual connotation.

Per the segment, it seems that the only country doing a worse job of touching each other than Americans is Great Britain, which reported that many citizens go through their day without touching anyone else. This gives England the distinction of a “no-touch society,” which potentially explains why those of British descent seem somewhat distant to me. Research conducted by Dr. Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley, concluded that Americans aren’t close behind the Brits by touching others only twice within the same amount of time. Keltner, who has spent his career studying human touch, concluded in the segment that there are “massive variations (in the amount of touch) depending upon culture.”

Not surprisingly, Latin Americans touch each other the most with 120 “touches” in an equal period to the Americans’ “two touches,” or zero for the Brits. Sofia Vergara comes to mind, who reminds me of a vibrant, less reserved Sophia Loren, who is Italian-born versus Vergara being Colombian. Photos of Vergara show her usually hugging someone, which according to Keltner, is not surprising.

Considering our high-stress, time-efficiency society, lowering our Cortisol levels is important. Keltner has discovered that hugging someone prior to an upcoming, emotionally challenging event, such as a surgical procedure or public speaking can lower Cortisol, leading to less negative impact on both our body and psyche. Cortisol is a steroid-based hormone which is released when humans experience stress and produced by the adrenal gland in response to “fight or flight” situations. An overabundance of Cortisol has been linked to a higher likelihood of heart disease, some types of cancer, premature aging, and obesity.

So for this Valentine’s Day, instead of dashing to the mall to buy something that is expensive, fattening, or “out of obligation,” how about offering “two hugs a day” to a significant other, sibling, spouse, older parent, neighbor, roommate, or co-worker? If they live alone, it might be the only human contact they can look forward to, and could help them lead a happier, healthier, and longer life.

Mariann Main is a Licensed Counselor and a Delaware native. Her column appears weekly on Wednesdays. To submit a question and have Mariann answer it anonymously, send mail to the Delaware Gazette office, 40 N. Sandusky St., Suite 203, Delaware, OH 43015.