Is your human touch pot bubbling over happily or are you hungrily scraping the dregs looking for more? Just how much touch do you need to fill your personal quota?
Touch: everybody’s talking about it. Bruce Springsteen sang about it with “I just want something to hold on to, and a little of that human touch”. In the novel Siddhartha, author Hermann Hesse said “every caress, every touch… has its secret, which brings happiness to the person who knows how to wake it.” The American poet Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006) said “Touch me, remind me who I am”.
Just how important is touch and how much do we need?
Touch: an intrinsic human need
The need for human physical connection is biological. Some of us may remember hearing about studies in Romanian orphanages in the 1980s and 90s showing that a lack of touch in infants prevented healthy growth and the development of normal social skills. In the USA, hospital studies found that premature babies grow more when fifteen minutes of touch therapy is added into the daily routine. Without it, the orphans were literally unable to grow into healthy human beings. With it, the premature babies thrived1
In the early 1950s psychologist Harry Harlow conducted studies with infant monkeys and concluded that when given a choice between a wire monkey with food or a cloth monkey with no food, the infants preferred the cloth monkey to snuggle into, despite the fact that they were starving. The soft touch was what they needed – more than the food – and they were prepared to starve to get it2.
Repeatedly, psychologists have proven that touch is not just a wishy-washy desire, but rather an intrinsic and biological human need.
The cuddle hormone
A stream of psychology research confirms that the right type can release oxytocins, commonly known as ‘the cuddle hormone’. Since oxytocins reduce stress and increase a feeling of well-being, it isn’t surprising that studies found that people who received more touch were shown to have higher levels of oxytocins, thus giving them a helping hand with their everyday stress. However, our thoughts about the touch also make a difference. The touch has to be perceived as non-threatening to provide us with the happy hormones and awesome vibes2 .
So, the healing powers of safe touch literally make our systems less anxious. After a stressful day, a gentle hug, caress, or brief touch can make all the difference in telling our physiology to calm down. It tells us that we are safe, that we are going to be okay.
How much touch do you need?
Many of us have never thought about how much touch we need because our personal quota is the result of a complex combination of hundreds of factors including how much we were touched as children, whether this was perceived as positive or negative, our general emotional health, and our individual personalities and natures.
So, how much is the right amount for you?
Working this out is a bit like Goldilocks. Getting your personal quota just right can literally change your life, providing a deeper sense of peace and balance.
For some people the thought of a hug sends them into a white panic. They are the ones who quickly describe themselves as ‘not touchy’ people. If forced to hug, they will often give you the quick triple pat as they sneakily inch their body away from yours. Then there are the ‘professional power huggers’ who are ready to dive into your arms before you’ve got your name out.
Is something ‘off’?
Most of us have our own intuitive personal equation of how much we need in our lives to feel fulfilled. If we don’t meet it, we sense that something is missing or ‘off’.
For me, it was the absence of physical intimacy that made me value its importance. When I separated from my partner and moved into a country cottage 1000 kilometres from my prior close-nit community of power huggers, I noticed that no matter how much I spoke via phone or Skype with my loved ones, there was a sense of something missing. Finally, it struck me that my personal touch pot was running ruefully dry.
Once a week, I caught up with my only acquaintance, whereby we exchanged a brief kiss and hug (hello and goodbye) totalling approximately six seconds. This was the new sum of my weekly human touch. And going from nightly snuggling with my partner and hundreds of community hugs to six seconds was throwing my system into confusion and longing.
The lack of touching in my life was literally putting my system under stress.
For me, this realisation was the catalyst to joining a weekly choir and a writing group and to actively start making more face-to-face connections with my new community. It also confirmed for me that I was one of these touchy people and that long term, it would serve me to live somewhere where hugging was embedded into the culture.
Embracing your personal touch quota
We are all different. What matters is working out how much touch you need and then being brave enough to create this in your own life. It is about embracing your personal quota as part of who you are and being comfortable in fulfilling it.
For me, being new to this community, I had to actively go out and seek more connection to start making steps to fulfil my touch quota. For those of us living with partners and children, sometimes the briefest touch may be all we need to comfort ourselves and our loved ones. When we touch, we feel connected and this helps fulfil one of the greatest human desires of being cared for. Without knowing why, we feel nourished and connected.
So, this week I urge you to start to notice your relationship with touch. Do you have enough safe touching in your life to meet your personal quota? If you find yourself stressed and running around, perhaps some gentle touch from someone you love may be the ticket? It has a positive effect for the both the toucher or touchee. In your own unique way, reach out and touch someone you love and get your biology working in your favour to create a happier, more peaceful you.
- Both studies outlined by Maria Konnikova in ‘The Power of Touch’, The New Yorker, 4 March 2015.
- Tjew A Sin and Koole, ‘That Human Touch that Means so Much’, The Inquisitive Mind, issue 17, 2013.
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