Compare folks in this country to those in France. One study of French dining companions found they make physical contact with each other an average of 110 times during a meal, while Americans made physical contact only twice.
Touch is “the primary language of compassion,” according to Dacher Keltner of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. It calms stress on the heart and triggers oxytocin (the love hormone); it makes us feel safe and eases pain.
In a study of compassion and touch, Keltner separated two strangers from each other with a barrier. One subject put an arm through an opening, while the other was told to convey various emotions using a one-second touch on the unseen person’s arm. The person being touched identified compassionate touch correctly 60 percent of the time, far exceeding the odds of getting it right by simply guessing, which they calculated would happen only 8 percent of the time.
Touching is a nonverbal “I love you” that makes a bad situation OK—or at least a little better. Research backs this up. In one study, when people were told to anticipate a painful blast of noise there was heightened activity in the threat-stress response areas of their brain. But if their significant other stroked their arm while they waited for the blast, they showed no reaction to the anticipated stressor.
Other research shows touch nurtures, reassures and improves marital satisfaction. Happy couples share similar touching behavior. But when a partner rejects our nonverbal advances, we feel needy and lonely.
With so much evidence that mindful touch makes us healthy and happy, why are we so reluctant as a culture to do more of it?
Experts suggest being touch averse may be learned behavior. We may have internalized unaffectionate parents’ behavior or feel awkward around public displays of affection.
The antidote, they say, is simple: Touch more, and do it often.