Touch can be used as a tool for communicating empathy, even resulting in an analgesic, painkilling effect. To combat loneliness, let’s set up coffee dates instead of screen time.
We humans aren’t meant to live in isolation – loneliness has been proven to cause serious repercussions, leading to illness and a 50% increased risk of early death.
In her New York Times Modern Love essay, writer Michelle Fiordaliso makes the case for unexpected moments of intimacy between strangers. “Touch solidifies something – an introduction, a salutation, a feeling, empathy,” she writes.
It turns out that these moments of connection, while fleeting, have a lasting impact on our wellbeing. One study published earlier this year showed that touch can be used as a tool for communicating empathy, resulting in an analgesic, painkilling effect. This ability to synchronize with others is crucial for social development – a fact that has garnered the attention of psychologists and scientists in recent years.
As a writer who regularly uses social media as a way of communicating with friends and family, I’ve noticed that the times I’m most prone to bouts of anxiety and illness coincide with the times I’m not meaningfully connecting in person. Perhaps it’s no coincidence then that many of the mental health challenges we face today stem from this experience of disconnect. Last year, neuroscience researcher John Cacioppo told the Guardian that, “loneliness is like an iceberg, it goes deeper than we can see.”
Indeed, I am far from alone in my experience. It turns out that the number of people who report feeling lonely has more than doubled since 1980. And while contemporary society will have us believe that by staying fit and avoiding tobacco, we can offset the risk of disease, the truth is, we need to recognize that feeling socially connected is as fundamental to our longevity as eating the right foods.
Close ties not only help foster positive emotions, they also protect against the harmful effects of stress. For example, a hug from a close friend isn’t only comforting, it also produces feelgood hormones in the brain like serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin – all of which help boost the immune system and ward off illness. But it does more than just make you feel good, it can also accurately communicate emotions like gratitude, love and sympathy.
It was Mother Teresa who said that there is more hunger for love and appreciation in this world than for bread – and she’s not wrong. Whether or not we feel loved profoundly influences how we feel on a day to day basis. A growing body of research confirms the wisdom of her words – holding a partner’s hand, cuddling, visiting with friends or family – all of these activities are just as important to our wellbeing as remembering to drink more water and get enough exercise.
Close relationships lead to a longer life – yet, despite mounting evidence showing their large-scale impact on health, they aren’t adequately acknowledged as a determinant comparable to other public health priorities.
After researching the myriad benefits of in person contact, I’ve vowed to prioritize making more coffee dates with friends and scheduling in periods of bonding time with those I’m closest to. In this way, I am not only fostering quality time with the people I love, I’m also bolstering my physical and emotional wellbeing.
Forging meaningful connections shapes who we are biologically, and this is as true for now as it was centuries ago. The notion that we should strive to be self-reliant at all costs is misguided and actively hurts those who believe it. Authors such as Brené Brown have shared stories about our fundamental need for belonging: “As members of a social species, we derive strength not from our rugged individualism, but from our collective ability to plan, communicate, and work together.”
And if we are to combat this loneliness epidemic, we need to view connection as more than some poetic expression. By making this distinction, we can see the ways it can be used as a force for positive social change.
Cindy Lamothe is a writer based in Antigua, Guatemala. Her work has appeared in Quartz, Guernica, and The Rumpus.