Technologies and the Importance of Touch for our Well-Being

  • 2 April 2016
  • sjanicke

A friend of mine recently shared with me this commercial clip (see below) about this crying baby who is not calmed down by anything else but his fathers touch. No online video, his mums voice or video through the smart phone could calm the baby down. It is heart-melting and it reminded me of the importance of touch for our well-being.

Touch is our innate love language if you will. It is fundamental to human communication, trust building, and health.

Research shows that people can correctly identify compassion 60% of the time by only a short 1-second touch of the arm. Gratitude, anger, love, and fear were identified correctly 50% of the time. I mean, wow!

Also, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley found that NBA basketball teams whose players touched each other more during the game (high fives, the obligatory pat on the butt)  cooperated more and thus, won more games in the season than teams that touched each other less.

Another study found that teachers who pat their students on the forearm in a friendly way increased the likelihood for students to speak up in class three times!

Touch releases the hormone oxytocin in the brain, which is the love and trust hormone. Sales people know that well, which is why they greet you with a handshake before starting any other interaction. In a study by Paul Zak, a Professor at Claremont Graduate University (one of the only universities in the U.S. you can get a post-graduate degree in Positive Psychology, btw.)  showed that people who received a 15 minute massage and then played an economic game trusted a complete stranger much more  (and returned more money to them in the hope to receive it back) than people who just rested alone for same amount of time.

Now, in today’s digital world, the importance of touch is something we easily forget. Technologies often provide us with the illusion to feel connected with others –just remember when the Iphone 4 and facetime came out. Technologies build opportunities for us to feel “close” to our loved ones even if they are far away. And there is nothing bad about it. In fact, it is awesome. How else would I communicate with my family in Germany? However, we forget that facetime closeness can never substitute the small nudges, pats and strokes on our arms and legs that penetrate real face-to-face conversations we have with our friends or loved ones.

How often do you think friends, here in the U.S. touch each other in a friendly way during a conversation? Well, not that much. A study done a while back in the 1960’s concluded: 2 times. Well, how many times do you think friends in France or in Puerto Rico touched each other in an hour-long conversation? 115 and 180 times! Oh yes!

Now, of course, there are cultural differences that cannot be ignored in this difference, but it may shine a light on us as a touch deprived culture; And now, with the technologies in our hands, an even greater distance may have been created between our hand and another persons arm, for example.

Before technologies, we had to travel to our friend’s house to even speak to them, let alone get a hug. I wonder if through the advancement of technologies, which decreased the quantity of  our face-to-face interaction as well as the quality, also reduced our drive to be physically close to others and share “real” hugs and friendly touches with people.

I have been called out by my family and friends multiple times for giving fake “upper body only” kind of hugs. You know, when you lower body, belly, and legs, are still 3 feet away from the other person and only your shoulders touch. I realized how much this hug was (obviously) part of my body language to communicate my inner state of anxiety, shyness and maybe even shame. I was scared of closeness, of being vulnerable. Since then, I am a real hugger and I greatly enjoy being hugged and physically close to people. In fact, I made it a habit to touch people on their shoulders or underarms when I am making a joke about them or ask them a question. I feel like it creates a kind of warmth and trust in a conversation that makes even “small talk” feel real and honest.

Of course we differ in our personal dispositions to like physical contact or not. There are the “huggers” and the “non huggers” and gender differences exist too in the propensity to “read” emotions form physical touch. Irrespectively, even if you are a "non hugger",  60-90% of our communication is nonverbal and physical touch is a great element of that. Maybe "non huggers" use their facial expressions or body language more to convey their messages and emotions, but touch is what gets us all closer together. It creates social bonds, compassion, and love—the essentials of a happy life.

Because touch is such an important component of our species, even technology makes use of it. Just think about it for a moment. We have the “vibration” feature on our phone and, Steve Jobs really had that well figured out, we use a “touch” interface to navigate through our smart phones, tablets and even smart boards in the class room or conference rooms. New interfaces are now working on a form of haptic (aka touch based) video calls in which the person on one end can manipulate an interface which is then directly reflected on the interface of the other person on the call.  Or, get this: Durex, the condom brand, invented underwear that is stimulated by your partner through a smart phone app. The idea is to spice up long-distance relationships' romantic life. Guess what it is called? Fundawear.Yep!

But even less "out there", more every-day technologies stimulate our sense of touch. With smart watches and wearable technologies (i.e., Fitbit, WellBeSpireFeel), we are reminded of things to do (like breathing for example:) through gentle vibrations on our wrists. With the amount of time we “wear” our gadgets with us on a given day, may it be our phone literally touching our hand, or our Fitbit, it seems like technology is now touching us more than humans are.

Whereas certainly a lot of useful things can be developed with technology that “touches” us in some ways (see TED talk here and here for some examples),  knowing about the importance of a real human touch, we may want to remember to touch real humans more and digital humans less.

When you find yourself in a situation in which a person wants to shake your hand as a greeting but you can't reciprocate because you have your phone in your hand, you missed out on an opportunity to build connection, trust and compassion.

Again, it is about learning when to use the technology  for what it was built for and when to put it away (see also the Ecology of Technology on that topic). As a general rule: Whenever you are around people, put the phone in your pocket.

On this note: I invite you to a challenge for this week: Give somebody, a friend, loved one or stranger a real hug. Like you mean it. Be vulnerable. Spread love. And notice what it feels like.

I would love to hear about your experience. Happy touch-ing ;-)