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Happiness May Be Just a Tight Squeeze Away: The Link Between Mood and Touch
By Jessica Cassity
You know that warm and fuzzy feeling you get while hugging someone you really like? Well, part of that sensation comes from feeling cared for—affection is a usually clear sign someone wants you nearby. But much of the happiness-boosting power of a hug, a pat on the back, and even a squeeze of the hand is actually physiological, not psychological.
How Your Brain Reacts to Touch
“A number of studies show that when people touch you, your brain produces oxytocin,” says Paul Zak, PhD, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University and a self-proclaimed “hugger”. Oxytocin is that powerful brain chemical associated with bonding and relationships, characteristics that that have earned it nicknames including “the love hormone”, “the trust hormone”, and “the happy hormone”.
But the amazing powers of touch actually start at that first moment of contact.
When you hug, cuddle, or hold hands, the physical pressure stimulates touch receptors, tiny nerves embedded in your skin all over your body. A biological chain reaction is triggered when these touch receptors are activated, sending signals from the skin to the brain’s reward center. As these signals are interpreted, the brain releases oxytocin, producing a feel-good flow of chemicals. It sounds complicated—and it is—but this process happens almost instantly, thus the immediate boost in happiness and feeling of connection with touch.
It Doesn’t Need to Come from a Loved One for You to Feel the Effects
Hugs and kisses are two surefire ways to get oxytocin flowing, and one reason physical affection is often an important part of close relationships. But the mood boost from physical contact doesn’t happen only after touching a close friend or loved one: “All kinds of touch produce this sensation,” says Matt Hertenstein, associate professor of psychology at DePaul University and head of the school’s Touch and Emotion Lab.
Shaking hands with a stranger, giving a high-five to a teammate, or getting a hands-on adjustment from a yoga instructor can all result in this feel-good effect. And, as most people already know, so can massage, says Hertenstein. Even 10 minutes with a massage therapist (or a generous friend) will light up your brain’s reward center, get the oxytocin flowing, and have a big effect on your mood, not to mention help relieve aches and pains. Most scientists think that even self-massage—like rubbing your own feet—can trigger these sensations.
Why Touch Also Lowers Stress Levels
While these various types of touch are sending your happiness levels soaring, they’re doing another equally important thing, according to Tiffany Field, PhD, founder of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine: “Touch lowers the production of the stress hormone cortisol”. You know how a big hug from a good friend can miraculously help your worries disappear? Science says this actually happens! The mechanism that causes this is still somewhat unclear, but Field believes it has something to do with the way touch typically slows the heart rate, shutting off some fight or flight instincts.
Get the Benefits
It may be cheesy to say “reach out and touch someone” but that truly is one of the easiest ways to trigger this positive chain reaction. If you’re in a romantic relationship you can probably come up with a number of ways to meet this goal. But there are countless ways to get the same sort of effect from interactions with friends, family members, acquaintances, strangers, and even yourself.
• Have kids? During story time rub your child’s back. You’ll both benefit from extra touch.
• Regularly see friends or acquaintances? Become a hugger. Seriously: Paul Zak says he’s hugged thousands of people and he’s all the better for it.
• Like fitness? Sign up for a partner yoga class, a team sport, or an obstacle event like a mud run. Each has numerous built-in opportunities for connection.
• Want to volunteer? Altruism is of course good for happiness, but charity work that involves teamwork—like manual labor—likely has built in hugs and high-fives too.
• Squeamish about reaching out? Take matters into your own hands by learning a few acupressure techniques, giving your feet or hands a self-massage, or by lying on a tennis ball to roll out the kinks in your shoulders. Per Field, even skin brushing before a shower can help activate your touch receptors, so seek opportunities to put a little pressure on your skin whenever you can.
Your body and mind will thank you!