Advancements in technology have transformed virtually every aspect of our lives. Computers, tablets, and smart phones have revolutionized the way we work, shop and play, and social media has revamped the way we communicate and interact. Online dating sites are emerging as excellent matchmakers, enabling us to find a date (and perhaps a mate) without so much as putting on a clean shirt.
But, as indispensable as all of this has become, technology has absolute limitations when it comes to matters of the heart. Take the recent movie Her, which won the Golden Globe award for Best Screenplay and has been nominated for five Oscars. Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his operating system played by Scarlett Johansson. Though heartfelt from the outset and increasingly seductive over time, their relationship fails due to the insurmountable inability of even the most engaging electronic communications to address our most fundamental human needs.
Our radical new way of communicating electronically may be bringing about both positive and negative changes in our emotional well-being and physical health. On the one hand, numerous studies have shown that spending time on social networking sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter can strengthen “offline” relationships, increase life satisfaction and social support, and enhance self-esteem. In contrast, a 2013 study of medical students demonstrated that the number of hours spent on Facebook was associated with adverse health effects and unhealthy behaviors, including musculoskeletal pain, headache, eye irritation, irregular eating habits, and ironically, social isolation. In addition, other studies have suggested that social networking can increase the risk of depression, lower self-esteem, and even exacerbate stress-related conditions such as asthma.
Perhaps part of the problem is that we spend too much time touching our smartphones and not enough time touching one another. We can talk, text, video chat, and even “sext” with our gadgets. But no matter how advanced they get, they can’t replicate the sensation of actual skin-to-skin contact. Our skin is by far our largest sensory organ. For the average adult, it covers about 21 square feet, weighs about nine pounds and contains more than 11 miles of blood vessels. It has countless nerve endings, dwarfing our visual and auditory systems in size and scope, and can detect pressure of just 20 milligrams, about the weight of a sesame seed. Mother Nature usually gets it right and it may be that she intends for us to use our skin to create and nurture intimate relationships.
Communicating emotions is the essence of all intimate relationships. For the other key senses, vision and hearing, diverse artists including Rodin, Shakespeare, Helmet Newton, the Beatles, and countless torch singers set the standard using sculpture, literature, photography, and music to convey emotion and intimacy. But, there literally can’t be a “communication channel” for touching; it is the most personal and direct way to convey our feelings and the form of expression in which all of us can become more artful. A study published in 2009 in the journal Emotion found that people can convey at least eight different emotions (anger, disgust, fear, gratitude, happiness, sadness, love, and sympathy) solely through touch with accuracy rates comparable to facial and verbal communication. It should come as no great surprise then that touching helps strengthen emotional connections and that couples who touch each other more often are generally more satisfied in their relationships.
Studies of men and women in committed relationships show that physical contact also produces measurable health benefits. In 2007, Psychoneuroendocrinology published a study in which women who were in a committed relationship were exposed to a stressful test. Before the test, some of the women got a neck and shoulder massage from their partner. Others received only verbal support from their mates or weren’t permitted to interact with them at all. Women who were in physical contact with their partner had less dramatic increases in both heart rate and levels of the stress hormone cortisol. In 2008, Psychosomatic Medicine published a study with similar results. Half of the married couples in the study underwent training in warm touch techniques, such as massage, and then practiced these techniques several times each week for a month. The other half received no training. Not surprisingly, the trained group had lower stress hormone levels and blood pressure and higher amounts of the “cuddle” hormone oxytocin.
So, does sex generate similar benefits? Fortunately, the answer is Yes! Several studies have documented a link between the frequency of sex and longevity. For example, a 1997 study in the British Medical Journal reported that men having fewer than two orgasms a week were twice as likely to die as men who were more sexually active. In women, sexual activity maintains and enhances the health and functioning of the reproductive organs, and reaching orgasm has been linked to improvements in depression, pain, and mood. Sexual activity also stimulates increased production of testosterone, prolactin, and oxytocin as well as the neurotransmitter dopamine, all of which are associated with improved psychological and physical health.
There is no question that flowers, chocolates, and an intimate dinner are great Valentine’s Day gifts. But, the best way to turn your Valentine on may be to turn your gadgets off and snuggle up. You can’t beat the price, and it may help improve your health and that of your partner. There is no better way to say “I love you.”