Reach out and touch somebody’s hand. Make this a better world if you can.
These words from an old popular song seem rather outdated today. Neil Diamond, to help people during the coronavirus outbreak, changed the lyrics of one of his biggest hits from “Hands, touching hands, reaching out touching me touching you” to “Hands, washing hands, reaching out, don’t touch me, I won’t touch you.” Heaven forbid we touch each other.
But now, as we hopefully transition from staying at home to getting back to work, I am perplexed by the messages about how our lives will be forever changed by the disease.
Are we to believe that the handshake will never be used again? Will business deals be consummated with an elbow bump? Will a person who has just lost a close family member never receive a hug from someone wanting to offer comfort? Will a ninth-inning walk-off homerun result in the entire team applauding wildly but never jumping on the hero or their teammates? Will a football team form a huge huddle so that the players can practice social distancing? (As far as that goes, will players actually block or tackle an opponent?) Will couples never again enjoy the thrill of a close slow dance with someone very special? Will we wear masks forever?
I’m sure we can all come up with examples of everyday living that would be almost completely eliminated or drastically changed if we decide to live the way we have in the past few weeks. But do we really want to live this way?
Many of us remember the reports of a study that came out of the Soviet Union decades ago about an orphanage that decided to experiment with newborn children. One group of children were cuddled, rocked while being fed, and sung and talked to regularly throughout the day, just as most parents would do.
The other group, although fed each day, were never cuddled, never rocked, never talked or sung to. After a while, the first group thrived; the second group turned toward a wall and eventually died.
Numerous recent studies have shown the importance of human touch. When we are hugged, a hormone called Oxytocin is released into our bodies, resulting in a reduction of stress levels. Also, our blood pressure decreases, and we have less anxiety.
A 2014 study at Carnegie Mellon University asked 404 participants how often they experienced hugs. The group was then exposed to a common cold virus and put into quarantine. Those who had a history of being hugged often had significantly fewer cold symptoms than those who were rarely hugged. The conclusion was that the hugs reduced the stress levels and, thus, reduced the vulnerability to catching colds.
Several additional studies in recent years have shown that touch is crucial for bonding, health, and communication. A review of the “touch” research by Tiffany Field found that “preterm newborns who received just three 15-minute sessions of touch therapy each day for 5-10 days gained 47 percent more weight than premature infants who’d received standard medical treatment.” Another study discovered that touching people with Alzheimer’s disease reduces their levels of anxiety and depression and helps them develop emotional connections with others.
This nation has been so focused on “flattening the curve” that little attention has been given to the short and long-term effects of isolation from human closeness and touch. When we get around to studying the psychological damage inflicted on so many during isolation, we may regret what we have done.
A society that is afraid to be physically close to each other is a dystopian nightmare. I want to shake a person’s hand or give a hug when appropriate. I want to go to a restaurant with my friends and enjoy the food and the company. I want go to a picnic or the beach with hundreds of people. And I look forward to the day when I can sit next to someone in church and worship, sing, and pray without fear.
At some point, Americans will have to decide to choose either a full life or a life full of fear. I choose the former.