I wander into the kitchen… the world is silent except for the little grunting noises Ani makes as I cuddle her good morning. I don’t speak dog fluently, but I have a feeling these short, low grunts are an expression of affection; you only ever hear them during cuddles and that is how we start our day, the small dog and I.
As the kettle boils I think about the number of people who are, of necessity, home alone this Christmas and New Year, banned from cuddles, separated from their loved ones by regulations and, ironically, a desire to protect their health. When cuddles are good for health. A twenty-second cuddle, I remember reading, does you the world of good on so many levels. I couldn’t recall all the science behind it, but I was prepared to agree unquestioningly that cuddles are good for you. Just having someone close enough to open their arms to you, someone you trust enough to be able to hug back… that shows you have affection in your life and that has to be a good thing. Even when the arms are paws.
Cuddling is instinctive in many situations, from the moment a mother holds her newborn child to her heart it becomes a gesture of warmth and comfort. We cry on friends’ shoulders, reach out to hug each other for sheer joy, and it is one of the simplest and most eloquent expressions of friendship, empathy and love.
I don’t need the research to back up the logic of this, but I look it up anyway. Yep, cuddling affects oxytocin and cortisol levels… the bonding hormone and stress marker. And apparently, cuddles have even wider health benefits for women than they do for men, potentially protecting heart health on a physical level and having a positive effect on blood pressure. That explains a lot… Women tend to be more tactile than men and, as an advocate of listening to what your body is telling you, perhaps it is a response to something deeper than a romantic longing for closeness.
I wonder if dog cuddles count scientifically? I know they do, of course, but wonder if the research has extended yet to include pets. The work done with MRI scans show dogs have complex emotions close to our own, not that any dog-person needs to be told that. I tap a quick query into the search bar; sure enough talking to pets also reduces stress levels. So at least now I have a scientifically based excuse.
The coffee kicks in and I make a mental link with the research done into the negative health implications of loneliness. (If you don’t click on any of the other links, this one is worth the read.) The results are stark and shocking in their reflection of how society is moving away from closeness to aloneness. Being on your own can be wonderful, chosen solitude can be a delight… but serious loneliness isn’t. It is appalling.
I recall many years ago, finding myself feeling such utter aloneness and isolation. It went on for a while… so long it was desperate enough that I had to resist the urge to reach out and touch people I passed in the street. Which sounds overblown, but honestly, that’s how it feels. And that was only for a few weeks. Can you imagine what it must be like for those who are lonely for years? It can, according to the studies, quite literally knock years off your life. ‘Even more than poverty’ says one report… but don’t get me on my soapbox at this time of morning… The enforced loneliness of this covid year has far too much to answer for and I wonder if we will ever know the true extent of the ‘collateral damage’ of the measures imposed to combat the virus.
How many have simply given up? How many people’s health has been negatively impacted, both physically and emotionally, by being isolated this year? I have felt it myself… apart from one necessary drive at the very start of this in March, I have not been away from home for any other reason than a hospital admission. Apart from a couple of days out, I have seen nothing except the same five mile stretch of road between home and work until it changed to the road between home and hospital. And I am one of the lucky ones, equipped with and used to technology. And it has really got to me… I can only imagine how much worse it is for those unable to get out at all, far from loved ones and not comfortable with or capable of making video calls.
I’ve been pondering the obvious link between these three bits of research. The extension to that, of course, is the social support that is lacking in the lives of the lonely and isolated. There is introspection instead of stimulation and interaction … and while both solitude and introspection can be a good thing when they are a conscious choice, they make for increasingly limiting conversation when it is all you have.
Modern communication methods are a double-edged sword. While it is easier than ever to keep in touch with people across the world, it is also easier than ever to just send a quick message instead of picking up the phone or putting on your coat and going round to see someone…assuming that such visiting is allowed. For those who do not have the technical expertise or the funds to access the technology this trend becomes yet another nail in a coffin that suddenly seems more realistic than proverbial. The high cost of travel for those on a limited income coupled with the long hours many have to work in order to survive further compounds the problem. And many this year have seen their livelihoods at risk or lost altogether. We live in a society that is increasingly isolating us on a physical level and I wonder how readily we are accepting that isolation without realising its consequences?
Then the stimulus of coffee joins up another couple of dots and the well-known mental, emotional and physical benefits of helping others adds itself to the mix. So, even if we aren’t in need of cuddles ourselves, giving them to others still does us good. And if we are not allowed the physical cuddle, perhaps we can substitute that with some other way of helping ease the isolation.
Deeper reading of the research and commentaries and a bit of thought beyond the specifics and you can’t escape the idea that affection and companionship are good for health. And that the physical demonstration of that in terms of interaction… cuddles and touch where permissible, or even eye contact, a shared smile or talking to the dog… is measurably good for us; physically, emotionally and psychologically.
For those who see Love at the centre of creation, this is no surprise; for to put it in simpler terms even the scientists now agree… love matters.
At a time of year when many of us make resolutions to improve our health, wellbeing and quality of life, it is worth thinking about. The cost of gym membership and therapy is high. Time and energy are limited. Perhaps all we need to do is to resolve to share more smiles and meet more eyes from beneath the masks we now wear… and get creative about finding ways to break through the isolation.