I stayed in bed till the alarm went off. I have it set for six thirty, just in case I sleep that late… I’m usually up long before that and out with the dog before it goes off. This morning, however, I indulged in a lie in. Why not? Wander downstairs… 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 headline I’d glimpsed yesterday about a twenty second cuddle being good for your health. I hadn’t looked up the science behind it, 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 if 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. 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 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 them 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 recent headlines on 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, of course, 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 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 started on politics at this time of morning…
By now we are back from our walk and I’m on the third coffee. 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 introspection can be a good thing when it comes through choice, it must be an increasingly limiting conversation when it is all you have.
Modern communication methods are a double edged sword, of course. 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. 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. 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 of course, the coffee joins up another couple of dots and the well-known mental and physical benefit 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.
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, eye contact, touch or a shared smile…even 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, meet more eyes and hug more. Even if it is only the dog.