Harness the power of touch for happiness

Every month, Martha Roberts invites you to road-test research around feeling good. This month we're getting physical


Harness the power of touch for happiness


Human beings need contact to thrive and this includes physically connecting with others.


Reconnecting with people through the power of touch can be a grounding experience – and help to make you happier.


When we are born, touch is the most developed sense and contributes to all aspects of development throughout infancy and childhood, including brain, emotional and social development according to 2001 research by Dr Tiffany Field. Adults in most cultures also use touch when they are soothing, playing, flirting and expressing power.

In a 2009 study, psychologist Professor Matthew Hertenstein got volunteers to communicate a list of emotions to a blindfolded stranger using just touch alone and, despite their reluctance, they did it and the results suggested we have an inbuilt ability to send and receive emotional signals through touch. The tests showed that in the areas of anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, sympathy, happiness and sadness, there were accuracy rates as high as 78 per cent.

Can touch also make us happy? In The How of Happiness (Piatkus, £10.99), Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky talks about a study in which one group of students were given at least five non-sexual hugs to as many people as possible each day for a month while the control group was given none. After a month, the huggers were happier.

In a 2014 study by Professor Sheldon Cohen, researchers found that greater social support and more frequent hugs protected people from increased susceptibility to infection associated with being stressed.


  • Give someone a massage. It’s widely accepted that massage has mood-lifting, stress-relieving benefits. In a 1996 study, Dr Tiffany Field showed that when they were massaged, babies of depressed mums were more easily soothed and had greater decreases in stress neurotransmitters and hormones. It works for grown-ups, too.
  • Don’t be afraid to touch. We’re not suggesting you go around randomly touching strangers, but sometimes it can feel right. Research from 40 years ago found that when a university librarian returned library cards to students and briefly touched their hands, the students felt more positive than those whose hands hadn’t been touched.
  • Touch for one second – on the arm. Scientists have discovered that specific nerve fibres that are abundant in the face and arms appear to have developed specifically to transmit the pleasantness of social touch. If you want to make a touch connection, try the arm. No need to linger – studies have shown this only has to be for a second to count.
  • Hug a pet. If the thought of touching someone fills you with fear (perhaps you’re just not a tactile person!), make the connection with a pet instead. Studies show animals benefit from being touched, too.

MARTHA ROBERTS is an award-winning UK health writer and mental health blogger at mentalhealthwise.com

Photograph: iStock