The other day I was on a zoom call with the director of an organization that was considering hiring me to speak to their members about resilience in these challenging covid times and I was telling her about a key element of my talk, the Here and Now brain reward system, and gave two examples of things that activate it to release its brain reward chemicals.
Like petting a dog. These days we can’t even give elbows to people we know, and this physical isolation has created a desperation for physical contact that has emptied animal shelters and sent pet food and product sales through the roof.
And cuddling. As soon as the word cuddle found its way through the zoom zone and into her neuronal galaxy she leaned back with wide eyes and an anxious smile and said that the members of her organization would be shocked to even hear the word cuddle in a talk, let alone in one about resilience. It seemed understandable since they are mostly financial and management professionals who probably don’t sit around at work talking about cuddling with their loved ones.
But they are human beings, and human beings need touch to stay in touch with their mental health.
On the heels of that I received this email from Mark Manson, the author of The Subtle At of Not Giving a F*ck about an article he has written called 6 Healthy Relationship Habits Most People Think Are Toxic. In the email Mark writes:
“I receive a lot of requests to write articles about relationships, what makes them work, what makes them healthy, what wrecks them, and so on.
Whenever I decide to write an article about a popular topic, I usually take a few hours to google around and see what’s out there. Just to get some ideas and see if there’s anything new or interesting I could contribute.
And this time I discover that wow, relationship articles really suck. They’re terrible. These are actual pieces of advice from actual relationship articles on some popular sites:
– “Take some time to cuddle.”
– “Remember to say goodnight to each other.”
– “Try to ask your partner how their day was.”
Seriously, did half of the population go comatose and nobody told me about it? I think you could learn as much by watching the average Disney movie. How does this stuff get published?”
Mark appears to be suggesting that these relationship activities are so obvious and trite as to not be worth mentioning. A bit later he says “so I didn’t want to just write yet another “learn to communicate and cuddle and watch sunsets and play with puppies together” type post. Honestly, those posts suck. If you love your partner, you shouldn’t have to be told to hold hands and watch sunsets together–it should be automatic (italics mine).
Personally, I tend to think of the 6 “habits” he writes about as principles and not habits per se, and the principles are good ones. In his discussion of principle 1, Letting Some Conflicts Go Unresolved, Mark refers to John Gottman, the pioneer of relationship studies, whose work I respect immensely, who found that the “idea that couples must communicate and resolve all of their problems is a myth.”
I view these principles as guides that should inform one’s daily actions. They are like relationship scaffolding. The scaffolding allows you to do the detail work of building a strong connected relationship inside. And to build a quality relationship you need the right tools, like gratitude and touch, things that Mark feels should be “automatic.”
The reality is that these automatic behaviors can be snuffed out by our modern lives – iphones, digital hell, career, screaming children, on and on, unless one battles against their gravitational pull. It’s no different than exercise. Some days you’re feelin it, and some days not, but you exercise, no matter what.
Why? Because exercise leads to stress reduction, reduction in cognitive decline, better memory, and a list of positive benefits as long as the dead sea scrolls. It’s the same with the “Disney” habits of gratitude and touch.
The Gottman Institute also published this article called 6 Hours a Week to a Better Relationship and the habits include gratitude and physical affection.
Sara Algoe, a pioneer in gratitude research, notes that a defining feature of close adult relationships is that “each member performs actions that benefit the other” and that “within ongoing romantic relationships, some of these beneﬁts may become routine and others may seem trivial; many may go unnoticed.” Algoe and her colleagues studied 67 cohabitating couples and found that everyday gratitude expressions were associated with increased relationship quality for both members of the couples.
Algoe notes that everyday gratitude for even small benefits provided by a partner can serve as relationship “booster shots” and that gratitude can turn “ordinary moments into opportunities for relationship growth, even in the context of already close relations.” Gratitude serves a “remind” function – it reminds the other partner of their value, and it reminds the person expressing gratitude of the other partners value in their lives. Not only that, but by expressing gratitude for anyone, you are mentally framing that person in a positive light and, if repeated, leads to a more positive picture in your mind of your partner over time.
I love the way the comedian Chuck Nice talked about the importance of intentionality in practicing gratitude when he said “it happens at a point of our choosing, it’s a point where we say I am going to stop, I am going to recognize that this is an opportunity for me to be grateful. I am going to be grateful right now.” The idea is to be attentive to your partner, notice even the small things they do for you, and let them know you appreciate what they did for you. What you focus on grows.
As the psychologist William James said, “the deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.” Since our connection with others, especially long term close relationships, are vital for our physical and mental health, and our longevity, gratitude is one fuel to make that happen.
Finally, I want to touch on touch. Touch is so important in the human social landscape, so much so that touch deprivation in premature babies actually decreases their survival. But it’s not just for babies. To quote the Gottman Institute on the role of touch in relationships – “expressing physical affection when you’re together is vital to feeling connected to each other. Make sure to embrace each other before falling asleep. This can be as simple as cuddling for a few minutes or a goodnight kiss.”
Touch between romantic partners is shockingly powerful. Touch increases electrodermal coupling between partners and it can actually communicate to a partner one’s emotions like anger, love, and even gratitude. Touch can even help relieve a partner’s pain. In the uber prestigious journal Nature, Pavel Goldstein et al showed how simple hand holding between romantic couples was able to strongly couple the couple’s heart and respiratory rate and that simply holding a partner’s hand when they are in pain can reduce their pain by calming their autonomic nervous system.
So go to Disney land anytime you want despite the travel restrictions: pet your dog or cat, hold hands and hug your loved ones, and cuddle with your partner.