At the risk of sounding like your great aunt Nora, when was the last time you let your mum stroke your hair, or caught up with girlfriends for a giggle and debrief? Can you remember the last time you felt arms around you that didn’t automatically slide down to your bottom for a quick squeeze, or held someone’s hand as you workshopped a problem?
If the above paragraph has given you a moment to think that perhaps you’ve been feeling a little absent of human contact and lonely of late, you’re far from alone. According to the latest Loneliness Survey released by Lifeline earlier this month, 60 per cent of Australians report feeling lonely – even though a large number of the survey’s 3100 participants say they live with a partner or a family member.
Can you remember the last time you felt arms around you that didn’t automatically slide down to your bottom for a quick squeeze, or held someone’s hand as you workshopped a problem?
It’s a finding that’s in line with surveys conducted elsewhere in the world. In the UK, for example, a survey by the Mental Health Foundation found that one in ten admits of feeling adrift from their fellow humans, while in the United States, the General Social Survey found that that number of Americans who report having no close friends has more than tripled since the mid-1980s.
These figures are problematic – not because you don’t have anyone to be on call for that gig on Friday night, but because humans are not solitary creatures; over the centuries we have developed complex emotional expression through physical touch and interpersonal relationships which play a vital role in our health. Those congratulatory handshakes, casual pats on the back and warm hugs may not seem like much at face value, but each touch – whether it’s from a loved one or a stranger – has the power to not only help you feel connected to part of something greater than your Xbox, but can boost your health and perhaps even increase your lifespan so that you live longer, flush with good health.
Not convinced? Consider the following: one study by the University of York found that social isolation increases the risk of heart disease by 29 per cent and stroke by 32 per cent. Another study from the University of Carolina found that women who receive more hugs from their partners have lower heart rates and blood pressure, with researchers explaining that the act seemed to help strengthen their immune system. Add to this research from the University of California’s School of Public Health which has found that getting firm eye contact and a pat on the back from your doctor may boost the survival rate of patients struggling with disease, as well as a review of studies which indicate loneliness increases mortality risk by some 26 per cent, and you have enough of a snapshot to realise daily physical touch is far more important than the odd grope from your partner.
But it’s the research surrounding the trigger release of oxytocins - AKA ‘the love hormone’ – that led artist Jen Jamieson on a journey towards developing her Let’s Make Love performance piece, which is a highlight of the Liveworks 2017 festival at Carriageworks, Sydney from 19-29 October.
“The original idea for the performance came from wanting to sit with an audience member and hold their hand,” Jamieson says of the intimate one-on-one performance where she does exactly that. “At the time, I was personally interested in hand-holding and intimacy because I myself was feeling lonely within a relationship,” she admits. “But as I researched the ‘effects’ of holding hands, I came across Oxytocin and became intrigued.”
One study by the University of York found that social isolation increases the risk of heart disease by 29 per cent and stroke by 32 per cent.
We now know that our skin contains receptors that directly elicit emotional responses through stimulation, and Oxytocin not only works to reduce stress, but helps us feel connected with others – a feeling Jamieson hopes audience members will experience as she begins her performance by hugging members and holding their hand (as well as eye contact).
“Humans are biologically wired for human connection and touch and what’s interesting about Oxytocin is that while it’s dubbed the ‘love hormone’, it’s actually been found to have much more to do with bonding, connection and trust,” she says.
“Of course it feels very easy to say that the digital age is making us lonely and disconnected but it also seems reasonable that this is true too.” Her hope? That people who come along to her show feel the love generated in the room and are inspired enough by the concept (as well as the feeling) that they go on to act for themselves.
“When I presented the work in Singapore, a pharmaceutical chemist participated and I heard from her a day later and she had instigated 30-second hugs between all employees at the beginning of each work day!” Jamieson laughs. “It just goes to show that it’s never too late for us.”
Jen Jamieson performs Let’s Make Love at Liveworks 2017 (to be held at Sydney’s Carriageworks) from Thursday October 19 to Sunday October 29. Full details of tickets, dates and times can be found here.