Global Report 2020

The State of Human Touch – Benefits, Barriers, and Solutions

Are we becoming a society out of touch? New global research reveals that human touch is key to happy and fulfilled lives, yet touch is at risk around the world.

”Nine out of ten people around the world feel that human touch is key to leading a happy, fulfilled life.”

Touch Makes Us Human – Lack of It Makes Us Feel Lonely

All forms of human touch are not created equally, with some forms being more desirable than others. Hugging a friend, kissing a partner on the cheek, or giving a colleague a fist bump or high five are all preferable to bumping into a stranger, for example. Despite these varying preferences for physical touch, the global survey findings show that touch has overwhelmingly positive connotations for most people. The top three associations that respondents have with touch are love (96 percent), affection (96 percent), and care (95 percent). The idea of caring for each other is closely linked to human touch in people’s minds, and this is consistent across all age groups and geographies. Nine out of ten people around the world feel that human touch is key to leading a happy, fulfilled life. In today’s highly polarized world of filter bubbles, hate speech, and hyperpartisanship, it is significant that no matter what age group, gender, or country of origin, people everywhere agree on this one statement.
This unity is reflected on other measures of touch, as well: 87 percent agree that human touch is an essential part of communities, and that a lack of human touch can make you feel isolated and lonely, even if you are surrounded by people; 85 percent agree that touch is what makes us human; and 81 percent believe that a lack of human touch can make us feel more easily stressed. As researchers, we wondered: is a lack of human touch caused by our lifestyles? And can more human touch be a remedy against the negative developments of modern times?

“I’ve seen a man break down in tears on the tube and be ignored – I don’t want to be a part of that society.”

For Two-Thirds of People, Touch Is Not Part of their Daily Lives

Our research found that most people are not experiencing as much touch as they would like. When asked specifically about the type and frequency of touch they experienced, 64 percent of respondents indicated that touch is not a daily occurrence in their lives, and another 72 percent expressed a wish for more hugs. Nearly one in five respondents had not experienced any physical contact at all the day before the interview. Furthermore, not only are people dissatisfied with the level of touch in their personal lives, half of respondents perceive the level of touch in society as having decreased in recent years. All of these findings suggest a growing trend of what experts refer to as “touch hunger” or touch deprivation – and some groups are more vulnerable than others.
According to the data, people who live in the northern hemisphere are generally more touch-deprived than their counterparts in the southern hemisphere. Whereas 17 percent of respondents overall indicated experiencing no touch the day before the interview, this figure was higher in places like the UK (29 percent), Germany (28 percent), and France (21 percent). On the flip side, it was lower in places like Brazil (12 percent) and India (10 percent). Interestingly, those countries that experience the most touch also seem to want the most touch. While 72 percent of respondents overall indicated a wish for more hugs, 82 percent of those in India and 81 percent of those in Brazil wished for more, compared to 63 percent of Germans and 64 percent of Britons. “The data shows that people who live in cultures that are more ‘touch-friendly,’ such as South America, are more likely to recognize the value of touch and seek out more touch in their everyday lives,” said Dr. Natascha Haehling von Lanzenauer, researcher from Happy Thinking People, an independent research institute that conducted focus group discussions ahead of the quantitative survey.
In addition to cultural differences, the data also revealed differences in touch experiences across age groups. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that millennials aged 20–35 and those with children in their households – regardless of gender – experience the most touch, based on the touch diaries. Altogether 69 percent reported that touch from other people is a common and natural part of their daily lives and that they receive a variety of forms of touch from a variety of different people. They were also significantly more likely to have embraced someone or held their hand the day before the interview. Whether the traditional forms of physical touch like hugs, holding hands, or cuddling, or internet-based forms of contact like talking to someone via video chat, this age group and those who are parents benefit from touch daily and in abundance. However, the same cannot be said of all age groups.

50+ and Touch-Deprived?

People aged 50–69 face unique challenges when it comes to touch. They are more likely than other age groups to live alone or in smaller households or face health problems that create barriers to touch. The rise of the “nuclear family” trend in recent decades, decline in marriage rates, and increased life expectancy around the world have made it increasingly likely that older adults live alone rather than with a partner or in multigenerational households. Across the board, people aged 50–69 reported fewer experiences with human touch in their daily lives compared to other age groups, including fewer hugs, brief strokes on the arm while talking, or opportunities to cuddle. Interestingly, despite experiencing less touch, this cohort doesn’t appear to necessarily desire more, with only 63 percent indicating a desire for more hugs, compared to 72 percent of respondents overall. “People seem to adjust their expectations about the amount of touch they experience in their daily lives based on their circumstances,” said Dr. Antje Gollnick of the research institute Mindline, which led the NIVEA study. “If they live alone or have health issues preventing frequent touch, they learn to desire less touch as a way to avoid disappointment.”

think that a lack of human touch can make you feel lonely, even if you have many contacts on social networks

think that more and more virtual connections diminish the skill of empathy

have very busy lives; sometimes they don’t take enough time to connect with others

think that they spend too much time on social media; that time is missing for personal contact

Busy Modern Lifestyles Are Driving – and Keeping – Us Apart

The NIVEA human touch study has found that a number of trends are creating new and lasting barriers to human touch. We live in a society that is increasingly mobile, with more people than ever before choosing to move away from their families and the communities in which they were raised, whether due to geopolitical conflict or the pursuit of professional opportunities or personal enrichment. Innovations in personal technology and improved broadband Internet access around the world have made it possible to stay connected to loved ones and form new connections virtually rather than in person. And shifting social norms have raised questions about which types of touch are appropriate. The impact of these trends on the quality and frequency of human touch is reflected in the NIVEA research. Technology adoption, the nature of modern lifestyles, cultural and social norms, and personal insecurities were all cited as reasons why people don’t engage in more personal touch.

“It is almost impossible to meet my friends. Everyone is so busy nowadays.”

Connected Yet Disconnected: Generation Internet

The role that technology plays in our experience of human touch deserves a closer look. More than 80 percent of respondents to the NIVEA survey feel that more and more virtual connections diminish the skill of empathy, which leads to less touch. Other research has found that screens create not just physical, but also psychological distance, blurring the lines between reality and entertainment and desensitizing us to pain and the needs of others. Can screens also make it more difficult for us to read the emotions of others? Some studies suggest yes. A 2014 study by the University of California, Los Angeles, found that sixth graders who went five days without exposure to technology were significantly better at reading human emotions than kids who had regular access to phones, televisions, and computers.
In addition to our experiences using technology, how much time we spend using technology also matters. Altogether 53 percent of respondents said that time spent on social media was a barrier to physical touch, and this was particularly true in India (70 percent) and Thailand (69 percent) – countries where social media usage tends to be higher. A respondent in India told us: “When I come home from the big city two times a year, I long to see my family. But my little brother only sits at the table with his gadgets, not talking or even looking at me properly. That’s so sad!” The data also reveals significant differences in age groups when it comes to time spent online. The biggest difference is between millennials and those 50 and older; 65 percent of millennials reported that time spent on social media is a barrier to physical touch, while only 33 percent of those aged over 50 did.

Busy Lives:
A Never-Ending Race to Get It All Done

Our screens aren’t the only things standing in the way of more touch. The study findings also suggest that our busy lifestyles are contributing to our collective touch deprivation: 72 percent of respondents believe that the value of human touch is not top priority in modern life, with another 64 percent reporting being too busy to take time to connect with others. A respondent in China told us: “It is almost impossible to meet my friends. Everyone is so busy nowadays.”
This is especially true for millennials (72 percent) and parents (71 percent). Even though we have already established that these groups experience more touch compared to others, 76 percent of millennials and 78 percent of parents still wish that they could receive more hugs.
As a result of their busy, on-the-go lifestyles, these groups often have to rely on technology-enabled connections as a replacement for physical touch. In the touch diaries, 51 percent of millennials and 48 percent of parents reported that they had video called someone, ran their fingers over the screen, and wished that it was a real touch.

Social Norms: Widespread Confusion about the Right Level of Touch

In addition to technology usage and lack of time, eight in ten respondents believe that social norms can get in the way of human touch. In some countries, this is more of a factor than in others. It appears to be more of a barrier in Commonwealth countries, with 84 percent of Britons, 85 percent of Australians, and 84 percent of Indians reporting social norms as a barrier to touch, compared to 80 percent of respondents overall. Generally speaking, people in those countries touch each other less than people in southern Europe and South America, where, for example, a hug and kiss on the cheek are often considered an acceptable form of greeting. For many respondents, uncertainty about what type of touch is appropriate or whether the recipient would reciprocate prevents them from initiating touch. More than three-quarters of respondents reported that personal insecurities, such as being unsure if people would be comfortable receiving a hug, is a barrier. This figure is substantially higher – 85 percent – in China, India, and Thailand. Another 69 percent reported that they are open for touch, but they always wait for the other person to make the first move. These findings are especially pronounced in one group in particular: those who identify as men.
A total of 89 percent of men and 88 percent of women believe that human touch is key to living a happy, fulfilled life. Yet men face more personal insecurities around touch, with 76 percent of men indicating that they are often unsure how much physical contact is acceptable in society, compared to 71 percent of women. More men than women wish they could receive more hugs (73 percent compared to 70 percent). Furthermore, while they wish for more touch, they are actually experiencing less; 20 percent experienced no physical contact at all the day before the interview, compared to 14 percent of women.
Clearly, men long for more tactile connections in their everyday lives, but feel insecure about initiating and receiving physical touch. Men who place more emphasis on traditional gender roles or feel pressured by societal expectations may be less likely to engage in physical touch, fearing that it could be considered “feminine” or “soft.” Many are afraid to express their emotions or unable to articulate their needs. Others are afraid their touch will be interpreted as a sexual advance or that it will be rejected. Some fear to be affectionate with their children. A father in Germany told us, “I feel really uncomfortable when my 12-year-old daughter wants to sit on my lap in public. I don’t want anyone to think that I am a pedophile!”
Regardless of the reason, the consequence of these insecurities means that with the exception of handshakes, men are more likely than women to forego caring, platonic touch – and all the benefits that come with it.

Social Norms Can Get in the Way of Natural Human Touch

Global rates of approval:
“Social norms can get in the way of human touch.”

The Knowledge Gap: People Lack Awareness of the Physiological Benefits of Touch

While the psychological benefits tend to be well known, the NIVEA study reveals a knowledge gap in most people’s awareness of the physiological benefits of touch. When asked about their understanding of the physical benefits, including reduced physical pain, a stronger immune system, and lower blood pressure, among others, many participants in the global study reported being unaware of them. More than a third of respondents did not know that physical touch decreases the level of stress hormones and more than half did not know that touch strengthens the immune system. An overwhelming 86 percent of respondents find this information encouraging enough to include more physical touch in their daily lives – which raises the question: if people knew more about the benefits of touch, would they do more to initiate touch individually and collectively?
Our results suggest that the answer is yes. The findings clearly show demand for a more positive societal approach to the topic of human touch. A striking 92 percent of respondents think that we need to talk more about the benefits of human touch and 85 percent think it would be a good idea to have a movement that advocates the “good touch” in society. Such measures could help educate people on the benefits of touch, sort out the confusion on which types of touch are acceptable, and remind people to incorporate more touch into their lives. To help ensure that touch is valued beginning in childhood, 85 percent think that schools should teach the importance of human touch. This overwhelming support for solutions to the lack of human touch is consistent in all countries and age groups measured.
The barriers to human touch aren’t likely to disappear overnight, if ever. But some are more easily addressed than others, and awareness of our own actions is an important first step.

About the Study

The NIVEA research was conducted by Mindline, an independent research institute, as an online survey with 11,198 people in the following 11 countries (approximately 1,000 respondents per country): Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, South Africa, Thailand, the UK, and the US. Survey respondents were between 16–69 years of age and were a representative sample based on gender, age, region, and occupational status. The study was conducted between October 2018 and March 2019. Focus group discussions in 11 countries, conducted by Happy Thinking People, an independent research institute, preceded the quantitative research.

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