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  • Why Social Distancing Feels so Bad

    And why it's so good for us during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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    Even if the most optimistic projections become reality, you’re likely reading this while still sequestered at home in your jammies, wondering how long Jack Nicholson spent at that creepy hotel before he started going after bathroom doors with an ax. First of all, good for you: Although you should probably put on real pants soon and, ideally, stop fantasizing about tormenting your family, social distancing—keeping space between you and others—is the best way to slow COVID-19’s spread. Second, yes, isolation really sucks. Back before this pandemic, you probably welcomed a day free of co-workers, friends, and even (if we’re being honest) your significant other. After a month-plus of me time, however, you’d trade your secret cache of TP for just one awkward fist bump from Darren the HR guy. “Something about expressive affection is part of our evolutionary biology,” says Meara Faw, an assistant professor of communication studies at Colorado State University. “It’s helped us survive through centuries of adapting to the hard realities of life.”

    In other words, physical connection doesn’t only feel good; it also makes our species happier and healthier. Here’s what science says about why we desperately want to reach out and touch someone—anyone!

    Kiss Poor Health Good-bye

    True love isn’t a fairy tale. It’s science. One theory says humans are attracted to people who have different major histocompatibility complex (MHC) genes than they do. (Diverse MHC genes correlate with greater health in offspring.) The intimacy that kissing fosters is our evolutionary way of getting close enough to another person to sniff their natural odors and determine whether our MHC genes are compatible—i.e., physiological kismet. Whatever its origins, locking lips has been linked with a reduction in cholesterol and stress. “It’s fun to teach my college students that it’s good for you to be really physically affectionate with your partner,” says Colorado State University’s Meara Faw.

    About Face

    Since the onset of the novel coronavirus, we’ve been commanded to stop touching our faces with our possibly germ-riddled hands. If only it were that easy. Neurologists aren’t 100 percent sure why we spontaneously fiddle with our faces, but a 2019 study from German researchers claims these gestures are an intuitive reaction to confusion and stress. That tick can be helpful on a normal day. During COVID-19, however, what was once a steadying temple rub can be a vector for disease.

    Gender Studies

    Women derive more pleasure from affective touching—aka, comforting caresses—than men do, according to a 2020 analysis by Italian psychologists. The paper theorizes this could be due to several factors. One, the male body produces more testosterone, a hormone known to reduce sensitivity to touch. And two, as primary caregivers, women may have evolved to be more biologically attuned to the tactile needs of children. On the other hand, a 2011 study by the Kinsey Institute reported that frequent kissing and cuddling predicted happiness in relationships for men, but not for women.

    Words Matter

    People starved for physical affection—the “skin hungry,” according to Kory Floyd of the University of Arizona—are less happy, lonelier, and more likely to suffer from depression. Fortunately, there are still ways to connect while practicing social distancing. Faw’s research indicates that parents of children with disabilities—people known to struggle with anxiety and doubt—showed a drop in stress-indicating cortisol levels after a positive 10-minute conversation with a loved one. That means eye contact, attentive body posture, and paralingual cues (the ohs, huhs, and mmms showing you’re present), all of which are attainable if you’re willing to put in a little FaceTime.


    Coming Clean

    If these stats about hand-washing from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization don’t persuade you to lather up with soap then, well, ew.
    81%: Estimated percentage (as of 2014) of global citizens who don’t wash their hands after using the toilet.
    1 trillion: Germs just one gram of human feces can contain.
    20%: Approximate share of respiratory infections such as colds—or the new coronavirus—that washing hands could prevent.
    >1 million: Children under the age of five who die annually from diarrheal disease and pneumonia, both of which could be diminished by increased hand-washing with soap.

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