Why it may be better to give than to receive this Valentine's Day

A man on bended knee offers a heart-shaped gift to a woman.

Smooches and snuggles may make us feel warm and fuzzy, but they can also be good medicine, says University of Arizona researcher Kory Floyd.

Floyd, a professor of communication and psychology, has spent his career studying how affectionate communication – through words, actions and behaviors – affects health and well-being.

Kory Floyd

Kory Floyd

It probably comes as no surprise that higher levels of affection have been linked to greater relationship satisfaction. But affectionate communication also seems to benefit physical wellness.

In a research analysis published in the journal Communication Monographs, Floyd and his colleagues analyzed several studies about affection and found that affectionate communication is consistently associated with more positive health outcomes, especially when it comes to cardiovascular health.

He also found that showing affection seems to have an even greater benefit than receiving it.  

Q: You've found that affectionate communication benefits cardiovascular health even more than mental health. Why might that be?

A: It's hard to say why cardiovascular health shows a bigger benefit than mental health. Both forms of health are related to stress, and our work has found that sharing affectionate communication with loved ones helps the body modulate its stress response so that stressful events don't become too overwhelming. We see that benefit in people's mental well-being, and we also see it to a slightly higher degree in their cardiovascular health.

Q: What are some mental health benefits tied to affectionate communication? 

A: Affectionate communication is associated with a wide range of mental health outcomes. For instance, people who are highly affectionate experience fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety, they report less stress and less loneliness, they are less likely to have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder or a mood disorder, and they are even less likely to experience nightmares.

Q: You've found that expressing affection is more beneficial for one's health than being on the receiving end. Why do you think that is?

A: It's worth pointing out that giving and receiving affection are highly correlated. When we give someone a hug or kiss, we essentially receive a hug or kiss in return. I think what we have found here is that there is a benefit to being a highly affectionate person. Not everyone is highly affectionate, but those who are experience a range of advantages in terms of their mental health, their physical health and their relational health. For instance, we have found that giving someone affection is one of the most efficient ways of reducing a stress response and returning the body to its resting state.

Q: It seems like some people are naturally more affectionate than others. Do we know why that is? And can people train themselves to be more affectionate?

A: As with many characteristics, it appears to be a mix of genetic and environmental effects. The tendency to be affectionate is somewhat heritable, meaning we inherit that tendency from our parents genetically. But then it can also be encouraged or discouraged by the environments in which we grow up. When people who are not naturally affectionate spend time with those who are, they can absolutely learn to become more comfortable giving and receiving affection over time.

Q: In general, what makes affection so important to us as humans, and what advice do you have for people who might be lacking affectionate relationships in their lives?

A: Affection is so important to humans because relationships are so important to humans. Humans are highly social beings, and affection is one of the primary communicative ways in which we develop and maintain our relationships. Experiencing affection deprivation can be extremely difficult, both physically and mentally. The same strategies won't work for everyone, but some people find benefit in expanding the range of behaviors that they include in their definition of affection. For some people, affection means only overt expressions, such as kissing, hugging and hand holding. For others, affection can be expressed through helpful behaviors such as doing favors for someone or acknowledging a special day. In some relationships, one person engages in behaviors that are intended to express affection to the partner but are not interpreted by the partner in that way. That can make the partner feel affection deprived unnecessarily. When we consider the affection we receive in all its forms, however, we often realize that we’re getting more than we thought we were. When people look beyond the obvious affectionate behaviors to others that can also express love and care, they may find they are already receiving more affection than they realized. Inviting and modeling the type of affection they seek and nurturing a variety of affectionate relationships can also be useful when one is lacking affection.

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