Why -and how- we kiss are fascinating topics in the fields of psychology, sociology, and communication. There are cultural rules for kissing, for example, that regulate non-romantic behavior. Do you kiss when you greet, or say goodbye to, a work or professional colleague? If so, where should the kiss be planted—cheek or lips? Who initiates the kiss? Are public displays of affection considered okay, or are they frowned upon?
Whatever our cultural norms say about kissing, there’s almost certain agreement that kissing a loved one (in private) is not only okay, but highly desirable. As an expression of love, the kiss is celebrated in art, movies, literature, and especially pop music. Think of all the chart toppers proclaiming its importance: “Seal it With a Kiss,” “This Kiss,” “My First Kiss,” “Shut up and Kiss Me,” “Kiss From a Rose,” “Shoop, Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss”), “As Time Goes By” (with the lyrics, “you must remember this, a kiss is still a kiss…”) and “I Kissed a Girl.” We’re a culture obsessed with the kiss.
Successful long-term relationships are characterized by physical affection. Although we may assume that sex dwindles once the honeymoon is over, the happiest couples continue to show some form of physical affection throughout the duration of their relationship, even into late life.
As it turns out, kissing—often and long—may actually improve your health, benefit your well-being, and improve your intimate relationships. Arizona State University communications professor Kory Floyd and colleagues (2009) investigated the possible benefits of kissing in a sample of 52 married or cohabitating adults. They wanted to know whether the physical act of kissing provided tangible, measurable benefits. Let’s see what happened in the study.
First, though, you need to know why the researchers embarked on the study in the first place. They already knew, of course, that kissing in an intimate relationship has emotional connotations, and certainly relates to way that couples feel about each other. However, could they go beyond the emotional benefits and demonstrate that kissing can improve people’s physical health? Most research on the health impact of kissing emphasizes the risks involved in exchanging saliva including, for example, mononucleosis (the “kissing disease”). However, Floyd and the health experts who worked with him found other studies supporting the health benefits of kissing These include improved immune resistance to allergans but also, as importantly, improved physiological resistance to stress. The physical act of kissing may also improve the parasympathetic nervous system, the control mechanism in our body that takes over when we’re relaxed and comfortable. A substance in the skin, “sebum,” when exchanged between kissing partners, may also send a chemical signal to the brain associated with bonding and affection. As if these health benefits aren’t enough, the researchers proposed that the stress-busting effects of kissing could even lower people’s cholesterol. A romantic dinner for two is likely to include some pretty high cholesterol food (think chocolate souffles). However, if the couple ends the night with a long enough kissing session, that cholesterol may not even damage their cardiovascular systems.
In what has to be one of the most unusual “experimental” treatments in all of social science, the researchers assigned half their sample (ages 19 to 67) to a frequent kissing condition and the other half to a control condition with no special instructions to kiss. The experimental group's instructions seem like a formula for having a successful Valentine’s Day date with your main squeeze: “The point is for the two of you to kiss each other more often and for longer periods of time than you typically do right now.” But this was more than a one-night stand: "We hope you will both make increased kissing a priority over the next six weeks.” There were no such instructions given to the control group, who did not know the purpose of the study (though obviously, they did give informed consent).
Apart from the usual experimental precautions, the researchers made sure that the lab assistants taking biological samples and scoring questionnaires didn’t know which conditions the participants were in when they did the testing. To ensure that the participants were complying with the experimental instructions, Floyd himself sent emails out to them every Monday for the six weeks of the study. He also checked in with them (via an online questionnaire) to make sure they actually were complying with the experimental treatment by puckering up more frequently than usual.
And now, the good news. At the end of the study, the kissing group in fact stated they felt less stressed and more satisfied in their relationship. Importantly, for their health, their cholesterol levels (the “bad” kind) decreased as well. Compared to the control group, the couples in the kissing group also reported that they exercised more, argued less, had less conflict, and understood each other better. As a result, the researchers had to rule these factors out statistically when examining the group differences in cholesterol. Even with these factors controlled, the kissing group still retained their health advantage.
The study begs the question of what to do if you don’t have someone around to kiss and be kissed by? Do you buy an inflatable doll, as did Lars in Lars and the Real Girl? Would kissing anyone, not just your romantic partner, also benefit your health? No one is likely to believe that your doctor has prescribed kissing to prevent you from getting heart disease. Follow-up studies are clearly needed to address these issues.
However, in a later study, Floyd and his research team (2010) tackled the question of whether being affectionate can in and of itself reduce the negative effects of stress on health. 100 adults were asked to report on their typical way of expressing affection as well as the amount of affection they expressed over the past seven days (which they recorded in a diary). For example, to measure seven-day affection they rated their agreement to the statement “I expressed a great deal of affection toward others today,” and “Other people expressed a great deal of affection toward me today.” To measure typical amount of physical affection, they rated themselves on statements such as “Anyone who knows me would say I’m pretty affectionate,” and “People are always telling me how much they love or care about me.”
After exposing the participants to several cognitively stressful tasks, which included performing complex mental arithmetic and watching a video of a marital conflict, the researchers took biochemical samples to assess level of stress. They also took measures of oxytocin, a hormone associated with childbirth that also increases during sexual intercourse and in response to nonsexual touch.
Everyone became more stressed by the experimental manipulation. However, participants who rated high on the affectionate scales also showed a more positive oxytocin response. This meant that the highly affectionate participants were better able, physiologically, to handle the stress of the situation. The participants were stressed, but their bodies bounced back from the experimental manipulation more quickly than did those with low levels of affection in their daily lives.
These finding of both these studies give new meaning to the term “healthy relationship.” Kissing can improve both your intimate relationships, and beyond that, perhaps your risk of heart disease by improving your response to stress. If you’re in a long-term relationships, the moral is clear- kiss early and kiss often. If not, expressing affection in other ways can also provide you with stress-buffering boosts.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2012
Floyd, K., Boren, J. P., Hannawa, A. F., Hesse, C., McEwan, B., & Veksler, A. E. (2009). Kissing in marital and cohabiting relationships: Effects on blood lipids, stress, and relationship satisfaction. Western Journal of Communication, 73(2), 113-133. doi:10.1080/10570310902856071
Floyd, K., Pauley, P. M., & Hesse, C. (2010). State and trait affectionate communication buffer adults' stress reactions. Communication Monographs, 77(4), 618-636. doi:10.1080/03637751.2010.498792