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What Lack of Affection Can Do to You

We're facing a crisis of skin hunger, and it has real consequences.

Key points

  • Feeling deprived of meaningful human contact can be referred to as skin hunger.
  • People with skin hunger, or who are affection-deprived, are more likely to experience depression and stress, and in general, worse health.
  • The remedy for skin hunger begins with putting down one's smartphone.
Hasloo Group Production Studio/Shutterstock
Source: Hasloo Group Production Studio/Shutterstock

Recently I wrote about Juan Mann, the founder of the “Free Hugs” movement who felt so deprived of meaningful human contact that he offered to embrace strangers on the street. Perhaps you can identify with Mann. How often do you find yourself feeling lonely, craving more affection than you get? Maybe you wish your spouse or partner were a bit more demonstrative of his or her love. Maybe you’ve tried without success to get certain people in your life to be more affectionate with you, so you go on wishing for more affection than you receive. If any of this sounds familiar, then you’re experiencing a common problem known as skin hunger, and you're far from alone. Consider:

  • Three out of every four adults agree with the statement, “Americans suffer from skin hunger.”
  • More Americans live alone than ever before.
  • One in four Americans reports not having a single person to talk to about important issues.
  • Loneliness among American adults has increased by 16 percent in the last decade.

These facts help us understand the nature of skin hunger, which is both an acknowledgment that we don’t get as much affection as we need, and of our drive to get more. We normally associate hunger with food, of course—but we don’t feel hunger simply because we want food. We feel hunger because we need food, just as we feel thirsty because we need water, and tired because we need sleep. Our bodies know what they require to function properly, and research suggests that affection belongs on that list, right behind food, water, and rest.

A study on the lack of affection

Just as lack of food, water, and rest have their detrimental effects, so too does the lack of affection. In a recent study of 509 adults, I examined the construct of skin hunger—and the social, relational, and health deficits with which it is associated. The results were consistent and striking. People with high levels of skin hunger are disadvantaged in multiple ways, compared to those with moderate or low levels.

Specifically, compared to people with less skin hunger, people who feel more affection-deprived: are less happy; more lonely; more likely to experience depression and stress; and, in general, in worse health. They have less social support and lower relationship satisfaction. They experience more mood and anxiety disorders, and more secondary immune disorders (those that are acquired rather than inherited genetically). They are more likely to have alexithymia, a condition that impairs their ability to express and interpret emotion. Finally, they are more likely to have a preoccupied or fearful-avoidant attachment style; they're less likely to form secure attachments with others in their lives.

These findings don’t establish that skin hunger causes all of these negative conditions, only that people who feel highly affection-deprived are more likely than others to experience them. If you’re one of those people, though, these findings probably come as no surprise. Affectionate contact is so necessary for a healthy life that we suffer when we don’t get enough.

Fortunately, skin hunger doesn’t have to be a permanent condition. Each of us has the capacity to get more affection in our lives. In the meantime, put down your cell phone and share an affectionate moment with someone in person. For those with skin hunger, human contact—not the technologically mediated variety—is the cure for what ails.

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