Mental Health vs. Physical Health and the Evolution of the Handshake

It’s an organic cultural progression that has mostly gone overlooked. Whether it’s the respectful bow in Asia, the formal cheek kiss in Europe or the casual fist bump in North America, each culture has developed a series of interactive gestures that allow us to greet one another in a particular social setting. But as these greetings have evolved, people are suddenly forced to make split-second decisions that go beyond “how much do I really like this person?”

While the world of sports has introduced us to everything from the high-five to the chest-bump, scientists are now discovering the inherent benefits of these gestures to our mental health. In fact, recent research has shown how the physical contact of these exchanges can express a greater variety of emotions than simple gestures. In his research, psychologist Dacher Keltner (whose faculty web page shows him shaking hands with the Dalai Lama) has outlined a variety of ways in which this physical interaction can work wonders when it comes to people’s mental well-being. In a study of NBA teams, Keltner’s Berkeley colleague, Michael W. Kraus, even found that touchier teams generally did better.

There are other benefits to these gestures. A firm handshake has been cited as key to landing a good job. That traditional handshake has even been discovered as a means of communication among chimps.

But there is a problem. The mental health benefits of these exchanges could be coming at the expense of our physical health. In the age of bird and swine flu, medical experts have discouraged people from engaging in most of these gestures. Some experts have encouraged the fist bump as a way of curbing the transmission of these diseases. Other have mentioned the more intimate peck on the cheek. But as the fear of disease has popularized alternative physical exchanges, with gameshow host/ germaphobe Howie Mandel serving as a celebrity spokesperson, this once-simple institution has run amok.

Popularized by the Obamas, the fist bump has fallen out of favor, drawing scorn for being both too informal and even a “terrorist fist-jab.” Even medical experts have abandoned the fist bump, instead deferring to the elbow bump, a bizarre alternative that was narrowly edged out by “carbon neutral” as the 2006 word of the year. In recent years, high school graduation ceremonies have abandoned hand shakes, as have individuals crossing the Mexico-US border. But do we really want to start using something as ridiculous as an elbow bump? Or do we really have to choose between mental and physical well being the next time we try to extend our hand? Personally, we’ve always been big friends of the bro hug.  

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less
Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

Do human beings have a magnetic sense? Biologists know other animals do. They think it helps creatures including bees, turtles and birds navigate through the world.

Keep reading Show less

Harvard: Men who can do 40 pushups have a 'significantly' lower risk of heart disease

Turns out pushups are more telling than treadmill tests when it comes to cardiovascular health.

Airman 1st Class Justin Baker completes another push-up during the First Sergeants' push-up a-thon June 28, 2011, Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. Participants were allowed 10 minutes to do as many push-ups as they could during the fundraiser. Airman Baker, a contract specialist assigned to the 354th Contracting Squadron, completed 278 push-ups. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Janine Thibault)
Surprising Science
  • Men who can perform 40 pushups in one minute are 96 percent less likely to have cardiovascular disease than those who do less than 10.
  • The Harvard study focused on over 1,100 firefighters with a median age of 39.
  • The exact results might not be applicable to men of other age groups or to women, researchers warn.
Keep reading Show less

U.S. reacts to New Zealand's gun ban

On Thursday, New Zealand moved to ban an array of semi-automatic guns and firearms components following a mass shooting that killed 50 people.

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Gun control supporters are pointing to the ban as an example of swift, decisive action that the U.S. desperately needs.
  • Others note the inherent differences between the two nations, arguing that it is a good thing that it is relatively hard to pass such legislation in such a short timeframe.
  • The ban will surely shape future conversations about gun control in the U.S.
Keep reading Show less