Which will provide you with greater long term happiness: treating yourself to a massage or to a new flat-screen TV? You may be surprised to learn that, according to a psychological study conducted by Cornell University, New York, the memories of a destressing massage will bring greater satisfaction and contentment over time than the purchase of a material possession. We shouldn’t be too surprised by this finding: the therapeutic, relaxing and mood-enhancing properties of massage have been recognized for more than five thousand years.
A Brief History of Massage
Humans have an innate urge to sooth the knocks, bumps, bruises, aches and pains sustained in everyday life by rubbing them. The word ‘massage’ itself derives from the Arabic word meaning ‘to press gently’. But the first documented references to the formal use massage for therapeutic purposes appear in Chinese scripture dating back to around 3000BC at which time Buddhist monks practiced the art of massage as a means of restoring the balance of the body’s natural life energies. Japanese monks, studying Buddhism in China some two thousand years later learned the ways of this Chinese healing technique and modified it, creating a branch of massage whose name derives from the Japanese word for ‘finger’ – shi coupled with their word for ‘pressure’ atsu.
Ancient documents recording traditional Indian culture also feature the use of simple massage for healing purposes as part of a healing system known as ‘Ayur Veda’ (‘the Arts of Life’). It’s interesting to note, however, that Indian practitioners recognized the value of massage not only for its healing benefits but also for its relaxing and sensual properties.
We also know that a form of massage combined with the use of medicinal herbs was employed by native American Indians as a means of managing the pain of childbirth and relieving colic in their babies.
The ancient Greeks fully utilized the art of massage for many purposes: as an aid to preparing athletes for competition, for a range of healing purposes and simply for destressing and therapeutic needs. The Greeks were also the first to widely use massage oils, created from aromatic plants known for their anesthetic, stimulating or relaxing properties.
Learning from the Greeks, the Romans embraced and furthered the ancient art of massage for their own purposes. Although the wealthy could receive massage within their own homes from private physicians, it was also widely practiced and highly popular at public Roman baths.
The popularity of massage as both a healing and relaxing discipline transcended the following centuries with little change to the proven and trusted techniques until the early nineteenth century, when Swede Pehr Henrik Ling – credited as ‘the father of modern massage’ – devised a methodology of massage which comprised both gymnastic movement and varied massage technique to create what is now known as ‘Swedish Massage’.
How Massage Promotes Health, Relaxation and Happiness
The sheer weight of evidence and the fact that massage remains as popular and beneficial in today as it has since its use was first documented thousands of years earlier is testimony to the life-enhancing properties of massage. So how, exactly, does massage provide feelings of well being and contentment?
Massage works in two ways: firstly, an involuntary response of the human nervous system, known as the relaxation response, occurs as the result of the application of touch and massage techniques from a practitioner in whom we have trust and confidence. The relief of pain or aching by massage elicits the relaxation response and consequently the heart-rate and respiratory rate becomes slower, blood pressure decreases and the body releases fewer stress hormones. The relaxation response elicits the production of serotonin, a natural biochemical neurotransmitter which is known to contribute to feelings of well-being and contentment and plays a role in the body’s natural sleep function. Therefore, the relaxation response triggered by massage can be beneficial in the release of psychological conditions including anxiety, stress and insomnia. Serotonin also plays a key role in the correct functioning of the digestive system and massage can also help with the treatment of certain gastric disorders.
The second important way in which massage works lies in the body’s physical response to the manipulation of soft tissues. This physical response is beneficial in two ways. Firstly it improves circulation, facilitating the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to muscle tissue and helping to reduce localized swelling in soft tissue. The second aspect of the body’s physical response to massage is the natural relaxation of tensed muscle tissue. This relaxation can, in turn, relieve pressure – and therefore pain – from nerves that have been compressed by tightened muscle. This relaxation of tissue can not only benefit muscles and nerves but may also relieve pressure on internal organs, restoring their natural function.
So, Could the Ancient Art of Massage Leave You More Relaxed and Happier?
The answer, based both on anecdotal and clinical evidence, seems to be a resounding ‘yes’ – more or less anybody can benefit from the therapeutic advantages of massage.
In 2011, for example, five separate clinical studies of the benefits of massage variously concluded that, among other positive outcomes, massage therapy can demonstrably reduce pain, enhance mood, promote better sleep, reduce the body’s production of stress-related chemicals and even improve our perception of our own body image, resulting in greater feelings of self-confidence and contentment.
Today, more than one hundred different massage therapies and techniques are practiced worldwide, ranging from sensual head massages that can induce an trance-like state of relaxation, tranquility and happiness to acupressure which focuses on specific ‘pressure points’ on the body to relieve conditions as diverse as headaches and constipation! The proliferation of gift experience and “bucket list” list deal websites offering discounted massage therapies has helped to bring once costly massage treatments into the price range of ‘normal’ people.
The research by Cornell University simply confirms that in an era where the pressures, stresses and worries of everyday life are perhaps greater than they ever have been, the investment in a relaxing and happiness-inducing massage is of greater long-term benefit, thanks to the lasting experiential memories it provides, than any short-lived pleasure that the purchase of a physical product such as a games console or television may bring.
Photos: FoundryParkInn, notashamed