Adults’ obsession with weird, squishy stuffed animals reveals a heartbreaking need in our psyche

Ready to smoosh.
Ready to smoosh.
Image: Instagram
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Like many writers, I succumb to a variety of distractions while I work. Email, snacks, household chores, and Instagram are all danger zones. Now I think I’ve discovered a new trick—one that’s helped me stay focused, head down, while writing this very article. So what’s my new productivity hack? Squeezing a giant foam strawberry, also known as a squishy.

In case you’re still living in a fidget spinner world, squishies are brightly colored foam toys that come in a shocking variety of shapes and sizes, from a tiny panda face on a keychain to a giant peach the size of a toddler’s head. Many are scented with bakery-appropriate flavors like strawberry or peaches and cream. As the name suggests, their most important quality is their immensely satisfying texture. Squeezing a squishy is like crushing a loaf of Wonder Bread between your fingers, only to watch it magically re-inflate back to its original form.

Squishies are on their way to becoming the next big toy craze in the US, according to toy-store owners interviewed by New York Magazine and the New York Times. So far they’re being marketed, much like fidget spinners, as a way to relieve stress and anxiety. But having just picked up my strawberry, squeezed it, and then sniffed its fruity aroma, that analysis seems a bit off-target to me. Squishies may well blossom into a full-blown trend, but they’re not about burning off nervous energy and anxiety. They’re much more about easing our sense of loneliness in a touch-deprived era.

There are nearly two million posts with the hashtag #squishy on YouTube and Instagram. Some of them are squishy-specific haul videos, which is actually a nice twist on the form. Many of the smaller squishies are sold in packs crammed with 10 or 20 foam toys, all in different shapes, so it’s pretty entertaining to see what each one will be.

The Instagram videos tend to follow a very basic, yet strangely satisfying, formula: squish, release, reinflate, repeat. Squishies make cameos in some ASMR videos. There’s also a whole genre of videos dedicated to cutting open squishies, stress balls and other items with non-standard textures, though most hosts agree that cutting open squishies isn’t very much fun: They’re made of foam, and there’s no surprise goo inside.

Watching the videos while squishing my own strawberry reminded me of the famous “wire mother, cloth mother” experiments that Harry Harlow, a developmental psychologist, performed on baby monkeys at the University of Wisconsin the 1950s and 1960s. The thinking at the time was that baby primates, humans included, formed bonds based on food alone. But Harlow’s experiment found that baby rhesus monkeys separated from their mothers bonded with soft cloth mother replacement dolls, snuggling and relaxing with them. The monkeys with the cloth mother fared better than the other group, provided only with hard, cold “wire mothers.” The monkeys in the latter group became traumatized and anti-social.

Harlow’s work challenged the dominant thinking about child-rearing at the time. Parents had been told to keep their children at a distance. Now it was clear that affectionate, warm contact between children and caregivers from birth was crucial to emotional health, and that physical contact crucial to brain development. Researchers dispatched to Romania following the fall of the Iron Curtain in the early 1990s found that children who had grown up in orphanages, where the caretaker to infant ratio was often 20 to one, with little physical contact or stimulation, displayed many similar behaviors as Harlow’s wire mother monkeys.

Squishies are not a replacement for human affection. But because of their adorable looks and pillowy texture, they are remarkably reassuring. This summer, as kids went off to camp, squishies were “being packed in the trunk and then asked for on visiting day,” Judy Ishayik, owner of New York City’s Mary Arnold Toys, tells New York Magazine. This is telling: Loneliness is an integral part of the camp experience. For many children, it’s their first experience away from home, barring the occasional sleepover or solo visit to a grandparent’s house. Squishies combine the comfort and familiarity of a stuffed animal—that little piece of home in a new place—with the built-in activity and cool factor of a fidget spinner. So while it might be kind of lame to bring Snoopy to archery practice, a tiny, glittery unicorn in your pocket is comforting in a way that’s also cool.

In the age of the internet, a lot of adults are finding themselves in need of a little comfort, too. As Quartz reported in August, recent studies have found that “as many as a third of Americans are lonely, and that 18% of UK adults report felt lonely ‘always’ or ‘often’ (pdf).” Social media doesn’t seem to be helping: a 2017 study of 1,787 US adults between the ages of 19 and 32, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found that the people who spent the most time on social media were more likely to say they felt isolated. Whether that’s because lonely people go online or because being online makes us feel lonely is an open question. But it’s clear that when we spend our days typing and swiping on metal and glass, we can wind up feeling cut off from others, and from our own humanity.

And so it’s easy to imagine adults going wild for squishies. While there’s no substitute for the soothing power of a hug or caress, plenty of adults have confessed to loving their stuffed animals, blankets, and other comfort objects of choice. A series of studies from VU University of Amsterdam found that touch—particularly interpersonal touch, but the touch of a stuffed animal as well—helped alleviate fear in people with low self-esteem.“Our findings show that even touching an inanimate object — such as a teddy bear — can soothe existential fears,” lead researcher Sander Koole told the Association for Psychological Science. “Interpersonal touch is such a powerful mechanism that even objects that simulate touch by another person may help to instill in people a sense of existential significance.”

People are certainly drawn to tactile stimulation, as our modern obsession with toys featuring slime, Orbeez, and kinetic sand clearly show. Squishies not only offer satisfaction with each squeeze, they’re also socially acceptable. If kids might hesitate to bring stuffed animals to camp, it would look even weirder to keep your childhood teddy bear on your desk at work. But an adorable smiling stack of toast or a sparkly, squeezy unicorn? That’s a conversation starter.

In many ways, squishies are like the physical manifestation of the nice parts of the internet. They’re aggressively cute. They often depict food that is not ultimately meant for eating. They come in endless varieties. You can buy a whole bunch of them on your phone in less time than it takes to read this paragraph, for not very much money. And just as we turn to the internet for reassurance that we’re not alone, so do we turn to squishies to help sooth us.

Which brings me back to the squishy on my desk. Writing is a lonely task. It’s just you, the empty page, and your thoughts. All the snacking and emailing I do is an attempt to fill that void and feel a bit less alone with myself. Yet somehow having a strawberry and a backup peach in drawer—ready to squish whenever I get stuck—makes it easier to stay present in my task. It’s not just me sitting here. It’s me and my squishy.