You love a good old hug.
I know you do, because we all do.
Even though the instruction to ‘give your aunt a hug’ is the most terrifying words a child can hear, we seem to grow to appreciate a hug in a wide spectrum of situations.
As a point of discussion regarding human flourishing, however, it’s rarely a topic that comes to mind.
Hugging must be on everyone’s subconscious list as one of the top five most ‘soft’ topics or activities in the world.
Little do people know the physiological basis for why we love the experience of hugging, or the concrete health and psychological benefits of hugging for both the giver and receiver.
In this article I aim to explore the act of hugging, the impact hugging has on your happiness and how to maximise hugging to elicit optimal well-being. We’ll look, in depth, at the science of hugs.
Note: If you would like to read this article at a later time, you can download this article as a PDF.
A Brief History of Hugs
The word ‘hug’ is believed to come from the word ‘hugga’, meaning ‘to comfort’ in the Old Norse language, first appearing approximately 450 years ago in Scandinavia.
The history of hugging as an open act of affection, however, is more unclear.
What we do know is that it is only very recently (the past 50 years) that we have seen a full acceptance of hugging in public, separating it from other distinguished displays of affection such as kissing and, well, everything that comes after that.
The widespread adoption of hugging over the recent years has been debated to be due to two primary reasons: the reduced formality of dress code and manners between relationships, along with the changing behaviours of political figures in pursuit of a more relatable, warm-hearted perception to the public.
Nowadays, we hug in a variety of contexts:
- Greeting friends and family
- As a ‘goodbye’
- Congratulating someone
- To console someone or show support
- Before sports and performance teams begin their act/match
- A general sign of affection between intimate relationships
- My favourite: Free Hugs charity fundraisers.
We know how much hugging is a part of our culture, but what does the science of hugging say about this somewhat obscure activity?
Before we get into the nitty gritty, let’s remind ourselves of what a classic, heart-felt hug looks like:
The Science of Hugs: Core Research
1. The Basis of Hugs
Reading how recent hugging has become such a common activity, it would be natural to think the act of hugging itself cannot be inherently linked to happiness or well-being, in the same way relationships are for example, as it could just be a temporary behavioural phase in culture.
However, hugging is in fact just an extended form of a fundamental human need: touch.
The importance of human touch is a topic that is far lacking open discussion, and it’s deeply concerning that people do not know the importance of it in the development and flourishing of a human being.
An abundance of research has shown, for example, that skin-to-skin contact between a mother and new-born yields importance physical and psychological benefits for the child, including:
- Reduced crying
- Improved sleep
- Sense of body ownership
- Reduced anxiety
- Correct production of growth hormone, leading to correct physical development
- Increased empathy for others as they grow up.
As children are growing up, the importance of touch does not diminish. Research has found that a gentle touch has an impact on all areas of life, for example:
- Students that have received a supportive touch from teachers are twice as likely to raise their hands in class
- A sympathetic touch by a doctor gives patients an impression that their appointment lasted twice as long as it did
- Teams that are more ‘touchy’ perform better, even at world-class levels, than those who do not make physical contact as often
- Physical touch found to correlate with reduced pain and symptoms of depression
A stark mental visual to demonstrate this (warning: this is not pleasant) is the reality of orphaned children.
Many orphans live in environments which are deprived in many ways, which is why some orphanages have infant mortality rates of between 30-40%.
However, research has found that it’s not the lack of food or water supply that causes the infant deaths, but instead, lack of touch.
For the first weeks and months of a newborn’s life, they require contact. Even if they receive food, they will die without the natural love of other people around them, specifically, physical touch.
This is why it’s argued that orphanages are not at all suitable for children under the age of 5.
Why is this?
Mainly because cuddling, hugging, touching, and for animals; licking, scruffling and playing, are all connected to the proper release of specific hormones (more on this later in the article).
Some hormones promote happiness and health, some promote degeneration of the body and the brain.
A hug, if you think about it, is nothing more than a globalised, prolonged human touch.
And that’s why it’s so powerful.
2. The Effects of Hugging on Happiness and Health
#1: Blood Pressure
Research has confirmed that the act of hugging reduces blood pressure.
In addition to this, those who hug more often are actually protected from an increase in blood pressure which naturally occurs during periods of stress, frustration and/or anger.
The reason it does this is because hugging causes an instant reduction in the production of cortisol.
Cortisol is known as the stress-hormone, as it has conclusively found that it is released in correlation with psychological stress, along with an increase in blood pressure.
One study demonstrated this with clarity. The core details of the study are as follows:
- 109 men and 74 women studied
- Split into two groups: ‘warm-contact group’ and ‘non-contact group’
- Warm-contact group: 10 minute holding hands, watched romantic video, then 20-second hug
- Non-contact group: Rested quietly for 10 minutes and 20 seconds.
- Following this period, all participants were asked to give a speech on something they found stressful or something that angered them.
The results found that those in the warm-contact group were physiologically protected from the negative emotions:
- Blood pressure, which includes systolic and diastolic pressures, increased in both groups
- However, the increase in blood pressure was less for the warm-contact group
- The rise in systolic pressure (the pressure in the arteries when heart beats) was more than twice as much in the no-contact group than the warm-contact group.
#2: Heart Rate
In the same study described above, participants were also assessed for heart rate.
With stressful, angry or frustrating events, heart rate naturally increased along with blood pressure.
Not-surprisingly, the study found that both groups demonstrated an increase in heart rate.
However, the warm-contact group’s heart rate increased on average by 5 beats per minute.
The non-contact group’s heart rate increased on average by 10 beats per minute.
Although it seems like a small difference, it is a 100% increase in heart rate, for those who did not have contact prior to the stressor event. These findings were statistically significant.
To sum up, in the words of the authors of the study:
“In our analysis, both blood pressure and heart rate reactivity was reduced (by approximately half) in men and women who experienced a 10-minute period of affectionate social and physical partner contact prior to the stressor (giving a tape-recorded speech), compared with those who rested alone for 10-minutes preceding the task”.
(ii) Trust and Happiness
Whilst hugging decreases the production of cortisol, it simultaneously increases the production of a hormone called oxytocin.
Oxytocin is known as the ‘trust’ hormone and is found in increased production when a mother is in pregnancy. For a long time it was thought this was the only use of the hormone, but it has been discovered it plays a much larger role in our well-being.
It is responsible for us feeling emotional warmth, bonding, trust and devotion. We see oxytocin go up significantly with any type of gentle skin-to-skin contact including touch, hugging, holding hands, kissing and therapeutic massage.
This is why couples who are happier have significantly higher levels of oxytocin than couples who are unhappy.
Along with the feelings of increased trust and happiness, research shows the benefits of oxytocin release extend even further, giving rise to:
- Resistance to fatigue
- Resistance to infections
- Reduction in symptoms of depression
- Improved social skills, such as patience
- Reduction in pain
- Reduced cravings for drugs and alcohol addiction, and sweets
The reason it has such a huge effect is because oxytocin directly impacts the brain’s reward system.
When someone is hugged, the physical touch sends a signal to an area of the brain called the orbital frontal cortex, which is the area that is associated with feelings of pleasure and reward.
Hence why hugging is sometimes described as similar to chocolate, which acts in the same way.
The way it does this is through the abundance of pressure receptors which are just under the skin, called ‘Pacinian corpuscles’. These centres sense touch, and when they do they send signal via the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve is known for its widespread distribution, and we know that it’s connected to the heart, as well as the oxytocin receptors.
This is how it positively affects blood pressure, heart rate and oxytocin production.
Why Hugging is the Most Undervalued Gift
Gifts are wonderful. Who doesn’t love receiving a gift from someone?
We all know the sense of positive emotion that arises from doing something that truly makes another person happy.
Usually this comes in the form of giving a physical product. For some occasions, such as special events, birthdays, anniversaries etc, this is perfect.
Hugging is a way to give gifts much more regularly, and they are just as effective at making loved ones, and even strangers, smile and feel appreciated.
If done regularly, both parties get the benefit of living happier lives, with certain perks:
1. It’s Free
By free, I actually mean free. Not free in the sense of ‘the event is free, but including travel costs, getting lunch and printing business cards I ended up spending a fortune’ free.
Wherever you are reading this, you can stand up and hug your friend or family member.
Happiness without any money involved. A novel concept.
2. It’s Quick
Hugging should receive a cultural award for the Ultimate Quick Fix.
In a society which adores rapid results at all expenses, this is truly a winner.
The effects of hugging take place immediately, upon contact. As fast as any medication, injection, TV show, food/drink or activity could impact us, hugging comes up on top.
3. It’s Easy
There’s no doubt that we’ve come to believe that succeeding in life and being happy is complicated.
Whilst there are some more complex ideas at the heart of happiness, the core activities and principles are shockingly simple.
They are nothing new, nothing temporary and nothing difficult to complete. None of them. And hugging is a great example.
It does not require a learning curve, a mentor to build your technique. It is exempt from the 10,000 hour rule and is perfect the way it is done, however that may be, from whoever it is done by. Every singe time.
4. It’s Safe
As we’ve mentioned, our desire for instantaneous euphoria without effort has led us to the likes of TV, entertainment media, and in some cases drug and alcohol abuse, in the hope for happiness.
All of the above, of course, have their side effects.
And if you thought TV was exempt, I have bad news for you. TV viewing has been linked to brain damage in a number of ways, including reduced IQ, reduced creativity, reduced academic achievement and more.
Hugging is a safe happiness inducer, with no side effects. Win-win for everyone.
5. It Works
Most important, hugging works. It produces wellbeing for people and enhances our connection with others, building rapport, trust and happiness.
It’s so much more than a formality, a greeting, a goodbye or a celebration.
It’s a physical expression of our desire and need for connection, and it does a damn good job of meeting that need.
How To Hug For Happiness
There are only 2 things you need to know about how to hug:
#1: Hug properly.
Seems like common sense. However, one of the main reasons I wrote this article is to emphasize the real impact and value of hugs.
People do not consider hugs as a conscious activity. Therefore, it’s often just a quick, fleeting, sometimes annoying requirement when interacting with people.
I encourage you to consider hugging people consciously form here on.
That’s not to say you leap on every single person you interact with from now like a lion on it’s prey.
But to take the time, when appropriate, to hug fully, properly and authentically, knowing the positive effect it will have on the recipient, even though they will be completely unaware of it.
If anything, that’s the beauty of it.
#2: Hug for longer.
This goes completely hand in hand with the above point, as one can not usually take place without the other.
That being said, we know that hugs usually last about 3 seconds (even this is a stretch for many), demonstrating that hugs are very similar to many other neurological processes.
However, to maximise oxytocin production and develop a real sense of trust between two people, research has shown 20-second hugs to be ideal.
If you are truly hugging someone, this will come naturally, and you’ll know the difference it makes, for both of you.
Certain activities and practices we engage in as a society are very often overlooked. There are some that we all engage in that can truly benefit our sense of joy in life.
Hugging has been shown to not only affect our happiness, but also our health, positively influencing our cognitive and emotional capacities, as well as physical markers such as blood pressure and heart rate.
Engaging in authentic, prolonged hugs allows people to feel connected, happy, and healthy. Best of all, it’s easy, free and enjoyable.
Header image: Shutterstock/Diego Cervo