When I was in my teens, my grandfather taught me a very important lesson – the value of a good hug. Like most teens I was a reluctant hugger – you know the type, lean in with a pat pat pat while the butt sticks out. My grandfather, known for speaking his mind, would always call me out – “What was that?” he would say. “Ugh, Grandpa” I would always initially complain as I rolled my eyes knowing what was coming. And then I would simply succumb to his loving embrace and signature hug that always left me in giggles. He even taught my sisters, cousins and I the importance of “hugging it out” whenever we would get into little tiffs with each other. Well it should come as no surprise, but it seems he was onto something.
There are numerous books, studies, and articles that all highlight the benefits of a good hug. But in general, the benefits of hugging are similar to the benefits that meditation can provide. When we hug someone, oxytocin is released into our bodies by our pituitary gland, lowering both our heart rates and our cortisol levels. Cortisol is also known as a primary stress hormone triggered by “flight or flight.” So like meditation which not only helps decrease these hormones, with a hug we are accessing our “rest and digest” hormones like dopamine which is often referred to as the feel good hormone.
In her book, The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky shares research validating the benefits of a hugs:
In a one-of-a-kind study, students at Pennsylvania State University were assigned to two groups. The first group was instructed to give or recevie a minimum of five hugs per day over the course of four weeks and to record the details. The hugs had to be front-to-front (nonsexual) hugs, using both arms of both participants; however, the length and strength of hug, as well as the placement of hands, were left to their discretion. Furthermore, these students couldn’t simply hug their boyfriends or girlfriends half a dozen times; they had to aim to hug as many different individuals as possible. The second, the controls, was instructed simply to record the number of hours they read each day over the same four weeks. The hugging group (which partook in an average of forty-nine hugs over the course of the study) became much happier. Not surprisingly, the students who merely recorded their reading activity (which averaged a not-too-shabby 1.6 hours per day) showed no changes.
These days, I am a proud and overt hugger. Perhaps too much so. I find myself on more occasions than I can count whether in a personal, professional or even medical setting, going in for the hug that at times can come off as awkward, especially for non-huggers. I know it’s not always appropriate, but “I’m a hugger” as I often justify in the moment.
So regardless of your reasoning – an expression of love, stress release, or a boost of some dopamine, all of these are sound benefits to make “hugging it out” part of our daily practice.