What is a hug without the squeeze? In America, they’ll tell you that’s like apple pie without the cheese. We prefer ice cream with our pie but we definitely like our hugs with the right amount of squeeze. Turns out, however, that hugging has been studied fairly carefully in the research!
Hugging is Old School
The word “hug” originates from the Saxon word “hog” meaning “to be tender to” and the old Norse word “höggva”, meaning “to catch or seize[i]“. Hugging has been around at least since Biblical times, for example brothers Jacob and Esau hugging when reunited in the book of Genesis. It is not just a modern phenomenon but something that is a long-standing part of human history.
We’re going to have some fun and some research with this subject today — let’s look at some fun facts related to hugging.
Turns out there are some cultures who believe that hugging trees can help restore your body and mind. In remote areas of Finland, hugging snow-covered trees is used as a kind of meditation or spiritual practice to connect with nature. This is now becoming a tourist trade where people travel into the wilderness to hug trees. Not my idea of a romantic getaway, but whatever works for you.
National Hugging Day
January 21st is National Hugging day in the US and other countries, founded in 1986 to promote healthy expression of emotion.
I’m going to have to mark that one down on my calendar.
Self Hug Machines
Got no-one to hug you? Never fear — science has your back. The “Sense Roid” is a recently invented machine that recreates the sensation of being hugged using a mannequin with pressure receptors and a jacket with artificial muscles that constrict to give the sensation of being hugged. The idea behind it was that hugs are better when you are hugging someone you are intimate with, and who are you more intimate with than yourself? So now you can get the benefits of hugging without needing other people. Maybe.
Should You Hug Dogs?
Good question. Research shows that while many pet owners like hugging their pets, most animals don’t appreciate it. For example 8 out of 10 dogs show signs of distress when hugged, as it restrains them and prevents them from being able to get away. I guarantee that every dog owner reading this is now thinking “well my dog is obviously one of the 2 out of 10 who loves hugs!”
Hugging as a greeting varies a lot between cultures. In some places a hug with one or more kisses is the normal greeting for friends and acquaintance, in some countries any kind of physical touch would be an offence. In some countries such as France the rules on an appropriate greeting even vary between cities. Some examples (from most to least contact):
- Paris: Hug and four kisses
- Netherlands, Switzerland, Brittany: hug and three kisses
- Spain, Austria: hug and two kisses
- Belgium: one kiss
- Germany, Italy, UK, America: hug with close friends/family only
- Thailand, Japan: no physical contact. Just a bow!
Got all that? Good. Don’t want to look like an idiot going in for too many kisses. Ok, let’s move on to the actual science of what makes hugging great.
The Science of Hugging
Hugging Releases Oxytocin
Oxytocin is the brain’s “love hormone” which creates attachment between spouses and increases feelings of affection, empathy and bonding. Oxytocin is released through hugging[ii]. Meaning that hugs don’t just feel great, they work to strengthen the bond between you and your spouse.
Hugging Activates Pressure Receptors
There are pressure receptors all over the body which respond to physical touch. When those receptors are gently activated by hugging, they prompt chemical changes in the brain such as reducing the stress hormone cortisol increasing endorphins and serotinin, as well as lowering heart rate and blood pressure[iii].
Hugging Promotes Support and Belonging
As well as these chemical changes there are more conscious psychological benefits to hugging.
A hug helps your spouse feel cared for and valued, increasing your intimacy and promoting a sense of belonging. This is built into our minds from childhood through the physical contact we receive from our parents. Hugs can also be good ways to express emotions, such as gratitude, sympathy or affection.
Together these factors create a huge range of benefits to regular hugs, including[iv]:
- Stress relief
- Improved immune system
- Pain relief
- Reduced symptoms of depression
- Reduced blood pressure
- Reduced feelings of fear, isolation and tension
- Enhanced self-esteem
- Muscle relaxation
These benefits are felt for both the giver and receiver of the hug!
The Listening Hug
Now, if you really want to dive deep on how to make those hugs come alive — did you know a hug contains a wealth of information about how your spouse is really doing? We created an additional guide for this episode that goes into this fascinating technique called the Listening Hug. Using this technique you can notice the emotions your spouse is feeling and experiencing and then help to gently erase the tension. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Relational Benefits of Hugging
A study from 2003[v] found that regular hugging was linked to:
- Greater relationship satisfaction
- Higher satisfaction with your spouse
- Greater feelings of love and affection
- Increased trust
- Improved conflict resolution ability
Now remember the correlation vs causation — but hey, I’ll take any excuse to have people hug more! But: did you know that frequency and duration are important?
Hugging: How Often and How Long?
A study in 2008[vi] found that single instances of hugs or other forms of physical touch do not reliably produce these benefits.
Similarly another study in 2005[vii] found that women who regularly hugged their husbands had higher levels of oxytocin and lower blood pressure than women who spent 10 minutes hugging in the research lab and were then measured for oxytocin levels right after. So the positive effects of hugging “are more powerfully enhanced by the cumulative effect of regular and repeated warm touch rather than a single exposure.[viii]“.
In other words, you have to build this into your daily interactions as a couple.
But what if you guys haven’t been doing this or if you just aren’t great huggers? Maybe it was awkward in your family of origin or maybe even uncomfortable or inappropriate in the past and that has made you shy away from this.
Well, we want you to respect your own body and your spouse’s but if your spouse is a safe person this is something that you can learn to do well. And this could become a very healing experience for you as well.
That study from 2008[ix] also found that the benefits of hugging and intimate physical touch could be taught. The experiment taught participants about the chemical changes caused by touch, and asked them to practice warm physical touch (hugging, basic massaging while talking and affirming their love for each other) for 30 minutes 4 times a week. Participants who completed these exercises showed higher levels of oxytocin and lower blood pressure throughout the following days and weeks. This just goes to show that intimate physical touch is effective in helping couples remain happy and stress-free during day to day life. And even if you’re not naturally good at it, you can learn.
If you haven’t been real strong in the hugging department we’d love for you to try this out and let us know how it goes!
[i] Lena M. Forsell and Jan A. Åström, “Meanings of Hugging: From Greeting Behavior to Touching Implications,” Comprehensive Psychology 1 (January 1, 2012): 02.17.21.CP.1.13, https://doi.org/10.2466/02.17.21.CP.1.13.
[ii] Kathleen C. Light, Karen M. Grewen, and Janet A. Amico, “More Frequent Partner Hugs and Higher Oxytocin Levels Are Linked to Lower Blood Pressure and Heart Rate in Premenopausal Women,” Biological Psychology 69, no. 1 (2005): 5–21.
[iii] Tiffany Field, “Touch for Socioemotional and Physical Well-Being: A Review,” Developmental Review 30 (December 1, 2010): 367–83, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dr.2011.01.001.
[iv] Field; Forsell and Åström, “Meanings of Hugging.”
[v] Andrew K. Gulledge, Michelle H. Gulledge, and Robert F. Stahmannn, “Romantic Physical Affection Types and Relationship Satisfaction,” The American Journal of Family Therapy 31, no. 4 (July 2003): 233–42, https://doi.org/10.1080/01926180390201936.
[vi] Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Wendy A. Birmingham, and Kathleen C. Light, “Influence of a ‘Warm Touch’ Support Enhancement Intervention among Married Couples on Ambulatory Blood Pressure, Oxytocin, Alpha Amylase, and Cortisol,” Psychosomatic Medicine 70, no. 9 (2008): 976–85.
[vii] Light, Grewen, and Amico, “More Frequent Partner Hugs and Higher Oxytocin Levels Are Linked to Lower Blood Pressure and Heart Rate in Premenopausal Women.”
[viii] Holt-Lunstad, Birmingham, and Light, “Influence of a ‘Warm Touch’ Support Enhancement Intervention among Married Couples on Ambulatory Blood Pressure, Oxytocin, Alpha Amylase, and Cortisol.”
[ix] Holt-Lunstad, Birmingham, and Light.
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