Hugs seem so much a part of life that we may not realize how powerful they really are. Of course, there are the evolutionary factors. A hug is the first thing that happens to help mothers and infants attach properly to each other. Research shows that unless there is a premature birth or illness, moms should hold and hug their infants as much as possible. This is especially true during the first few weeks of life—but we need hugs throughout our life.
A hug activates oxytocin—the cuddle hormone that not only helps with bonding and reduces stress, but also seems to stimulate powerful neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. These brain chemicals are often associated with the regulation of mood, and lower levels of these neurotransmitters have been linked to depression, self-doubt, and lack of motivation. Higher levels tend to make us feel good—and hugs have the ability to boost these levels. The longer and more frequent the hug, the greater the effect.
Remember how you feel the love when you’ve gotten a good hug? With all the changes in hormones and neurotransmitters, it makes sense—and there are physical benefits as well. Your muscles relax, and with the warmth and feeling of safety comes a calming effect. Research also shows it can help increase circulation and even reduce your heart rate. A hug is a reciprocal act that builds trust and safety between the huggers—each benefiting the other.
But the other side of this coin is also true. When people are in conflict they hug less and the stress-induced reaction makes them more tense and—according to research—less able to ward off cold viruses. A hug brings about changes that not only make us feel good, they may help immunize us as well.
Psychology professor Sheldon Cohen of Carnegie Mellon University led research investigating whether hugging is a type of social support that protects people from getting sick. The research focused on hugging as an indicator of social support because hugging someone typically signifies a closer and more intimate relationship. The study's findings, published in the journal Psychological Science, were that those who received more frequent hugs and social support were better protected against infections that are associated with stress. They also experienced less severe symptoms when they were sick.
The researchers studied more than 400 adults through questionnaires about the frequency of interpersonal conflicts and hugs. Then they intentionally exposed participants to a common cold virus and monitored the degree to which they got infected and showed symptoms. The risk of infection accompanying conflicts was reduced when perceived social support was greater—with hugs responsible for one-third of the protective effect. Regardless of whether they experienced conflicts, greater perceived social support and more frequent hugs both resulted in less severe illness symptoms among infected participants.
According to Dr. Cohen, "those who receive more hugs are somewhat more protected from infection."
So go out there and give someone a hug—it just might be the healthiest thing for both of you.