A Hug a Day
A few years ago, I asked my hairdresser what she liked best about her job. Her answer surprised me. “Many of my clients never get touched except when they come in for a styling,” she said. “I supply the only physical contact they may have all month.”
A notable study in the 1940’s found that human babies who were fed and well-cared for, but who weren’t touched, did not thrive: in fact, half the babies in the study died within four months. At that point, the study was discontinued, but for several more of the babies, it was too late. They died, as well.1 More recently, researchers from the University of Miami found that premature babies who received three 15-minute massage sessions daily gained 47 percent more weight within 10 days compared to a control group that got standard incubator treatment.2 Similar studies found that monkeys and rats also need maternal touch to grow up healthy; even roundworms become impaired if they don’t get enough physical contact when young.3
Unlike babies, human adults can “survive” without physical contact, but research shows that we, too, fare a whole lot better when we have regular hugs. Sadly, as my hairdresser observed, many of us don’t enjoy nearly enough touching in a typical day, and that, perhaps, is a key component of health that medicine overlooks. Imagine a doctor’s prescription that reads, “Go home, take two aspirin, climb into bed, and cuddle with someone for an hour.” The saddest part is that if, in fact, if my hairdresser was observing a widespread reality, that’s a prescription many can’t fill.
Research indicates that hugging boosts the immune system. A Carnegie Mellon study in 2015 found that subjects who got regular hugs came down with fewer colds, and if they did succumb, their symptoms were milder than the cuddle-deprived. "Hugging protects people who are under stress from the increased risk for colds [that's] usually associated with stress," said study author Sheldon Cohen.4
Experts attribute the benefits of hugging to the “feel-good” hormone oxytocin, which may get released during physical contact. Oxytocin has a stress-reducing effect on the body, which leads to a host of other benefits, including slower heart rate and lower blood pressure. In fact, a 2005 study from the University of North Carolina did find a positive relationship between amount of hugging received, oxytocin levels, and blood pressure. Numerous studies show that oxytocin moderates the effects of stress, leading not only to enhanced immunity, but also to better pain tolerance, reduced anxiety, and less depression. But to get the oxytocin effect, the hug needs to be substantial.
"If you get a flimsy hug, that's not going to do it," says University of Miami researcher Tiffany Field. "You need a firm hug to stimulate oxytocin release.”
Keep in mind that we’re not talking about psychological benefits here when it comes to explaining the benefits of hugging. Remember the roundworms that become impaired if they didn’t get enough physical contact when young. It’s highly unlikely that the benefits they received from touch resulted from mental imaginings. There’s something more fundamental at work here.
The benefits of touch extend even beyond physical and mental health. For instance, a study in the journal Emotion found that NBA teams in which the players touch each other more win more games, and that the degree of touching on court early in the season predicted the level of success by season’s end. “We were very surprised,” said the chief author of that study, Michael Kraus. “Touch predicted performance across all the NBA teams."
Other studies found that touching people before they enter a competitive situation can make them more cooperative, that a quick touch on the arm tends to inspire those touched to leave higher tips, sign petitions, and participate in charity work.5 Likewise, a quick massage has been shown to improve performance on math tests, while a German study in the 1980’s found that men who kissed their wives before leaving for work earned an average of 20 to 30 percent more than those who didn’t, and they lived, on average, five years longer. Plus, they reduced their chances of getting in a car accident by 50 percent.
Unfortunately, plenty of factors get in the way of us receiving the touching we need, and as mentioned above, many of us are truly touch-deprived. Way back in the 1960’s, a researcher named Sidney Jourard conducted a study that took him around the world observing people sitting together in cafes.6 He wanted to find out how often the friends touched each other over the course of an hour. In Puerto Rico, the pairs touched an average of 185 times; in Paris 115 times. But in Gainesville, Florida, they only touched two times, on average, and in Great Britain, never. Once again, in 2015, a European study found significant variation in touching patterns depending on country of origin, with Finland, surprisingly, coming out the “Most Touchy” country and Great Britain again lagging way behind other nations.7 The US was not included in that research.
If Americans and Brits touched each other only rarely in the past, the situation has certainly not improved over the past 50 years. That’s not to say we’re having less sex—that’s another story—but rather, that friendly touching has become increasingly fraught. For one thing, we rely more than ever on devices for communication, letting a text sent via smart phone stand in for a pat on the shoulder. And also, the media has made clear that too many predators have been blurring the lines between appropriate and inappropriate touch, and so now it can be risky to touch anyone you don’t know really well. A teacher who touches a student, a doctor who hugs a patient, or a helper who touches a client all risk getting sued, even though research shows that such contact can enhance performance and/or health. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, in balance, as perhaps no touch is better than abusive touch. The key here is that advance consent between adults, or accepted norms within a culture, are essential. And in the case of someone else’s kids, anything beyond a pat on the back or the head crosses a boundary.
We need to educate both adults and children about what’s appropriate and what isn’t and how to say “no” when lines get crossed. In the meantime, if you aren’t enjoying any touch in your life, at the least go out and get a massage or make more effort to find good friends who you can slap on the back.
- 1. “US experiments on infants withholding affection.” 7 January 2013. Values Exchange. 1 February 2018. https://stpauls.vxcommunity.com/Issue/Us-Experiment-On-Infants-Withholding-Affection/13213
- 2. Mantozi, Madison. “UM researcher pioneered massaging premature infants to stimulate growth.” 4 November 2014. Miami Herald. 2 February 2018. http://www.miamiherald.com/living/health-fitness/article3556835.html
- 3. Ardiel, Evan L. and Rankin, Catharine H. “The importance of touch in development.” 15 March 2010. Paediatrics Child Health. 2 February 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2865952/
- 4. Colino, Stacey. “The Health Benefits of Hugging.” 3 February 2016. US News and World Report. 2 February 2018. https://health.usnews.com/health-news/health-wellness/articles/2016-02-03/the-health-benefits-of-hugging
- 5. Barker, Eric. “The science of how touch makes us happier.” 7 September 2016. The Week. 2 February 2018. http://theweek.com/articles/646192/science-how-touch-makes-happier
- 6. Keltner, Dacher. “Hands on Research: The Science of Touch.” 29 September 2010. Greater Good Magazine. 2 February 2018. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/hands_on_research
- 7. Mohda, Amlna. “No Touching: The Countries that Dislike Physical Contact the Most.” 29 October 2015. The Atlantic. 2 February 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/10/europeans-comfort-touch-social-bonds/412861/