Huggers and non-huggers are usually easy to spot. The verbal and nonverbal cues are obvious between the two with one emanating “come on in” and the other “don’t touch me”. The worst offender to the non-hugger is the incessant hugger, who requests…no, demands affection on more than one occasion per gathering, bookending meet-ups with “hello” and “goodbye” holds, plus the occasional opening up of arms again in celebration or consolation. While some less emotional friends and family may cringe or roll their eyes at this heartwarming act, they also may be unknowingly waiting for—and even seeking out—that loving squeeze. Deny it all you want, science confirms it feels good, if you let it.
“A number of studies show that when people touch you, your brain produces oxytocin,” says Paul Zak, Ph.D., a professor at Claremont Graduate University and director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies. “This touch helps you connect better to people.” Because of the great amount of contact, hugs stimulate a lot more touch receptors than a handshake or pat on the back. This makes the hug one of the most powerful ways to activate this touch-centric bonding response. If you’re open to a hug (as in, you’re not miserable and looking for a way to escape), this chemical reaction is almost guaranteed to happen for both the hugger and huggee.
The power of hugging is more than a physical sensation. Typically you hug people who you care about. So, according to Zak, when you hug or are hugged, you may feel a sense of nurturing and of being nurtured. A lot of this may be unconscious, but it can result in a deeply positive side effect. For example, you may go in for a hug simply to uphold social decorum, but by the time you end the embrace you’ll likely have greater bond with the person than before.
“I have a better connection to people and they open up to me more,” says Zak, who claims to have hugged more than 10,000 people. Kicking off a conversation with a hug is a good way to break the ice, reestablish an old connection, and reignite a sense of intimacy. Whether you’ve bumped into an old friend at the airport or are greeting your husband at the end of a long workday, kicking things off with a hug can help you cut through the less satisfying small talk.
Hugs are not only a pathway to happiness, adds Zak, but they can also put you on the road to better health. “Physical contact can reduce your stress response and improve your immune system,” he says. Hugging may also lower your blood pressure, according to a study from the University of North Carolina that measured the health of women who hugged their partners multiple times a day. Another study published in the February issue of Psychological Science found that hugging conveyed a sense of social support, a powerful health predictor which can ultimately help you live longer. A study from Carnegie Melon published in the same journal a year earlier suggests that hugs may protect people from getting sick, such as catching the common cold, too.
So what do you do if hugging just doesn’t come naturally to you? Start with a small, safe environment, like your innermost social circle or immediate family members. If you’re feeling shy, you don’t have to go in for a bear hug. Instead, try a warm touch on the arm, shoulder or back during conversation. Pat your coworker on the back after a job well done. And make it extra easy for yourself by hanging out with cuddlers in your crew. Don’t wait for them to initiate it. Instead open your arms first and lean in—you know they’ll be ready to return the warm hold!