Animal and human research points to confirmation that touch is as vital to survival as anything. In fact, more connection with touch can lead to less violence in our society. I am a big hugger these days, but it wasn’t always that way. And although I like to hug, I also like and respect the personal space of others. A good hug bridges a lot of the tension between people, giving us a variety of new feelings that ultimately help us to succeed: trust, comfort, reassurance. It doesn’t involve language, so communication and connection are strictly nonverbal. This creates alternative sorts of bonds and understanding among people.
The Benefits of Hugs
The primary win from having a healthy amount of “touch” in our lives is the benefit of a physical connection that truly means something. The act of connecting skin to skin can do awesome things. Here are just a few of the positives:
1. Touch enhances brain development as our nerve-endings get fired up.
2. The right kind of touch relieves pain. Bring on Sven, the muscled masseuse!
3. Connecting through positive touch = reinforcement of trust
4. The immune system responds to regular positive touch by staying healthy.
5. Say hello to more “feel good” chemicals like dopamine, oxytocin, and other endorphins, too.
6. Positive touch promotes greater intimacy that isn’t just about sex, but rather about closeness.
7. More touch and connection = less need for chemical substances.
Some of our Most Infuriating Moments of Disconnection Can Become an Opportunity to Leverage the Power of a Hug
Here are 3 things to consider about hugs when dealing with conflict in your personal relationships:
1. We give great meaning to our personal relationships and try to protect the people we care about.
Sometimes, when I imagine touch, I feel it as if I were right back there in childhood again. My thoughts and senses are in sync and it’s another balmy summer evening on Staten Island. I am 14 years old, seated on the back porch with my sister and my Dad. I can smell the hydrangea and fresh cut lawn. I hear lawn mowers, crickets, the annoying jackhammer building an unnecessary extension at our neighbor’s monstrosity of a house. We’re having a conversation about my grandmother, a difficult woman, not the apple-cheeked grandmother some of you may have grown up with.
And then, all at once, Dad explodes. He cries, “Your grandmother is coming here to live with us. She can’t go back to her house. She can’t live alone. We have to take her in!”
Grandmother coming to live with us is very bad news. It will mean massive drama everywhere. Our family can’t withstand the stress, Dad and Mom fight whenever my grandmother is nearby. This will be a huge burden on their marriage and our family. And so I respond in kind. I roll my eyes and let out a groan. I don’t want my grandmother here.
My father stops. He glares at me. He yells, maybe for the first time,“Alan, ENOUGH. She is coming here, That’s it. Stop being selfish.”
I can’t believe it, any of this, it’s like I’ve been hit by car and now I’m crying salty tears, and yes, I’m feeling deeply misunderstood, am I the only one who truly cares about the family?
That’s what I think. Dad isn’t thinking at all, I tell myself. In that moment I am really upset with him.
2. Hugs can transcend anger and replace it with love.
And then my sister, quiet until now, turns to my Dad, “DAD, hug him. Alan needs a hug.”
The air stills. Everything stops. I remember this and I remember panic rising inside of me. My father does not hug. He does not touch. He yells. My father’s arms awkwardly find their way around me. This is an unfamiliar feeling and I can almost feel myself squirming in my sneakers. Anywhere but here.
Yes, it is the first time he has ever hugged me. I feel his awkwardness. My breathing is fast. And then, it slows. I feel his arm tighten around me. I feel his love. The hug is clumsy and perfect. And with one simple touch, I felt understood, safe, saved.
3. A hug is a hug no matter how we label it.
Since that moment where my dad hugged me for the first time, I’ve come to rely on hugs in most situations. Really it set me off on a lifetime of searching for more of that kind of hug. I’ve found some that came close. I’ve found many that were in all the wrong places: awkward hugs; typical, cliché “man” hugs; pats on the back. My uncle once called how I hug a “gay” hug after he found out that I was gay.
As far as I’m concerned, a hug is a hug. And we all need them.
How can we incorporate more hugs into our day?
Renowned family therapist Virginia Satir, PhD, claimed that we need four hugs a day for survival, eight hugs a day for maintenance. Twelve hugs a day are optimal. Think about how many hugs you’ve had today. How many times have you gone to hug another person today, yesterday, or anytime this week? Sure, we hug our children when they are sad.
How about hugging everyone? On social media, I’ve seen the social experiments which place individuals in the middle of strange cities wearing a sign that reads: FREE HUGS. Watching people’s reactions before, during, and after those hugs is very telling: they allow themselves to be moved by the experiment. Or they giggle nervously. Or they run away. Hugs have power. I’ve even heard recently of a phenomenon called Cuddle Parties—events where people pay to get hug-time.
Touch can bring people together in ways you don’t expect. Don’t underestimate the power of a hug.