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What 20 Seconds of Hugging Can Do for You

National Hugging Day is January 21.

Key points

  • Hugs decrease cortisol (stress) levels.
  • Hugs increase oxytocin levels and facilitate bonding between partners.
  • The length of our hugs matters more than the number of hugs.

Friday, January 21 is National Hugging Day. Family therapist Virginia Satir has said, “We need four hugs a day to survive, eight hugs to keep us as we are, and 12 hugs to grow.” But while Satir had the right idea, research suggests that the length of our hugs matters more than the number of hugs we have.

20 seconds is all you need

In one hugging study, almost 200 people (partners in couples that were living together) were given the very stressful task of public speaking. But before the task, half the group had the benefit of a 20-second hug from their partner, while the other half just rested quietly on their own. Both men and women in the hugging group showed lower stress levels: Having a supportive partner hug them for 20 seconds actually decreased stress.

Grab a cushion

If hugs aren’t your thing, another study found that hugging a cushion while having a stressful conversation can also lower stress levels. Japanese researchers used a cushion to explore the impact of a hug. They placed their participants in two groups. In one group, participants talked to a stranger on the phone for 15 minutes. Now here is where it got interesting: The second group also talked to a stranger. But they had their conversation while hugging a human-shaped cushion that doubled as a phone. They called the cushion a Hugvie.

Even a cushion in the form of a hugger was enough to lower stress levels; hugging while talking is much better for your stress levels than just talking alone. Stress levels were measured by checking cortisol levels both from blood and saliva samples. It may seem odd that a cushion is able to have such an impact. The Japanese researchers think it has to do with the hug posture itself. The way you open up your arms to create space could be instrumental in reducing your cortisol levels.

A hug is a powerful thing.

Hugs create a positive feedback loop

Imagine that you and your loved one are having a conversation about a recent vacation that you went on. Every so often you laugh at a shared memory and squeeze your loved one’s hand. They look back at you and for a moment you both say nothing because you instinctively know what the other is thinking.

But this is no usual conversation between lovers—not with the video camera in the corner or the audio recording equipment on the table. Researcher Ruth Feldman and her colleagues invited 60 couples who were within the first three months of their relationship to their comfortable lab. With the help of the recording equipment, they were able to observe how the couples interacted with each other as they talked about a fun experience. The more they shared positive interactions, like affectionate touches, expressing positive emotions, and sharing concerns together, the higher their oxytocin levels. In fact, their oxytocin levels were significantly higher than that of the members of a group of singles who were not currently in a romantic relationship.

The cynic may say that these elevated oxytocin levels are just the result of “new love," a heady combination of novelty and excitement. But when the researchers brought some of these romantic pairs back into the lab six months later, their oxytocin levels remained high. In fact, the researchers stated that their oxytocin levels were similar to those expressed in a parent-child bond. Even Feldman was surprised: “The increase in oxytocin during the period of falling in love was the highest that we ever found," she said. It was also double the levels she had previously recorded in pregnant women, which is a peak time for oxytocin to prepare a mother to bond with her newborn.

Oxytocin levels at the start of a relationship are a good indicator of its staying power. It was a telling sign of which couples would last six months later. They touched each other more, they laughed together, they finished each other’s sentences. Interestingly, there was no difference between men's and women’s oxytocin levels. They both operated symbiotically: one partner’s oxytocin levels predicted the level of positive engagement and touch in the other.

Feldman and her colleagues called this a feedback loop: The more affection was expressed, the more it was reciprocated, and the more invested the couple felt in the relationship. She said, “Oxytocin can elicit loving behaviors, but giving and receiving these behaviors also promotes the release of oxytocin and leads to more of these behaviors.” It works in a beautiful, positive circular fashion: When you give love, you receive love, which makes you want to keep giving love. And it works the same for men and women.

Adapted from Think Like a Girl.

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