- Research shows that getting hugged by others, but also hugging yourself, may reduce stress hormones.
- Longer hugs are perceived as more pleasant than shorter hugs.
- Older people who at least occasionally get hugs tend to feel better about their health.
During the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns and restrictions, one of the things many people missed most was getting hugged by their loved ones. This led to an increased interest in the positive effects of hugging in the psychology research community and several studies published over the last year have yielded new insights on what it means to us to be hugged. Here are four of the most interesting new insights into the science of hugging.
1. Getting hugged by others, but also hugging yourself, reduces stress hormones
A recent study by researcher Aljoscha Dreisoerner from the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, and his team focused on the positive effects of hugging on stress (Dreisoerner et al., 2021). Interestingly, the scientists not only investigated how getting hugged by other people could reduce stress, but also whether hugging yourself (e.g., when other people are not available during a lockdown) does also have a positive effect on stress. The scientists stressed 159 volunteers using the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST), a standard stress induction method in which people are stressed by asking them to perform a fake job interview. Volunteers also gave saliva samples, so their cortisol (an important stress hormone) could be measured. Volunteers were assigned to three different conditions. They either were hugged for 20 seconds by an assistant of the scientists, hugged themselves for 20 seconds, or received no hugs and were asked to build a paper plane. The results showed clearly that volunteers in both the hugging and the self-hugging condition showed lower cortisol levels than those in the control condition. Thus, getting hugged by other people, but also hugging oneself, reduces the negative effects of stress.
2. Hugging duration is important for mood
Most people would agree that hugging has a positive effect on mood—we just feel ever so slightly better if a loved one gave us a heartfelt hug. But what influences how hugging affects mood? A recent study by researcher Anna L. Dueren from the Department of Psychology, at the University of London, U.K., and her team focused on the question of what influences the effect of hugging on mood (Dueren et al., 2021). In the study, the 45 women hugged a confederate of the researcher for either one second, five seconds, or 10 seconds and reported how the hug felt. The results were clear: five-second and 10-second hugs both were rated as more pleasant than one-second hugs. Thus, the optimal hug should be at least five seconds long.
3. Hugs and health are related in older adults
A recent study by researcher Tia Rogers-Jarrell from the School of Kinesiology and Health Science at York University in Toronto, Canada, and her team focused on the positive effects of hugging on older adults (Rogers-Jarrell et al., 2021). Previously, not much was known on whether hugging had different psychological effects in different life phases and the researchers made an important contribution to get a better understanding of the role of hugging in different life phases. The researchers analyzed data from more than 20,000 people aged 65 years or greater from the Canadian Community Health Survey.
Importantly, the researchers found that those older adults that indicated that they had hugs available to them “some,” “most,” or even “all” of the time had a higher probability to also indicate higher self-rated health than older people who reported to never have the opportunity to get hugged. This effect stayed statistically significant after the researchers controlled for many potential influence factors such as relationship status, income, chronic illnesses, and many others. This suggests a strong association between hugging and health. Older people who received hugs at least some of the time felt healthier than those who did not.
4. Culture influences how we hug
A recent international multi-center study led by researcher Agnieszka Sorokowska from the University of Wroclaw, Poland, investigated which factors influence whether people show affective touch behaviors like kissing or hugging (Sorokowska et al., 2021). The researchers analyzed data from over 14,000 individuals from 45 countries. The researchers found that overall, 92.6% of people investigated in the study had shown any form of emotional touch towards their partners in the week before data collection. However, there were large differences between countries, with people in less conservative and less religious countries showing more emotional touch. Moreover, people in warmer countries showed more emotional touch, probably because living in a warmer country allowed for more possibilities to meet other people because of a greater number of outdoor activities. Moreover, the individual characteristics of the volunteers influenced the frequency of emotional touch. Younger people showed more emotional touch than older people. While men and women hugged and kissed their partners similarly often, women hugged friends and children more often than men. Also, liberal people showed more emotional touch than conservative people.
Taken together, the research shows that cultural factors have a strong influence on whether people enjoy hugging or avoid it. However, individual factors also play a big role in our hugging behavior. Only by integrating both, hugging can be properly understood.
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Dreisoerner A, Junker NM, Schlotz W, Heimrich J, Bloemeke S, Ditzen B, van Dick R. (2021). Self-soothing touch and being hugged reduce cortisol responses to stress: A randomized controlled trial on stress, physical touch, and social identity. Comprehensive Psychoneuroendocrinology, 8, 100091.
Dueren AL, Vafeiadou A, Edgar C, Banissy MJ. (2021). The influence of duration, arm crossing style, gender, and emotional closeness on hugging behaviour. Acta Psychol (Amst), 221, 103441.
Rogers-Jarrell T, Eswaran A, Meisner BA. (2021). Extend an Embrace: The Availability of Hugs Is an Associate of Higher Self-Rated Health in Later Life. Res Aging, 43, 227-236.
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