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3 Important Findings About Hugs and Happiness

When it's been a while, a hug delivers a major mood boost.

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A heartfelt hug can make us feel better in the worst of situations that can happen in life, but psychological research on hugging on mood is still rather rare. A new scientific study, now published in Health Communication (Packheiser et al., 2023), focused on investigating how hugging affects mood. (Disclaimer: I was one of the authors of this study.) In particular, we were interested in whether hugging had a stronger effect on mood during the COVID-19 pandemic, which was associated with a drastic decrease in social interaction compared to the time before the pandemic.

A New Study on Hugging and Mood

My co-authors tested two groups of German volunteers. The first group of 94 volunteers was tested before the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, this group experienced a normal social life and no social isolation regulation due to the pandemic. The second group of 104 volunteers was tested in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, this group had reduced social contact due to pandemic-related social isolation rules in Germany at that time.

Both groups of volunteers were tested with a research method called “Ecological Momentary Assessment” (or, in short: EMA). EMA means they were not tested in a university's psychological laboratory but were invited to fill out a short questionnaire on their smartphone or laptop for several consecutive days. This way, we tried to get a more realistic view of everyday hugging behavior than with tests in a laboratory.

1. People hugged less during the COVID-19 pandemic than before.

Before the pandemic, people hugged an average of 6.29 times per day. During the pandemic, this number significantly decreased to 2.64 times per day. This probably reflects that people could still hug the people they lived together within the same household during the pandemic. However, they likely had much fewer chances to hug other friends or family members they would normally see at social gatherings like parties which were much less likely to happen during the pandemic.

2. Before the pandemic, people hugged more on weekends. But during the pandemic, there was no difference between the days of the week and hugging.

The next interesting finding was that before the pandemic, people hugged more on weekends than on weekdays. For example, in the pre-pandemic group of volunteers, people hugged about 10 times on average on a Saturday but only four times on a Tuesday. This probably reflects that people meet more other people that they would like to hug on the weekend, for example, If they go to parties. On weekdays, most people spend a lot of time at work, where hugs may be considered unprofessional in many companies. In contrast to before the pandemic, there was no weekend effect for hugging during the pandemic, probably because there were not so many social gatherings on weekends.

3. Hugs make us feel better–even more so during social isolation.

Receiving more hugs in everyday life was associated with a better mood, but this result had an interesting twist. During the pandemic, when people hugged much less than before, there was a substantially stronger association between hugging and a good mood. Thus, when hugs were rare, their positive effect on mood was much stronger.

There may be different explanations for this effect. On the one hand, hugs have been shown to reduce stress, and many people were rather stressed during the pandemic for several reasons. Relieving stress by getting a hug may have had a stronger effect on a positive mood during the pandemic. On the other hand, it has been shown that a lack of affectionate touch may negatively impact mental health. Thus, hugs may have been important for a good mood in tough times by reducing such negative thoughts and feelings. These results also suggest that the people who received the fewest hugs may have the most positive effects.

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Packheiser J, Sommer L, Wüllner M, Malek IM, Reichart JS, Katona L, Luhmann M, Ocklenburg S. A (2023). Comparison of Hugging Frequency and Its Association with Momentary Mood Before and During COVID-19 Using Ecological Momentary Assessment. Health Commun, 1-9, epub ahead of print.

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