How to Give the Perfect Hug (according to science)
With on-again, off-again lockdowns, or at least social distancing recommendations, one thing many of us miss the most is hugs. This is especially true for those who live alone or away from close friends and family. Make no mistake, the benefits of hugging are plentiful. What makes a good hug? Can you become a better hugger? Surprisingly, researchers have found answers on how to give a perfect hug.
The Perfect Hug: Take Your Time
Should you go in for a long hug? Or does that risk becoming awkward? Are shorter hugs better?
Before we go into the science of the hug, the first thing to consider is if you and your hugging partner are both huggers in the first place. Some people aren’t. So before going in for any hug, especially with someone new, check-in verbally. In other words, ask—can I hug you?
Once given the go-ahead, longer hugs, it turns out, are better. In studies with robots (yes, as in when people hugged robots), the longer hugs were described as more social, caring, comforting, and even happy.
When looking at hugs between humans, according to the researchers at Goldsmiths, University of London, hugs that lasted five to ten seconds were rated more pleasant to receive and more under control than a brief one-second hug.
While longer hugs of over 10 seconds weren’t studied, that doesn’t mean you have to stop at the 10-second mark. Some people prefer 20 seconds. Others hug loved ones until they feel themselves and their hugging partners relax.
Choosing Your Perfect Hug Position
The duration of the hug appears to matter most, but what about the position? For example, should you go with a big bear hug (arms around the waist or the neck, depending on the height difference) or in a crisscross manner with one arm over the shoulder and the other around the back?
Crisscross hugs are typically more common, especially between men, than neck-waist or bear hugs. So, especially if hugging someone new, the crisscross hug may be the most comfortable. Research found it to be rated as “more egalitarian, intimate, and positive” than the other forms of hugging. That said, any hug is better than no hug, so choose whatever type of hug works best for you and your hugging partner.
The research, unfortunately, didn’t study longer hugs, how much you should squeeze, or how much the relationship between the huggers plays a role in the benefits of the hug.
Benefits of Hugging
Most of us give lots of hugs in everyday life. We hug when we’re happy, when we’re sad, when we’re excited, to provide comfort, or just to say hello. And there’s very good reason to keep hugging.
For example, hugs can…
- Provide emotional support and connection
- Create, maintain, and grow social bonds, including with romantic partners, friends, and children
- Communicate emotions
- Help buffer stress and lower cortisol levels
- Decrease physiological signs of stress and anxiety
- Release endorphins, which stimulates feelings of pleasure and well-being
- Lower blood pressure and heart rate
- Promote heart health
- Decrease fear
- Lower levels of proinflammatory cytokines
- Improve immune system response to help ward off infections, including the common cold
- Promote sleep
- Lower pain
- Increase feelings of safety
- Help us feel healthier and happier
Hugs are beneficial whether you’re the one giving or the one receiving the hug.
Cultivating the Perfect Hug: A Recap
At the very least, this time in history has helped many appreciate hugs more than ever before. While safety is important, it’s equally important that we don’t forget the healing power of touch. Social isolation and loneliness don’t just contribute to feeling low; they can also increase the risk of premature death.
And in today’s rushed, competitive, and stressful world, most of us appear to indeed be seriously hug-deprived.
How many hugs do we need for optimal health? According to one family therapist, “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.”
What if you’re not a hugger—or at least not ready to hug right now? Start by embracing yourself, finding a pet to cuddle, or even putting your arms around a tree. All three have been shown to provide at least some of the benefits of touch many of us have been craving.
For those of us who are ready to get our hugs on, the most pleasant hugs are those that last between five and ten seconds with crisscrossed arms. I personally look forward to when we’re back to saying hello with a hug! In the meantime, I’ll give as many hugs as possible to those who share my household—humans as well as dogs and even the cat for the numerous benefits on the bodies and brains of all involved.