When my father got married to my mother more than 25 years ago, he wrote her several love letters. In one of them, he wrote something along the likes of this: “What is this ‘hugs’ business that your family is so fond of. I lost count of the times I was hugged by your relatives. It was a new experience for me.” Even today, my mother’s side of the family is very liberal with hugs. When I attempt to hug someone from my father’s side, there is a squirming awkwardness. The timing is off almost always, and the hug becomes a brief collision of bodies, leading to an uneasy after-hug moment. After that, goodbyes become accelerated, doors smack shut, and cars exit the gate with Formula One speed.
But there’s nothing as uplifting as a hug done right. I remember once I was feeling terrible about something that had gone wrong in my life. Right at that moment, my brother enfolded me in a warm embrace and I was sure, at that moment, that everything was going to be alright. It was the right hug at the right time by the right person, like coming across a McDonalds right at the moment you were dreaming about a McChicken double decker burger with extra cheese.
Scientifically, too, hugs seem to tick all the right boxes for a happy and contented life. Apparently, when you hug someone, the chemical oxytocin is released, promoting feelings of “devotion, trust and bonding”. It can also lead to physiological changes like lowering blood pressure by activating pressure receptors on your skin which send signals to the area of your brain that controls blood pressure. One research team documented the relation between hugs shared by members of sports teams and the success they enjoyed. The more hip bumps and bear hugs a team shared at the beginning of the season, the better they played by the end.
Unfortunately, in an increasingly isolated world, everyone is turning into my father’s family. We no longer know how to relate to others through the sensation of touch. That’s why hugs are being offered on the streets by random strangers. The ‘Free Hugs Campaign’ was started by someone called Juan Mann in 2001 and went viral when it was featured in a music video by an Australian band. During the Brexit movement, a group of Europeans started the #hugabrit campaign, in which they published pictures of them hugging a Brit to convince them to stay in the EU. The Japanese have introduced something called a soineya, or a cuddle café, where you can pay to get hugs of 20 minutes or longer. But can these hugs by people who mean nothing to you really help in alleviating stress, sadness, or loneliness?
Apparently not. According to Oxford professor Robin Dunbar, “the extent to which the experience of hugging gives us pleasure and helps bond relationships has a deep psychological component. Somewhere in the brain’s frontal lobes is a mechanism that can switch touch from being pleasurable to being unpleasant if the wrong person does it.” If you want to test what you feel for your boyfriend this Valentine’s Day, just hug him tight and see if that fuzzy feeling in your tummy is love, or merely his belly-button piercing.