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Science says hugs are healthy

Family therapist Virginia Satir is reported to have said, “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.”

That sounds about right to me. But it’s not happening in my life right now on any kind of regular basis. Yours? Maybe the “stay six feet away“ mandate and lessened physical connection on a regular basis over the last year is why there is so much anger and disruption in this world right now. Think about that.

The benefits of hugging are science-based. According to a 2018 article in Healthline, the benefits “go beyond the warm feeling you get when you hold someone in your arms.” Studies have demonstrated that people who are regularly touched and hugged have less overall stress, lower blood pressure, better heart health and an improved ability to manage pain.

I will use myself as an example. Over the Thanksgiving holiday I pulled a muscle in my back; wrestling with our too-heavy turkey was undoubtedly the cause. By mid-day Friday I was in absolute misery. Use of over-the-counter pain medications, a generous lathering of coconut oil and a heating pad were not effective.

We had a long-held appointment to do family pictures with a professional photographer who was waiting for us on the lawn outside our home. I was gingerly heading outside; fearful I would show up in the photos grimacing with discomfort or contorted in pain. Then it happened. As we walked out onto the lawn, my 8-year-old grandson came up next to me and placed his hand gently on my lower back — he left it there. The relief I felt was immediate. We have not seen the proofs yet, but I think the photos will be particularly awesome — and Jordan’s arm around me will be visible. Hope so.

Yet another personal illustration. I met a woman recently who has, for decades, been a “funeral speaker.” During the pandemic, her business boomed. She is good at what she does — spiritual but not ordained. She meets with family members, holds the hands of those close to the deceased, carefully interviews them and later thoughtfully presents the individual’s life-story, typically in an outdoor funeral setting.

Valerie told me that she sees death certificates that list “cause of death” as “loneliness, touch-deprivation.” When she told me, she got tears in her eyes. We hugged. We were acknowledging a reality she knew well and I had never considered; the hug was comforting to both of us.

I think it was a 10-second hug, which apparently is preferable. And, yes, there is both anecdotal report as well as research to support that piece of information. Whatever the length of a hug or the amount of time a hand is held, or how often touch is realized is up to each of us — all of us.

I hope this column underscores the importance of doing any of the above more often.

One final note: You can safely do “masked hugging” — with each person’s arms outreached, heads facing opposite directions. When you are fully vaccinated and boosted, you can go unmasked, making the whole hugging experience much more rewarding.

Sharon Johnson is a retired health educator. Reach her at sharjohn99@gmail.com.