Have you heard of the saying: “A hug a day keeps the doctor away?” Perhaps, not.
Probably because it’s not a saying. But it’s certainly an assertion scientists have previously made based on the immunity-boosting health benefits of hugs. Hugs are society’s favorite form of expressing affection; this may be because they increase the oxytocin levels — or the “cuddle hormone” — in our bodies, leading people to associate the gesture with feelings of happiness.
But there is no conclusive formula of what is the “best” way to hug someone. How long should you hold people for? How much pressure should you apply? How should you cross your arms while holding people? So many questions. If you have ever wondered about these — or, like me, felt anxious about not knowing the right way to hug people — scientists recently decoded what makes a hug rather “pleasurable.”
Published in Acta Psychologica this month, a new study attempted to assess, and even quantify, the factors which influence how much we enjoy hugs.
Turns out, for most people hugs that lasted less than one second were the least pleasurable; the ones lasting between five to 10 seconds, the most. “If 10 seconds sounds like an uncomfortably long time to hug a stranger, you’re not alone,” Science reported, noting the findings surprised even the authors of the study.
Additionally, “something that I would’ve liked to see in the study is the condition where you really extend the hug even more,” Julian Packheiser, a biopsychologist at Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Germany, who studies the effects of hugs on the body and brain, noted. He was not involved in the present research.
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Then there is the matter of the style of hugging. The researchers noted neither the emotional closeness nor the height of people looking to lock each other in an embrace had much bearing on their style of hugging. However, if two people were of nearly the same height, the “neck-waist approach” was found to be slightly more common than when their heights differed drastically.
In general though, the “crisscross style” was found to be way more common than other approaches — accounting for almost 66 out of every 100 hugs. Scientists believe the “crisscross style” is something people perceive as “more egalitarian,” or “convey[ing] closeness without adding romantic subtext.” That explains why an overwhelming number of pairs of two men — 82% — preferred this style while hugging each other.
As an article in GQ stated, “admittedly primitive heterosexual norms… deem tenderness among males not ‘masculine.”‘ Then again, the present study isn’t really clear on how many of the men involved were heterosexual.
Unfortunately, the study didn’t focus on decoding the “right” amount of pressure to apply while hugging them. But hug-scientists do have their theories on the matter. “If it’s a romantic thing, [pressure] can be much more than if it’s a casual thing,” Packheiser explained.
The study sums up its finding on “pleasurable hugs” thus: “We advise using a five-second criss-cross hug to model a familiar and pleasant type of experience.”
For more questions about hugs that the present study didn’t answer, thankfully, this is hardly the first time scientists have tried to understand hugging norms. A 2018 study found that most people prefer right-sided hugs — even though left-sided hugs were found to be more common in positive as well as negative situations.
“This is because of the influence of the right hemisphere [of the brain], which controls the left side of the body and processes both positive and negative emotions… When people hug, emotional and motor networks in the [right hemisphere of the] brain interact and cause a stronger drift to the left in emotional contexts,” Packheiser, who was the lead author of the 2018 study, had said, explaining what makes people prefer the right side slightly more.
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If you have more questions still (I do too!), you may find solace in this note from the present research: “We anticipate that the studies presented here will provide a foundation for future research on pleasant touch, especially for research on hugs, which are highly prevalent but still widely understudied.”
Isn’t it great timing for the study findings to be published right before the holiday season though — a ready reckoner of sorts? However, as wholesome as hugs might feel to many, it’s also important to remember that not everyone enjoys a “jaadoo ki jhappi.”
Some people suffer from haphephobia, or a fear of being touched, which can make hugs overwhelming for them. People may spiral into nausea, hyperventilation, or even, panic attacks; while the causes of haphephobia remain unknown, experts hypothesize it is a result of trauma. For several people on the autism spectrum too, hugs can be uncomfortable. As an autistic person, I have been secretly rejoicing the hug-less state of affairs, and hoping for a more hug-averse society.
Social anxiety, too, can make people hug-avoidant. “People who have higher levels of social anxiety, in general, may be hesitant to engage in affectionate touches with others, including friends,” Suzanne Degges-White, a professor of Counseling and Counselor Education at Northern Illinois University, in the U.S., explained.
In the meantime, it’s important to bear in mind that we’re still caught in the middle of a global health crisis — with experts even worrying that India may face the third wave in December. So, there’s wisdom in being cautious and following social distancing norms.
But decoding the mystery of hugs, and the many nuances at play here, may make touch more considerate and comforting.