• Two women are sitting close together.

    The symphony of the happiness hormone: The magic of the embrace.

    Why hugs and cuddles are so vital to our well-being.

Needs and wants.

“This day may contain traces of must” proclaims the graffiti on the wall of a house in Berlin. A passer-by stops, takes a photo. Click, he sends it to his friend on WhatsApp. Just ten clicks later and these seven words have spread all across the internet via blogs, Pinterest and Instagram. Today there are even T-shirts and fridge magnets bearing the phrase. A successful little sentence. A play on words that says a lot about the lives we live, governed by “must”, with hardly any room left for “may”. Everywhere we go, this prescription-like approach applies a bit of pressure and a bit of discipline at the same time. It’s even more difficult to recommend something without it being seen as pressure. Not even when it’s prescribed by the doctor or a self-help book: we’re talking about hugs here.

Two women hug each other in a romantic garden.
Two women hug each other.

Why we hug and why we love it.

The hug is possibly one of the oldest gestures of affection practised among human beings. Hugs are not only commonplace in all cultures, they also occur among our relatives in the primate world – an important indication that we humans were hugging even before we had evolved into homo sapiens. Some researchers believe that hugging is embedded in our genes as an essential behavioural characteristic. Indeed, there is something incredibly intimate within this very simple action. We press all our vital organs together, feel the other person’s heartbeat and offer mutual protection, assuming the hug is meant sincerely. It’s no surprise that hugging plays a part in the three most important social interactions: greetings, farewells and reconciliation.

  • Two hands.

Can we hug ourselves healthy?

“Everyone’s looking for the wonder cure that will let them live longer and make them healthy. Hugging is so simple – and it doesn’t cost a penny!” said Kevin Zaborney, founder of National Hugging Day in an interview with Spiegel magazine. His comment is backed up by the feeling of well-being a good hug triggers, as well as being supported by a number of academic studies. Clinical research has been conducted to measure the physical and psychological effects of closeness and regular hugs. A glance at our hormone levels is enough to provide the evidence:

A hug that lasts longer than 20 seconds produces the happiness hormone oxytocin, which has a positive effect on the heart and blood pressure. And, at the same time, the level of the stress hormone cortisol is lowered. In further studies it has been found that hugging reinforces our immune system, improving recuperation from injuries and relieving pain. On a psychological level, an important role is played by the hormone serotonin, which is also generated by a hug. Serotonin makes us feel more content in ourselves and increases our level of self-esteem.

Woman holds another woman in her arms.

Hugging as a relaxing ritual.

Despite all the healthy advantages hugging can bring, there is no point in forcing it: in all the studies, the quality of the hug was a key factor. A comforting gesture of this kind in particular should not be practised for the purpose of health care. However, perhaps we can use the findings of this research as a little reminder to ask whether we do actually hug our nearest and dearest on a regular basis. Nothing is more grounding or relaxing than a heartfelt hug. Some people need a fixed rule to tell them how often they should have a hug each day. Others perhaps just enjoy hugging friends, colleagues, strangers, pets and even trees as often as they please. But it should never be a case of “must”.