The common wisdom is that a person needs four hugs a day for survival, eight for maintenance, and twelve for growth. I doubt that this is confirmed by any scientific studies and I doubt that it is true. If it were, there would be millions of people on Earth who would not survive.
I would be one of them. Despite being married to one of the two truly world-class huggers I’ve met in my life, I do not get my four-a-day. And certainly not twelve. Assuming eight hours a day for sleep and eight hours a day for work, that would leave eight hours to work in twelve hugs. That’s one and a half hugs per hour, and I suspect half a hug just won’t do.
In fact, I know it won’t. Scientific research has been done on the 20-second hug. It releases oxytocin, a pleasure and bonding chemical in the brain. Half a hug would need to be 40 seconds long to do the proper amount of good, and young lovers and newlyweds tend to be the only people who give hugs of that duration.
Then there’s the question of what constitutes a hug. For greatest oxytocin effect, I would recommend the full body hug – toe to toe, torso to torso, heads on shoulders, arms tightly squeezing. But you probably can’t give that particular hug when you run into an acquaintance in the supermarket, especially not 20 seconds worth, without blocking the aisles.
Other variations of hugs that may be less effective are the side-by-side one-shoulder squeeze (and the multi-person variant, the Big Group Hug), the manly back-thumping, and the A-frame hug (standing a distance apart and leaning in for a hug from the shoulders up). Then there are the virtual hug, usually written ((hug)), with the number of parens indicating the length/intensity of the hug, and the proxy hug, in which you delegate a person to pass along a hug when you’re not able to be there. None of these seem really conducive to the 20-second, made-for-thriving hug.
But, on some level, we know that hugs are therapeutic. Oxytocin or whatever, they make us feel better. Lots of hugging goes on at support and 12-step groups, and people who go to those daily might indeed make their recommended quota.
I go to private psychotherapy, however. I’ve never hugged my therapist, and am not even sure whether it’s appropriate for therapist and client to hug. It would be awkward to ask, “Can I have a hug?” only to hear, “No. That’s unethical.” But I suppose it depends on the therapist and the client and how each feels about the subject. I know sex is unethical, but hugs may be a gray area. Perhaps someone can enlighten me.
Of course, there are people who do not like to – or are afraid to – touch other people. Think Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory. People who are aware of and skilled in responding to others’ body language may be able to see the little (or, let’s face it, large) cringe when one person sees another moving forward with open arms. If the non-hugger is quick enough, he or she can quickly stick out a hand for a hearty handshake, or the potential hugger will abort the hug and retreat to a friendly tap on the shoulder.
But there are people who will swoop in and envelop you in an unwanted embrace and maybe even air kisses with smacking noises. I suspect these would be more likely to shut down oxytocin entirely, and possibly release adrenaline instead in a fight-or-flight response.
As with sex, the safest route is to ask for consent – “Can I have a hug?” – and take no – “I’d rather not” – for an answer, without taking offense or pressuring – “Aw, c’mon” – and making things even more awkward.
Still, the best advice I can give is to be proactive about hugging. Say, “I need a hug” when you do. Ask “Do you need/want a hug?” when a person you know seems to be in distress.
Avoid hugging strangers, though. That hardly ever helps. At least wait until you’ve been properly introduced.