“Can I just sit here and watch you and your kids for a while?” an elderly man asked me a few years ago. I looked at him in surprise; I was sitting in a Costco food court with my four small children who were doing their best to make me regret taking them out in public. Any reasonable person would have wanted to be as far away from us as possible—in fact, I was already dodging some dirty looks from other people—yet this man was looking at us with an intense kind of longing. A lot of people would have been creeped out and brushed him off but something told me to listen.
“It’s just, you remind me so much of my family when they were young and they’re all gone now,” he whispered. “My two boys died years ago, one in a motorcycle accident and the other of a heart attack. My wife died last year of cancer.”
My eyes immediately welled with tears as I saw my children in a new, softer light. Children aren’t supposed to die before their parents but it happens. How many times in later years would I look back on this moment and instead of seeing thrown food and fighting, I’d see these tiny faces I loved so much?
Hugging a complete stranger
So I did what came naturally to me: I asked him to join us. As he slid onto the bench next to me, I put my arms around him, my kids doing the same, turning it into a group hug. We learned a lot about Robert that day as we made a new friend but we also learned a lot about the power of a simple hug. (Not sure what you’d do? Here’s what to say to someone who’s lost a loved one.)
You might have figured this out by now but I’m a hugger
Friends, children, dogs, family, neighbors, people I just met on the plane: I love giving them all a warm squeeze when it’s appropriate. Yet I live in a world where touch of any kind, especially between people who aren’t related, is becoming more and more rare. These days it seems so many people prefer texting over talking, emails over in-person meetings, online gaming over board games, and even porn over real-life sex. So it probably isn’t surprising that while many people are happy to send virtual hugs, they balk at a true embrace. After all, it does make you vulnerable in a way few public things do.
But I’m not ready to give up embracing people—yes, even strangers sometimes—because I believe human touch can be an incredible force for good and I think this kind of platonic intimacy is something we need more of, not less. I’ve found this to be true in big and small ways over the years.
Nobody likes barfing alone
Most of us prefer to face the world with an invisible armor but there are some things that make even the strongest of us need others. Take, for instance, barfing. My children have puked down the back of my shirt more than once as their first instinct when they feel that sick is to seek comfort. But it’s not just kids—nobody like barfing alone. Nothing makes you confront your own mortality like hugging a toilet alone while you feel like you might die. Having a friend there to hold your hair, a partner to rub your back, or a parent to bring you a glass of water and give you a hug can make you feel better in a way no medicine can. (Unless they are a sympathetic puker and then they make the situation so much worse! If seeing other people barf makes you toss your cookies, just send your love from the other room, please.)
This isn’t just me being a giant weirdo; science agrees that hugging is powerful medicine.
Hugging lowers stress
Imagine getting hugged by one of your favorite people—you instantly feel a little more calm, a little less stressed, right? The stress-busting effects are even greater when the hugs are real, according to a study published in Psychological Science. People who report having strong social support—and hugs are one way people show their support—are partly protected from the effects of stress, the researchers reported.
Hugging boosts your immune system
Instead of an apple, a hug-a-day may keep the doctor away, according to the same study. Researchers surveyed over 400 people about their hugging behaviors and social support and then exposed them to a cold virus. They found that people who got hugged frequently were less likely to get sick and if they did, had less severe illness symptoms. Hugs may help protect you from getting sick by helping you feel supported by those around you and from the touch itself, they said. Hugging can also protect you from heart disease.
Hugging reduces anxiety and depression
Getting a snuggle helps protect people against some types of mental illness, according to a study published in PLoS ONE. If a person received a hug on the day they had some type of conflict, they were less emotionally affected by it, researchers found. And the positive mental effects lasted through the next day as well. More hugs meant less feelings of worry and sadness.
Hugging increases your emotional IQ
Experts say that everyone has some level of alexithymia—a personality trait that keeps people from sharing and understanding their feelings. However, both giving and receiving hugs can help you better understand your emotions and be more likely to open up about your struggles to others, according to a study published in Personality and Individual Differences. Having a higher “emotional IQ” has been linked to numerous positive social, mental, and physical benefits.
How to be a hugger
Now that I’ve got you feeling all warm and fuzzy, we need to talk about some of the rules of hugging. Because there is a right way and a lot of wrong ways to hug people—and I’ve done most of them.
Hug the right people
Babies and children are the easiest beings on the planet to snuggle. (I rank them as slightly more huggable than dogs because even though we all love cuddling our pets, experts say most dogs actually don’t actually like to be hugged.) As a mom, I quickly learned that almost nothing was better at soothing, comforting, or showing love than a big, squishy hug. Even though my oldest three are teenagers now and pretend they hate being hugged by their mom, I can still feel them relax when I wrap my arms around them. But this works because I’m their mom and parents have a unique relationship that allows for more physical contact than other people.
Romantic partners and other family members are usually a safe bet for a snuggle. However, you generally shouldn’t try to hug your coworkers or anyone acting in a professional capacity.
Know your hugs
Rarely is a full-body frontal clench appropriate. Thankfully there are lots of options to show physical support ranging from a light touch on the shoulder, to a one-armed side hug, to a quick two-armed hug where no other body parts touch.
Being a hugger doesn’t give you the right to break boundaries
Everyone’s been accosted by a hug from someone they’d rather not be touched by and it’s deeply unpleasant. Don’t be that hugger. Hugging people who don’t want to be hugged can not only backfire but it can get you into serious trouble. Hugging should never be harassing!
Not sure if someone would appreciate a hug? Ask them before going in for an embrace. Not everyone is a hugger and that’s fine. I always ask my friends when I first meet them if they like hugs or not—and I remember and respect their preference. I am also careful to ask children, especially other people’s kids, before I hug them. A lot of people forget that kids have bodily autonomy and the right to say how they are touched. And always ask first for strangers or people you’ve just met. Worried that asking for a hug on a first date will seem weird or needy? Ask anyhow: Consent is cool.
Don’t be afraid to ask for a hug
Asking for a hug can be nerve-wracking. What if you put yourself out there and they say no? A lot of people love to give hugs when asked nicely but even if they say no you’ve still let them know that you’re feeling upset and you’ve opened the door to other types of comfort, like a quiet conversation or a walk.
Hugging a stranger on an airplane
Being open to hugging others is delightful but being open to getting hugs can also be a powerful experience. One of my most beautiful hugs happened on a cross-country flight several years ago. My husband had lost his job and I was flying solo with a three-year-old, a two-year-old, and I was pregnant with another baby. I think most people who saw us coming considered jumping out of the emergency exits before we took off. (Parents: Make sure you know these 21 secrets to flying with kids.) But not one woman. This kind lady saw the tears in my exhausted eyes, marched up, put her arm around me, and said, “I’m going to sit next to you the whole flight and help you with these kids.” And she did. For five hours, she snuggled and sang to my cranky toddler, played games with my preschooler, and told me stories of her own three children. When we stood to get off the plane, she gave me one last giant hug, whispering, “You’ll be OK, you got this!” That hug meant everything to me in that moment. I still cry remembering it. And that is why I’ll always be a hugger. Hugging is such an easy, simple way to add a little light and kindness to the world—and it’s just not the same coming through a text. You could also try one of these 35 simple acts of kindness to brighten someone’s day.