Here's the thing. For an casual embrace to produce so many health (and social) benefits, why in the year 2016 are we still struggling to breakdown our walls of vulnerability? What does it take to just hug one another?
During my travels in Asia, I rarely saw this type of affectionate exchange (i.e. a hug just for the hell of it or to say hello/see you later). Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh writes about a hugging embrace as a cultural barrier of communication in his book How to Love.
"In 1966, a friend took me to the Atlanta Airport. When we were saying good-bye she asked, “Is it all right to hug a Buddhist monk?” In my country, we’re not used to expressing ourselves that way, but I thought, “I’m a Zen teacher. It should be no problem for me to do that.” So I said, “Why not?” and she hugged me, but I was quite stiff. While on the plane, I decided that if I wanted to work with friends in the West, I would have to learn the culture of the West."
Thich Nhat Hanh introduces the idea, that it's not enough to inauthentically hug someone for the sake of appearance, we need to be mindful of the person we are connecting with. Taking a moment to mindfully embrace the other person not only benefits us, but significantly improves their wellbeing as well.
"When we hug, our hearts connect and we know that we are not separate beings. Hugging with mindfulness and concentration can bring reconciliation, healing, understanding, and much happiness. The practice of mindful hugging has helped so many people to reconcile with each other — fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, friends and friends, and so many others."
In most parts of Europe and Australia, hugging is a fairly comfortable phenomenon. A hug is a big, compassionate embrace, between friends, family, and partners... More than just your run of mill pat on the back.
Here in Canada, and much of the United States, we hug often, but we do it hastily, as social protocol, without gratification. We're a bit guarded to say the least.
Admittedly, I used to be a “novice hugger”, awkwardly and half-ass hugging my way to 'hug liberation'.
Because of this, I asked a few Canadian and American friends of mine about their thoughts on hugging one another.
“I LOVE hugging. Sometimes I think I hug too much for others comfort. But I am a massage therapist, so maybe I just respond to touching in general.”
“We all need some touch.”
“I only give real two-armed hugs, but I sometimes one arm guys cause they may feel awkward.”
“Definitely a gateway drug.”
“Hugs are connection. Hugs are one beautiful way to show and share love.”
“I like real hugs…I was taught to hold a embrace for three deep breaths and then release with a ‘Namaste’.”
Of those I asked, nobody knew what a hug did for his or her own gratification, or more importantly, their health and well-being.
Whether your are a man or woman, child, adult, have three arms, or a tail... The effects of hugging one another is the same for me as it is for you.
Hugging IS like a drug and it's called Oxytocin.
A sincere hug, held for 20-30 seconds, actually triggers neurotransmitters in the brain, producing a chemical called oxytocin. This natural chemical offers many benefits to our physical and mental health, helping us to relax, to feel safe (trust), bond with others, and to heighten our happiness.
Hugging is brain science!
CREDIT: LOGAN PARSONS, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN
MOST IMPORTANT: Reduce stress
"Hand-holding or hugging also results in a decrease of the stress hormone cortisol", says Matt Hertenstein, an experimental psychologist at DePauw University in Indiana.
How to Hug
From this point on, you can choose to rewire how you think/feel about hugging another person. Start with those people in your life that you have already established a trusting relationship with, and be patient with yourself... this practice might seen a little awkward at first and that's ok!
Think back to the last really great hug you got from a friend, family or a loved one. Try to remember everything about that experience. Where you were, what sort of sounds and noise were happening around you... If you were at a restaurant or dinner party, recall some of the smells around you. What made that hug between you and that awesome person feel so great?
Stick with this positive memory for the next 30 seconds or more.
This natural recall of embrace will send small dose of oxytocin to your brain. Feels damn good doesn't it?
Start making more of these memories. Be that guy. Hold on a little bit longer than expected. An extra squeeze didn't hurt anyone either... Actually, it sort of helped.
*Disclaimer - Workplace hugs are touch and go (<< see what I did there) so please hug responsibly.