We are an oddly reserved society, here in Australia. For all our easy-going reputation, we tend to keep to ourselves for the most part. I know I harp on about the lack of “just dropping in” these days, but I think maybe that’s a symptom of something deeper. I’ve come to the conclusion that we just don’t touch each other enough.
The day my Dad died I was at work, and I was overwhelmed by hugs in the brief time between finding out and leaving the building. Those hugs kept me warm throughout that very, very rough day, and many days afterwards. Even now, nearly two months later, the memory of them lifts my mood and makes me smile.
Many of those hugs came from people who would not normally touch me. Friends, colleagues, and lovely people, they generally keep a respectful distance. I really needed hugs that day, and they arose quite spontaneously from gorgeous people who wanted to show their love and sympathy. Other days, though, most of us wouldn’t dream of hugging each other at work – or indeed anywhere else. Certainly there is an awareness of workplace norms, so that friends who might hug & kiss when they come over for dinner don’t greet each other that way at work, but I think it’s more than that.
I feel shy about asking for hugs, yet they are an amazing boost to my mood. It seems as though asking for a hug is an imposition, yet they are as beneficial and therapeutic for the hugger as for the huggee. There’s an awkwardness about asking for touch, but there’s also a fear of emotional complications. Too much touch has disturbing connotations. Because we are not a very tactile society, there is an expectation that being unusually tactile has sexual implications.
Oxytocin researcher Paul Zak says we need at least 8 hugs a day. Touch gives us a measurable oxytocin boost, which increases our empathy, trust, happiness, generosity and even our wound-healing ability! In short, touch makes us nicer people.
A dear friend recently sent me this fascinating TED talk, in which Jane McGonigal talks about simple ways we can make ourselves healthier and happier. One of her suggestions is touch – even a simple handshake can cause a measurable change in our oxytocin levels, and hence our behaviour. Another is to do something that makes us happy, to boost our positive emotions to balance the negative ones. “If you can manage to experience three positive emotions for every one negative emotion,” she says, “you dramatically improve your health and your ability to successfully tackle any problem you’re facing.”
Touch is a 3 for 1 deal, in that it boosts those positive emotions as well as boosting oxytocin, so it reinforces a positive cycle – feel good because you touched someone, which boosts your ocytocin, which makes you feel good, which makes you more likely to touch someone… and on and on, ad infinitum.
Of course, you can’t go from zero to hug monster in 0.3 seconds. I’m not about to waltz into work on Monday and hug everything that moves. I don’t have any easy answers here. I am trying to edge up my hug quota by seeking and offering more hugs, but that’s a cautious, long term project. There is no doubt that some people are uncomfortable with touch, so it’s important to choose your huggees with care and discretion. But at the very least least all those times when I feel like hugging someone and am not sure if it would be welcome, I can push past my shyness to ask: “would you like a hug?”
With those who I know hug freely, I can hug more often, and the world will be a slightly happier, more generous and trusting place – which sounds like something to celebrate. How about a hug?