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Hug It Out

Free hugs

Platonic, non-sexual, human touch is so important to us humans. A hug from a friend, a handshake, or a pat on the back, is how we express emotion without language. We thrive on human touch, yet in a world increasingly dominated by technology it’s becoming rare.

Juan Mann was all it took

In June 2004, an Australian using the pseudonym ‘Juan Mann’ started giving out free hugs in his local shopping centre. At a point of personal crisis with his parents having divorced and his fiancée breaking off their engagement, Mann realised that people were living lives which were more and more disconnected.

Mann went to the Pitt Street Mall in central Sydney with a hand written sign offering "Free Hugs". He stood holding his sign for what felt like a lifetime but was in fact only 15 minutes before an older lady took pity on him and gave him a hug. She told him her dog had just died and his hug had made her feel better. It wasn't long before Juan was hugging a stranger every few seconds. Each day more volunteers brought their own signs and came to stand alongside him. Free Hugs now have branches in Taiwan, Israel, Italy, America, Switzerland, Norway, India, Portugal and the UK. It seemed to really touch a nerve with people looking for some human contact. You can find out more about how Juan Mann’s story continued here and we dare you to watch this video without breaking into a huge smile.

Guerilla Hugs

Majella Greene is founder of Guerilla Hugs. She was concentrating on bringing up her son rather than her love life and before she knew it months had passed without her having any kind of platonic touch. Then one day, after helping out a friend’s uncle with a DIY job, he gave her a thank-you squeeze and it suddenly dawned on her that hugs were what she'd been missing. This made Majella wonder, were there other people out there who were in need of a hug?

Taking her inspiration from the Juan Mann mentioned above, and adding her knowledge of positive psychology - she has a Masters in Pos Psych - Majella got started setting up Guerilla Hugs; taking human touch to the masses, one hug at a time. In March 2011, with a small, but very friendly, band of guerrillas, headed out to Carnaby Street to hug the shoppers. They received such a great reaction that Greene has been encouraging strangers to hug ever since. With a growing fan base it’s getting bigger by the week.

Majella says, ‘the main thing is: Guerrilla Hugs are free. We make a positive impact on a large area by doing something simple and then we leave.’

Hug a stranger

So it’s OK for Juan and Majella to hug strangers, but could you really do it yourself? It’s actually easier than you think, I did it just the other weekend. We were on London’s Southbank on a Sunday afternoon and had a pretty stressful few hours – to cut a long story short, our 7 year old son collapsed out of the blue and we’d had to rush him over to St. Thomas’ Hospital, but all was OK and he’s fine – we’d promised to take him to the Shrek’s Adventure attraction and once he’d received the all clear that’s where we headed. At the end of the adventure you get to meet Shrek (or someone dressed as Shrek) and there was a guy helping him, taking photos with people’s phones. All the kids were hugging Shrek and when it was our turn I asked my son if he was going to hug him too. The guy helping said “oh, I thought you meant hug me, but no-one wants to hug me, only Shrek” to which I replied “I’ll give you a hug” and held out my open arms to him. He gave me a look of uncertainty, then smiled and headed in for a big hug. I realised then that I needed that hug too, I’d had to hide my panic and worry for my son and that hug let it all out. I definitely felt better, and I hope that guy did too. See, you can do it, it’s easy.

Don’t just take our word for it though, scientific research now shows physical touch really does help with the following.

Greater Trust

Touch helps to bond people together. Ray Williams explored this in his article for Psychology Today titled Why Have We Lost The Need For Physical Touch?. As he explains, “Neuroscientist Edmund Ross found that physical touch activates the brain’s orbitfrontal cortex, which is linked to feelings of reward and compassion. It activates the body’s vagus nerve, which is intimately involved with our compassion response and a simple touch can trigger release of oxytocin, aka ‘the love hormone.'”

Stronger Team Dynamics

Paul Zak, author of The Moral Molecule, argues, “We touch to initiate and sustain cooperation.” He conducted a neuroeconomics study from which he argues that hugs or handshakes are likely to cause the release of the neurochemical oxytocin, which increases the chances that a person will treat you “like family," even if you have just met. So that friendly high five with your colleague will help your working relationship too.

Greater Engagement with Learning

A study by French psychologist Nicolas Gueguen has found that when teachers pat students in a friendly way, those students are three times as likely to speak up in class and it encourages their learning. 

Touch is truly fundamental to human communication, bonding, and health and we should all do it more often. What are you waiting for, go hug a stranger!

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