Why Do We Hug Each Other?
The Answer is Science. It's Science. (Also It's Nice)
Maybe you’ve heard it said that each time someone embraces you warmly, your life is extended by one more day? Of course there is no way of verifying whether this is actually the case, but none of us will have any trouble understanding the message. When we find that things are getting tough, a warm, wordless embrace can have more healing power than a logical, point‑by‑point explanation of why things are so difficult. Although I cannot get rid of your pain, I will still stand by your side and stick with you even during the most difficult times. The warmest way of expressing this is through a hug.
When I first came to the United States, it took a long time for me to get used to the Western way of greeting someone. Instead of bowing politely in the traditional Korean way, I had to learn the casual, unreserved way that friends greet each other—a quick nod and a “hi” when you pass each other on the street. I had to learn that a handshake is not just clasping the other’s hand but also involves smiling, looking the other straight in the eye, and ensuring that your grip is not too strong and not too weak. But of all the various methods of greeting someone, the one that took me the longest to get used to was the hug. Especially since becoming a monk, I had become used to greeting people by hapjang—putting my palms together in front of my chest and bowing from the waist. Opening my arms wide and embracing someone made me feel somewhat shy and awkward.
But of course a greeting is not something that one does alone. If you are parting from someone and she opens her arms to hug you, holding out your hand for a handshake not only will make her flustered, but also suggests that you want to keep some distance, which could seem impolite. But after a while, once my relationship with a friend or colleague had become sufficiently close, I learned to hug. Mysteriously, the initial awkwardness has gradually disappeared, replaced with a sense of fellowship, intimacy, and warmth.
Recently I heard about some interesting studies about hugs—scientific verification that they do indeed have health benefits. Anthony Grant, a professor of psychology at the University of Sydney, presented research results showing that, in addition to reducing anxiety and loneliness, hugs lower our levels of the hormone cortisol, which gets secreted as a response to stress; this, in turn, strengthens immunity to pathogens and lowers blood pressure.A brief, warm morning hug with someone we love provides us with a protective layer, insulating us from the stress of the day.
And according to Karen Grewen of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, if a couple holds hands and hugs for 20 seconds before leaving the house in the morning, their stress index will be only half that of couples who do not do this. In other words, a brief, warm morning hug with someone we love provides us with a protective layer, insulating us from the stress of the day.
As a monk, there are times when I have to offer people such a protective layer. One such instance still lingers in my memory. It was at a book signing in a large bookstore in Seoul; I was signing one woman’s book when she suddenly said in a choked voice:
Haemin Sunim, two months ago my children’s father passed away in a car accident. I’ve been in such a state of shock that I’ve barely been outside these past two months. My younger brother gave me your book as a present, probably because he felt sorry for me; I cried so much while reading it, right from the first chapter. For some reason I got the idea that if only I could meet you, that would give me the courage to go on, and to look after my two children properly. I live in the countryside, but I got the train early this morning to come up to meet you in person.
Her voice was shaking, and her face was streaked with tears. In that moment, without realizing what I was doing, I got up from my seat, moved toward her, and opened my arms. After embracing her warmly for a while, I said: “I, too, will pray for your children’s departed father. His spirit will probably be watching you from the other world, seeing how you go on living, how well you look after the children. Right now you are terribly lonely, and life is very hard, but through this experience you will become stronger, wiser, and more compassionate. From now on, things will gradually get better. Don’t worry too much.”
I held her as she wept, and thought to myself: Though I am lacking in many ways, I want to be a person who can bring some small comfort to people, who can give them courage, like a ray of warm sunshine. If there is someone who needs a hug from me, I will do it willingly, gladly, and as often as they need. Those of you who are reading this, if you have family or friends who are going through a hard time, please remember to give them a warm hug now and then. Who knows, you really might extend their lives—and yours, too.
From LOVE FOR IMPERFECT THINGS by Haemin Sunim, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Haemin Sunim.