women hugging
Julie Hambleton
Julie Hambleton
May 12, 2024 ·  7 min read

Hugging is The Most Beautiful Form of Communication

Hugging – the act of embracing someone else – has been used since the beginning of time to express comfort and support. We hug when we’re happy, sad, scared, proud, excited, grieving, and everything in between. Hugging makes bad times feel better and good times extraordinary – and now we actually have scientific proof as to why.

The Science Behind Hugging

The physical act of a hug can convey so much more than any language ever could. A 2018 German study looked at the way we hug in various emotional settings to determine any patterns between the way we hug and how we are feeling in that moment. (1)

First off, they noted from a previous South African study that in most cases when people embrace each other, they lead with one arm over the other. (2) The German went to an airport where they studied 2,500 hugs. (1)

In order to study both positive and negative emotional situations, they watched how people hugged at both the departure gate for negative emotions and the arrivals gate for positive ones. For neutral situations, they watched videos of blindfolded people offering strangers hugs on the street. (1)

The Study Results

Their study produced some rather interesting results about the driving factors in the brain behind how we hug: Motor versus emotional networks. (1)

  • Most people showed a preference for right-sided hugs in all three situations (Motor) (1)
  • Left-sided hugs occurred more frequently in emotional situations, both negative and positive (Emotional) (1)

The question is now why emotional situations cause many of us to hug differently than neutral ones? The study team had a theory: The left side of the body is controlled by the right side of the brain. The right half of our brain is largely responsible for processing emotions. This might be what causes the switch to lead with the left arm while hugging in an emotional setting. (1)

Part Two of the Study

Next, the team tested this theory by having people listen to stories designed to produce positive, negative, and neutral emotions. They had each participant fill out a questionnaire to determine whether they were right or left-hand dominant. Then, after listening to each story, they had those people hug mannequins. (1)

The results were (1):

  • Emotional situations lead to more left-arm lead hugs
  • Right-handed participants lead their hugs with their right arm more often than left-handed participants

This shows that hugging is controlled by both the motor and emotional centers of the brain. Interestingly, men tended to hug leading with their left when hugging other men in any situation. The researchers believe that perhaps men feel more negative regarding this situation in general, hence the left-arm-lead hug. (1)

Read: Why a Maternal Grandmother Is So Important for a Child

Health Benefits of Hugging

Now that we sort of understand why we hug and why we hug the way that we do, let’s explore some of the potential benefits. It turns out hugs can have a positive effect on our health and well being. Here are five potential benefits:

1. Reduce Stress

When a friend or loved one is going through a hard time, we often hug them to show our support and that we care. When we receive a hug, oxytocin – the “happy” endorphin or “cuddle chemical” – is released into our brains. This effectively lowers stress and makes us feel better. (3)

It turns out, however, that giving someone in need a hug actually reduces your stress, too. When we give a hug, we get just as much out of it as the person we are hugging. (4) To top it off, giving and receiving more hugs in general actually helps you better deal with negativity and interpersonal conflicts throughout your day. (3)

“Hugs cause a decrease in the release of cortisol, a stress hormone,” says psychologist Dr. Joe Rock. (5)

Particularly within a relationship, partners who hug each other more will be more equipped to handle disagreements and conflict within their relationship. Consider this as permission to hug and hold hands with your partner as much as possible. (3)

2. May help lower blood pressure

Hugging could support your heart health.

“other research indicates that hugs decrease your blood pressure and heart rate in stressful situations.” says Dr. Rock. (5)

A study done on premenopausal women found that those who were hugged by their partners more often had higher levels of oxytocin, lower blood pressure, and lower resting heart rates. (7)

Another study on physical affection and romantic partners studied two groups of about 100 couples. (8)

The first group held hands for 10 minutes and then gave each other a 20-second-long hug. The second group simply sat together in silence for 10 minutes and 20 seconds. They were then told they had to complete a public speaking task. (8)

The first group had a lower heart rate and blood pressure in response than the no-contact group. (8)

3. Hugging Makes You Happier

Again, thanks to the release of oxytocin, hugging makes people happier. Oxytocin is a major player in human bonding, generosity, and trust between people. As we already know, it decreases stress and calms the nervous system. (9)

Oxytocin facilitates relationships – romantic, familial, and friendship – which are associated with positive social behaviors. Having healthy, loving, and supportive relationships in your life are associated with life satisfaction and, of course, happiness. (10)

4. Reduce Pain and Fear

Researchers have found that physical touch, which includes hugging, can decrease anxiety and make pain, well, less painful.

Particularly in individuals with low self-esteem, hugs can make people feel better about themselves and their lives. (11) A study done on patients with fibromyalgia showed light touching causes a decrease in perceived pain and an increase in perceived quality of life. (12

Yet again, we have oxytocin to thank. (13)

5. Communication

Finally, hugging others actually improves your ability to communicate with them, in particular, how you are feeling. This is because hugging is a form of physical touch. One study on complete strangers tested this by physically touching different areas of their bodies. (14)

Despite not knowing these people, the touch allowed them to open up about a variety of emotions, including (14):

  • Sympathy
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Disgust
  • Love
  • Gratitude

If you want someone to feel more comfortable and open up to you, try giving them a hug first.

Read: Always Be Grateful For What You Have No Matter How Hard Life Gets

How to Give the Perfect Hug

We have all met those people who are just simply the best huggers. Chances are these people use the H.U.G. method, many of them without realizing it. (15)

H: Hold On Tight

When you hug, make sure it is a solid, firm embrace – maybe even include a squeeze or two in there. This deep pressure kicks all the previously mentioned benefits into overdrive. (15) Think of it as if you are trying to squeeze as much oxytocin out of the pituitary gland (the gland that releases oxytocin) and into the other person’s bloodstream. (10)

The more oxytocin, the better the effects. (15)

U: Until You Relax

Again, the goal is to release as much oxytocin as possible. If you only give someone a quick squeeze, you don’t give your pituitary gland a chance to do its job. Some say you should hold a hug for at least 20 seconds, but there isn’t much scientific evidence to support it. (15)

Instead, follow the rule of hugging the other person until both of you feel relaxed.

G: Grow Your Bond

Chances are you feel more comfortable hugging someone you know well and who you consider a close relationship in your life than someone you’ve only just met. (15)

Growing your bond and trust with that person is all about frequency – the more often you hug someone, the more comfortable those hugs will be. As you and that other person become closer, your hugs can become longer and stronger without either person feeling awkward about it. (15)

One Day We’ll Hug Again

Though we can’t hug people much right now, use this time of social distancing to practice. Practice hugging on a pillow, your dog, or your partner, so that when the pandemic is over you’ll be the best hugger ever.

Keep Reading: “The Saddest People Always Try Their Hardest to Make People Happy.” 15 Lessons From Robin Williams


  1. Embracing your emotions: affective state impacts lateralisation of human embraces.” Springer. Julian Packheiser, et al. January 18, 2018.
  2. Lateral Preferences in Adult Embracing: A Test of the “Hemispheric Asymmetry” Theory of Infant Cradling.” Tandfonline. O.H Turnbull, et al. July 6, 2010.
  3. Receiving a hug is associated with the attenuation of negative mood that occurs on days with interpersonal conflict.” NCBI. Michael L M Murphy, et al. 2018.
  4. Neural correlates of giving support to a loved one.” NCBI. Tristen K Inagaki, et al. 2012.
  5. Why Hugging Is Actually Good for Your Health.”Cleveland Clinic. October 21, 2020.
  6. Does Hugging Provide Stress-Buffering Social Support? A Study of Susceptibility to Upper Respiratory Infection and Illness.” Sage Journals. Sheldon Cohen, et al. December 19, 2014.
  7. More frequent partner hugs and higher oxytocin levels are linked to lower blood pressure and heart rate in premenopausal women.” Science Direct. Kathleen C. Light, et al. April 2005.
  8. Warm partner contact is related to lower cardiovascular reactivity.” NCBI. Karen M Grewen, et al. 2003.
  9. Oxytocin, the cuddle hormone.” Atlas Bio Med. May 27.
  10. Happiness & Health: The Biological Factors- Systematic Review Article.” NCBI. Dariush DFARHUD, et al. November 2014.
  11. Touch May Alleviate Existential Fears for People With Low Self-Esteem.” APS. November 6, 2013.
  12. Touch the Pain Away: New Research on Therapeutic Touch and Persons With Fibromyalgia Syndrome.” Journals. Barbara Denison.
  13. Cuddle hormone relieves pain.” MPG. March 7, 2016.
  14. The communication of emotion via touch.Psyc Net. Hertenstein, Matthew J, et al.
  15. Here’s How Science Says You Can Give The Perfect Hug (Once Social Distancing Is Over). Forbes. Alison Escalante. June 9, 2020.