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Hugs Matter

written by Aren Cohen 9 February 2012

Aren Cohen, MBA, MAPP '07 is a learning specialist working with academically, motivationally and emotionally challenged students in the leading private schools in New York City. As shown in her website and blog, Strengths for Students, Aren uses the tenets of positive psychology to teach her students to use their strengths of character to change educational challenges into educational triumphs. Full bio. Aren's articles are here.

Free Hugs

One of my favorite YouTube videos is called “Free Hugs.”  The clip was filmed in Australia, where one day a young man, then a group of people decided to stand in a mall and offer free hugs.  The video is amazing.  People’s responses, including the police trying to shut them down, are quite profound and moving. 

Each time I see it, it brings tears to my eyes.

 Warning:  A Notorious Hugger

Why did I wake up this morning thinking about “Free Hugs?”  I suspect I was considered a notorious hugger in my MAPP class. I love hugs, and sometimes I forget that other people are less comfortable with them.  Equally, I have come to understand that there is a whole range of hugs, and I think I have learned to speak “hug language” more fluently than I used to.

So, why are hugs today’s topic? There are two reasons.  First, I read an op-ed piece in the New York Times by Eric Klinenberg called “One’s a Crowd,” which discusses the fact that “more people live alone now than at any other time in history.”  Second, I watched the amazing HBO movie about a woman named Temple Grandin, a high-functioning autistic.

 Living Alone

   Eating Alone

I must admit that the New York Times article troubled me.  I lived alone for nine years, and they were good years.  Many of the research findings cited by sociologist Eric Klinenberg made logical sense to me, even if, on some level, I wanted to resist his assertion.  His most significant argument is that singletons (his word, not mine) are more social than people who live with others.  He lists “freedom, personal control, and self-realization,” as the main reasons why more people are choosing to live alone.  Single people have more time and make more effort to participate in social activities outside the home.  (Kinda obvious, right?) Of course, single people now have technology, so even when they are at home they can connect with others.

The most interesting finding was that more members of our elderly population opt to live alone. 

Grandfather hug

My grandfather, who died at the age of 90, was staunchly determined to continue living in the house where he had spent 40+ years living with my grandmother.  He wanted to be surrounded by what was familiar, cues for good memories of their deeply loving marriage.  As Klinenberg noted, my grandfather was not looking to remarry. My grandmother was the love of his life. There are times that I marvel that he lived another 5 years after her death. 

Equally, he wanted to be independent for as long as possible.  He refused to move to an elder care facility, and he would not agree to move in with my mother or my uncle for fear both of being a burden and of being denied certain freedoms that he loved. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had volunteered to go live with him.  What would I have learned?  Would he have lived even longer?  One thing is for sure; we would have exchanged more hugs.   My grandfather and I spoke on the phone often and exchanged emails, and I know he did the same with my mother, my uncle, and my cousin.  But just as Klinenberg’s singletons have new technology to reach out and be social as they live in their own private surroundings, I still wonder, can Skype be the equivalent to a hug??

Back to Hugs

Hugging starts early

Of course, we know some of the basics of the biology of hugs.  Hugging produces oxytocin, dubbed “the cuddle hormone,” by Dr. George Vaillant.   Oxytocin is the hormone responsible for all sorts of interpersonal bonding and attachment between parents and children or romantic partners.  Although I haven’t seen research that specifically supports it, I suspect hugs between friends also strengthen friendships.

Recently, I had a new student named Clara in my office.  It was the first time we met and she was having a meltdown, including tears, about her science test the next day.  She had studied a tremendous amount on her own, and I knew she would do just fine.  I also figured that the only real way to calm her down, to bring down her high levels of cortisol would be a hug (producing a good dose of oxytocin).  I asked her to stand up and said to her, “I know you don’t really know me, but would it be okay if I gave you a hug?  I think it would make you feel better.”  She stopped crying almost immediately, and we were able to get back on track fairly quickly.  Although I have no proof, I suspect if I had NOT hugged her (after making sure it was okay with her), more of the lesson would have been spent in tears and panic rather than gaining knowledge, confidence, and courage.

Dr. Temple Grandin

Dr. Temple Grandin & The “Squeeze Machine”

The best case I have ever seen made for hugs was by someone who has spent most of her life avoiding them.  Dr. Temple Grandin is a leading professor of animal science and an outspoken advocate for people with autism.  The movie about her life tells the story about the way the young autistic Temple learned to soothe herself.  When she was visiting her aunt’s ranch, she saw ranchers prepare to inoculate cattle by putting them in a squeeze machine to calm them down.  One day, Temple had a panic attack.  She ran to the squeeze machine and demanded that her aunt close her in it.  The squeeze brought her comfort and relief. Her peace was restored.

A machine that squeezes may seem like a far cry from a hug, but in Temple Grandin’s case, it is not.  As an autistic, Dr. Grandin shied away from human touch because she found it unpredictable. The movie shows that human hugs could sometimes overload her already highly perceptive nervous system.  For Dr. Grandin, the benefit of the squeeze machine (compared to human hugs) was that she could reliably control and predict the pressure of the squeeze. (Certainly we have all had moments where we wished we could control the squeeze of an overly ebullient relative!) 

Animals Soothe with Hugs Too

The squeeze machine changed Dr. Grandin’s life, providing her with the soothing that she needed to face some pretty remarkable hurdles.  When she went to college, she fought to have her squeeze machine, doing research with non-autistic subjects to prove that they too showed physical signs (lowered heart rate and blood pressure) of being calmed when they were in her machine.  Although at first the school administrators demonized the squeeze machine fearing it was a deviant sexual device, Dr. Grandin’s research and tenacity proved that there was a biological basis for its efficacy. It was an essential tool that gave her the comfort and bravery she needed to become a preeminent scientist, author, and educator.

You can’t hug by yourself

So, let’s return to Klinenberg and our friends at the New York Times.  I wonder what Klinenberg’s facts really tell us.  As a positive psychologist and a free hugs supporter, I am dubious about promoting or endorsing living alone.  Yes, we have the phone, the Internet, texting, and Skype, but none of them are hugs.  Even if someone is ready to start manufacturing squeeze machines on an industrial scale, I am not sure they answer the oxytocin fix needs for the majority.

Hug in Kyrgyzstan

Is Mr. Klinenberg right that I am much less social because my husband is my roommate?  Maybe.  Thinking of the expression, “Other people matter,” perhaps it is time to ask, “Is it better to have more people matter or is it just as valid to have fewer people matter more?”  I don’t want to hug everyone I pass on the street, but there are some people I want to hug a lot.  It’s true that I don’t go out as much as I did before I was married, but I do my best to see, speak to (and, when possible, hug) the people who matter the most to me.

I’ll admit that I am less social now, but, to be honest, I am perfectly okay with it, despite the fact that I perceived that the New York Times article was a celebration of singlehood that was suppose to put those of us with roommates (or live-in family of any description) on the defensive.  There was a time when I was happy to be single and party, and now I am happy to be home.  PPND has followed the history of my learning how not to live alone in articles like How Sweet It Is.  What I can tell you now, as I approach the fourth anniversary of my first date with my husband, is that every day is sweeter with one of his hugs.

So, whether you are living alone or with someone else, I urge you this Valentine’s Day… Give and get a hug.  Go find the comfort and courage a good squeeze provides!


Grandin, T. (2011). The Way I See It, Revised and Expanded 2nd Edition: A Personal Look at Autism and Asperger’s. Future Horizons.

Klinenberg, E. (2012). Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. Penguin Press.

Vaillant, G. (2008). Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith. New York: Broadway Press.

Britton, K. (2011). Touch and Trust. Positive Psychology News.

Free hugs courtesy of Jesslee Cuizon
Eating Alone courtesy of Emiliano
Grandfather hug courtesy of Sarah Ross
Hugging starts early courtesy of -JosephB-
Animals Hug too courtesy of
Hug in Kyrgyzstan courtesy of Evgeni Zotov

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Ryan M. Niemiec 9 February 2012 - 4:45 pm

Nice article, Aren…and good timing for next week. It makes me think of Thich Nhat Hanh’s concept of “hugging meditation” and bringing conscious awareness to the person we are hugging and a breath awareness while we are hugging and to hug for 3 slow, mindful breaths. Pretty powerful actually…creates discomfort for many but it also breaks lots of social barriers and builds intimacy for others.

Dr. Marsha Snyder 9 February 2012 - 5:19 pm

What a beautiful article Aren! As the parent of two autistic children myself, I can tell you that I am very familiar with the problem described by Dr. Grandin. It is called “sensory integration dysfunction” and both of my children experienced it. Kids with autism frequently experience either hyperfunction or hypofunction of various sensory modalities. In Grandin’s case and in my daughter’s case as well, it is touch. They are ‘tactile defensive”, which means that they are hypersensitive to having anything lightly or moderately touch their skin. My daughter cannot tolerate any material but cotton next to her skin, for example. I could not hug her until she was 13 years old. However, these same children often feel calmed by deep, hard pressure, like that from Grandin’s squeeze machine. She was comforted by it because the hyper- and deep stimulation it produced actually physiologically calmed her. When I took my daughter for Sensory intergration therapy, instead of a squeeze machine, the therapist would use a brush and brush her entire body. This was very calming. Interestingly, my daughter and I are very close and are best friends. She rarely will give or accept a hug or a kiss beyond the lightest little peck on the forehead. What makes her feel loved is sharing her artwork and laughing a lot together. So, that’s what we do.
Great article!

Sherri Fisher 9 February 2012 - 5:47 pm

Hi, Aren-
I really enjoyed reading this. I watched the “Free Hugs” video (again) looking for a moment to savor. toward the beginning, and older woman is among the first to take the plunge. After she hugs the young man, she pats his face, and she seems clearly moved by his genuineness of his offer. I thought of your grandfather. Would he have hugged some random person in the street? I hope so, since it looks like it can make your day! Thanks for this article 🙂

George Vaillant 9 February 2012 - 7:43 pm

Nice job, Aren. For a while I had stopped reading PPND, and you changed everything with a splendid contribution to Valentine’s Day. I was saddened when I asked a Grant Study man to give a hug to his dughter who I am very fond of. He said stuufily “In our family we don’t give hugs.”

I my family we do give them and a huge hug to you, Aren, and a big one to Senia too for providing this vehicle for web hugs!



Anthony Bedard 9 February 2012 - 10:50 pm

Nice article, Aren.

I wonder if by chance this guy came up with the “hug” idea on a trip to Japan. In Harajuku, not far from Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine, a Japanese couple stands every weekend wearing t-shirts that say “Free Hugs” with a sign that says the same. They’ve been doing it for years. The question becomes – does our hunger for hugs transcend culture? The Japanese are notorious non-huggers. If you stand and watch the hugging couple, you will see that about 95% of those that take the hug opportunity are non-Japanese. Is culture and/or cortisol stronger than an oxitocin rush?

This in no way detracts from your wonderful article. Just thought I’d throw it out there.

Natalia 10 February 2012 - 1:44 am

When reading this article I had one picture in my head: Leonard, a character from The Big Bang Theory sitcom describing his hugging machine, which he constructed because his parents weren’t hugging him in the name of his development. Sad, but true. It is always difficult, or even impossible (see the orphanage study described by Bowlby), to live without warmth of touch.

Senia 10 February 2012 - 9:06 am


You wrote the most beautiful articles!!


Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc) 10 February 2012 - 9:24 am

Awesome Aren, You’ve inspired me to try and give and get a few extra hugs this week.

oz 10 February 2012 - 2:42 pm

Aren – it’s interesting to speculate whether hugging everyone would make the world a better place – or could it juts become another meaningless ritual. I hug my wife regularly – but not as a ritual – when she needs it or just to surprise her – I think it has much more impact that way

Kathryn Britton 10 February 2012 - 4:06 pm

It’s great to get some surprise hugs. But being awakened every day by a hug is great too – as is saying goodbye with a hug, or saying goodnight with a hug.


Aren Cohen 10 February 2012 - 8:04 pm

Dear Readers,

Thank you so much for your positive feedback and thoughtful, inspired comments. They are greatly appreciated.

A few specific responses:

Marsha, thank you for sharing your story and your wisdom. I admire your love and bravery and it made me smile so much when I read that you and your daughter are best friends. When I watched the Temple Grandin movie, I was struck by how her mother was portrayed. Having an autistic child, and particularly one who is ‘tactile defensive,’ must have presented challenges. Most parents want to be affectionate with their children, and when physical touch is difficult for a child, it must take some “getting used to” by a parent as well. It sounds like you took the time and gained the essential knowledge you needed to be the best parent you could be to your daughter. I salute you.

Ryan, as a “notorious hugger,” I am intrigued by the idea of hugging meditation. Thank you for sharing it as something for those curious to investigate further.

Anthony, your question about the role of culture in hugging is also fascinating. I do not know if there have been any cross-cultural hug studies. Presumably the differences come from what is considered socially acceptable, but are you suggesting it might be something else?

Oz, I hope hugging never becomes a “meaningless ritual,” and I suspect the biology behind it prevents that from really being a possibility. That said, I don’t think hugging can be mandated in any way, shape or form. People have different hug needs and hug tolerances that must be respected. Nonetheless, I do believe that WANTED hugs make the world a better place.

Sherri, I also love the woman who touches the young man’s face in “Free Hugs.” Sometimes a gesture says more than a million words could.

Again, thank you all for reading!


oz 13 February 2012 - 3:19 am

kathryn – interesting study – the dose dependent results of hugging on individual wellbeing

Kathryn Britton 14 February 2012 - 10:21 am

Did you mean to include a link? I’m not sure how to follow up on your comment.


oz 19 February 2012 - 3:12 pm

kathryn – it was a joke – I thought it would a great title for a future article.

Elaine O'Brien 20 February 2012 - 12:36 pm

Thank you Aren! Your article is so validating. The power of appropriate touching can offer us health, intimacy, and well being! Please give yourself a hug from me.
xo Elaine

Dani Christensen 8 October 2015 - 10:27 am

I believe that this article is stating very good facts about giving hugs. When I am getting a hug from someone it brightens my day and makes me in a better mood. It is a image of love and caring toward another. It is very helpful and kind to do.


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