Healthy Lovin’?: The Truth About 20-second Hugs

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Wonderful news about “the 20-second hug” has been doing the rounds for some time now… it seems every so often there is another article or quote from a wellness guru promoting their immense health benefits. Imagine that, being able to boost your health so significantly in such a simple, and pleasurable way!! As much as I am a fan of big old hugs (or possibly because I am), I couldn’t help but be curious about the science behind this enthusiasm. As I delved in, it became clear that yes, there is ample evidence for the potential benefits of interpersonal touch… but the story of the 20-second hug is more nuanced.

Key Points:

  1. There’s next to no evidence that a 20-seconds is the magic number for health-promoting hugs.
  2. There’s limitations to studies in general: at best, associations are seen between hugs and health improvements. At worst, studies do not specifically examine hugging but other forms of touch, so we should take these results to mean that hugging is potentially associated with something, and hope it inspires further research.
  3. Hugging releases oxytocin, the ‘love’ hormone, is associated with lower heart rates and blood pressure, reduced infection risk, ‘feeling’ healthier, and relationship benefits. Touch is also associated with less stress/fear, and may relieve pain.
  4. Touch isn’t a stand alone thing. Relationship quality and support alters its effects.

The 20-second hug: origin story

After trawling through numerous websites, I can say most of the “evidence” that 20-second hugs offer more benefits than quick ones come from one study published in 2003, plus a whole bunch of anecdotal reports… and other people referencing these anecdotal reports. The 2003 study actually compared the effects of 10 minutes of hand-holding with a partner while watching a romantic video followed by a 20-second hug… versus 10minutes 20 seconds of resting quietly. Clearly there are factors other than the 20-second hug that would have influenced the results. And yet, no one in the mainstream media seems to acknowledge this. 

But, wait a moment!! The popular media also use evidence relating to touch generally, rather than hugging specifically, to support their claims about 20-second hugs. Scientifically speaking, touch in general and hugging should not be simply equated… although there may be cross over in effects. 

The scientist in me has to say that this is just not appropriate evidence. The unscientific humanoid in me wants to add my voice to the anecdotes, though. I just like nice long bear hugs okay… they feel better so, irrationally, I think they are better. So shoot me. Or, you can join me in looking at what the science does tell us, keeping in mind that we don’t actually know what timeframe unlocks maximum benefits. 

Because there is actually a limited amount of research specifically investigating the health impacts of hugging, I have joined the ranks of other media organisations by supplementing this with evidence relating to touch in general. However, I have italicised this evidence for clarity. Rather than taking these points to indicate ‘what hugging does’ or is ‘associated with’, consider it a possibility that could be further investigated.

Potential benefits of hugging (or other touch)

Release of oxytocin

That’s right, hugging stimulates the release of this “love hormone”, so named because it promotes feelings of love, trust and empathy. 

Touch studies also support this. In a small study of 34 healthy married couples, those who participated in a four-week ‘warm touch enhancement’ intervention displayed higher salivary oxytocin early (week 1) and late (week 4) in the study, relative to controls who simply monitored their behaviour.

However, not all touch is equal. A 2005 study showed the (perceived) support from a partner in a relationship could modulate the effect of touch on oxytocin. In addition, better support was seen to reduce systolic blood pressure in women after a period of warm contact. So it seems physical warmth alone isn’t enough…and needs to be matched in other dimensions of a relationship.

Physiologically speaking, oxytocin seems to account for a lot of the other benefits of a good hug, too!

Hugs and heart health

According to an association study of 59 premenopausal women, those who frequently hugged partners had lower blood pressure and heart rates. Data analysis suggested oxytocin levels may be partial mediators of this effect. Elsewhere oxytocin has been demonstrated to have blood pressure lowering, heart-rate variability increasing, and other cardioprotective effects. 

Reduced heart rate and blood pressure is also associated with touch generally… or a combination of touch and hugging. The 2003 study among cohabiting couples demonstrated smaller stress-related spikes in blood pressure and heart rate among those who  undertook warm contact for 10 minutes while watching a romantic video, plus 20 seconds of hugging. Unfortunately we’re unable to determine how much of this effect was due to the hug versus other factors.

Reduced stress and fear

Touch is associated with reduced cortisol levels, commonly known as a stress hormone. It may reduce stress not just for someone receiving supportive touch, but those giving it too! A small study using functional MRI showed increased activity in areas of the brain associated with maternal behaviour and fear attenuation, and less activity in the fear-reactive amygdala, among women who touched the arm of a partner receiving electric shocks.

Among people with low self-esteem, experiments have also shown that touch may reduce existential fears, prevent a decreased sense of social connectedness and even prevent ethnocentrism when reminded of death.

Hugs and infection risk

Common sense holds that stress can increase risk of infections. Thus some researchers decided to measure perceived interpersonal stress, social support and hug patterns against the effect of exposure to a common-cold causing virus. Support and hugging were both associated with a dulled infection risk caused by increased frequency of conflict. In addition, in those who did get ill, more social support and hugging reduced the severity of the illness. An interesting note about this study is that participants were exposed to the virus and put in quarantine after a 14-day survey period. This suggests that habitual hugs and support, or at least getting some before exposure, may have some protective effects- and that they’re not necessarily required during or after exposure. Having said that, I haven’t come across research diving into the impact of hugs (or conflict) once exposed to a virus. And of course, there are limitations to this study, including the fact that most variables were measured by subjective questionnaires and interviews, and that the results only reveal associations. 

Research shows that massage also enhances immune function, for example by boosting natural killer cells. Whether this applies to other forms of touch including hugging is worth exploring.

Reduced pain

Research on touch suggests it can alleviate pain through actions on the nervous system. Increased levels of serotonin (a feel-good neurotransmitter) and decreased levels of substance P (one involved in sending pain signals) have been seen. 

Furthermore, in a study among people with fibromyalgia syndrome (a condition marked by widespread pain, among other symptoms), touch treatments provided an acute decrease in pain after each of 6 treatments. Also, by the end of the intervention, participants reported a significantly improved quality of life.

Hugs may make you ‘feel’ healthier


Oxytocin improves mood. Plus, according to an analysis of a large study (of 20,258 people!) the ‘availability’ of hugs increases self-rated health among people aged 65+. In fact, the association between hug availability and self-rated health was greater than several other accepted health-promoting variables. Again, a limitation is the subjectivity of the survey.

Hugs and potential relationship benefits

As we all know, some conflict in relationships is unavoidable. However, studies are warranted to demonstrate whether or not hugging can directly improve mood on days when we are experiencing conflict. A correlation has been demonstrated in a retrospective analysis of survey data from 404 people, however as we know correlation is not causation. 

Hugging may also reduce the negative impact of hearsay- otherwise known as gossip- on our impressions of third persons. Some interesting experiments conducted in Japan saw volunteers receive hearsay information about a third person through telecommunication. It was seen that virtual or mediated hugs (with a “huggable” medium) reduced subjects’ subsequent social judgement and negative inferences about the third person. One suggestion is that this could be due to stress-busting properties of mediated hugs. Whether it applies equally to hugging real people involved in the communication would be interesting to see. This could have implications for communities’ social cohesion. 

Touch has experimentally been seen to communicate a range of emotions, which can improve relationship quality.

The Verdict

20-second hugs feel good and may be good, but there’s actually next to no hard science to support the claims that they provide magnificent health benefits. However, friendly, supportive touch in general (including hugs), releases oxytocin, and is associated with lower heart rates and blood pressure, reduced infection risk, ‘feeling’ healthier, and relationship benefits, less stress/fear, and pain relief. More research is required to indicate whether hugs can actually produce these changes, or it is nothing more than a correlation. And if they can, we need more detailed, precise information on how. In the meantime, it won’t harm you or your hug-ees to continue as you do- provided it’s consensual and welcome of course.

What impact does a hug have on you?


References

Association for Psychological Science. (2013, November 6). Touch May Alleviate Existential Fears for People With Low Self-Esteem. Retrieved at: Touch May Alleviate Existential Fears for People With Low Self-Esteem – Association for Psychological Science – APS

Cohen, S., Janicki-Deverts, D., Turner, R. B., & Doyle, W. J. (2015). Does Hugging Provide Stress-Buffering Social Support? A Study of Susceptibility to Upper Respiratory Infection and Illness. Psychological Science. 26(2):135–147. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614559284.

Denison, B. (2004) Touch the Pain Away: New Research on Therapeutic Touch and Persons With Fibromyalgia Syndrome. Holistic Nursing Practice. 18(3):142-150. 

Field, T. (2010) .Touch for Socioemotional and Physical Well-Being: A Review. Developmental Review. 30(4): 367–383., doi:10.1016/j.dr.2011.01.001.

Grewen, Karen M et al. (2005). Effects of partner support on resting oxytocin, cortisol, norepinephrine, and blood pressure before and after warm partner contact. Psychosomatic medicine. 67(4): 531-538. doi:10.1097/01.psy.0000170341.88395.47

Grewen, K.M., Anderson, B.J., Girdler, S.S., and Light, K.C. (2003). Warm Partner Contact Is Related to Lower Cardiovascular Reactivity. Behavioral Medicine. 29(3):123-130. DOI: 10.1080/08964280309596065

Gutkowska, J., and Jankowski, M. (2012). Oxytocin Revisited: Its Role in Cardiovascular Regulation. Journal of Neuroendocrinology. 24: 599-608. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2826.2011.02235.x

Hertenstein, M. J., Keltner, D., App, B., Bulleit, B. A., and Jaskolka, A. R. (2006). Touch communicates distinct emotions. Emotion, 6(3), 528–533. https://doi.org/10.1037/1528-3542.6.3.528

Holt-Lunstad, Julianne, et al. (2008). Influence of a ‘Warm Touch’ Support Enhancement Intervention Among Married Couples on Ambulatory Blood Pressure, Oxytocin, Alpha Amylase, and Cortisol. Psychosomatic Medicine. 70(9):976–985. doi:10.1097/psy.0b013e318187aef7.

Inagaki, T. K., and Eisenberger, N. I. (2012). Neural correlates of giving support to a loved one. Psychosomatic medicine. 74(1):3–7. https://doi.org/10.1097/PSY.0b013e3182359335

IsHak, W.W., Kahloon, M., and Fakhry, H. (2011). Oxytocin role in enhancing well-being: A literature review. Journal of Affective Disorders. 130(1–2):1-9. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2010.06.001.

Light, K.C., Grewen, K.M., and Amico, J.A. (2005). More frequent partner hugs and higher oxytocin levels are linked to lower blood pressure and heart rate in premenopausal women.

Biological Psychology. 69(1):5-21. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsycho.2004.11.002.

Murphy, M.L.M., Janicki-Deverts, D, and Cohen, S. (2018) Receiving a hug is associated with the attenuation of negative mood that occurs on days with interpersonal conflict. PLoS ONE 13(10): e0203522. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0203522

Nakanishi, J., Sumioka, H., and Ishiguro, H. (2020) Mediated hugs modulate impressions of Hearsay information. Advanced Robotics. 34(12):781-788, DOI: 10.1080/01691864.2020.1760933

Nakanishi, J., Sumioka, H., and Ishiguro, H. (2018). Virtual Hug Induces Modulated Impression on Hearsay Information. In Proceedings of the 6th International Conference on Human-Agent Interaction (HAI ’18). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 199–204. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1145/3284432.3284459

Rogers-Jarrell, T., Eswaran, A., and Meisner, B. A. (2021). Extend an Embrace: The Availability of Hugs Is an Associate of Higher Self-Rated Health in Later Life. Research on Aging. 43(5–6):227–236. https://doi.org/10.1177/0164027520958698

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *